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No Child’s Play: Writing for Children

‘So when are you going to write for adults?’ a friend asked the other day. I groaned inwardly. There we go again! She’s not the first to fire such a salvo and is certainly not going to be the last. This veiled insinuation that writing for children is a stepping stone to writing for adults, that you aren’t good enough until you write for adults, seems to be one of the occupational hazards of being a children’s writer. I get quizzed regularly on variations of this theme. I am asked, ‘Why do you write for children?’ ‘Why did you start by writing for children?’ ‘How easy is it to write for children?’ I know the implication is, ‘Didn’t you choose the genre because it is the easier, safer option and you’d like to test the shallow waters before diving into the deep end?’

There are others who say it is impossible for them to write for children, a remark that would have set your heart aglow and fooled you into accepting it as a compliment, except that your sharp ears detected that barely perceptible condescension in the tone. I may be mistaken, but I believe Rowling, in writing her adult novel, bowed to the demands of literary snobbery and though she didn’t exactly come a cropper, she didn’t emerge a winner either. She was under too much scrutiny and clearly the pressure got to her. She could have casually allowed the vacancy for adult fiction in her literary repertoire to remain unfilled instead of falling prey to the narrow belief that true literary worth is measured by how well you write for adults. If only she had, like Jane Austen, stuck to her ‘little bit (two inches wide) of ivory’ and continued to do what she was best at!

Adult writing works on the ‘anything goes’ principle. But the children’s writer is conscious of the many taboos to be kept in mind while writing for the ‘noble savages’. Writing for children is never easy; or rather, writing for children stories that interest them is not easy. One can’t afford to trip up when it comes to choice of theme, vocabulary and style. Children clamour for clarity and intelligibility. The little doubting Thomases want every loose end to be convincingly tied up. Children are demanding, hard to please and love variety. They are easily distracted so you have to come up with fascinating stuff that not just gets their attention but keeps it. They get bored quickly and since they haven’t yet learnt the adult art of cushioning barbs with polite words, you will get frank, on-your-face criticism of your writing. If you write boring stories, ah, well, good luck to you. On the other hand, if they love your work, they are prepared to adore you and eat out of your hand. But remember, you can’t fool them and get away with it. Their memories are razor sharp and if you are repetitive or make mistakes, you are in grave trouble. You can though, take comfort from the fact that they forgive easily and give you many chances to redeem yourself.

Though the Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Narnia and Twilight series made magic, fantasy and vampires the rage, children, all said and done, want a good story compellingly told. They love humour, but surprising as it might seem, they accept tragic stories with maturity. And one can’t take the noble savage myth too far (after all, it is a myth) – there is a morbid streak in them that makes them lap up macabre books with great relish. But the greatest challenge these days comes from technology. With various entertainments for children in the form of computer and video games, games consoles, playstations, iPods and tablets, not to mention television, that original great distraction, vying for attention, it very often seems like a losing battle for the writer. All is not lost if he can rise to the challenge and work extra hard to write unique and riveting books that have the power to lure children from the screen back to the page.

If you like to write for children, it is fun and most satisfying. Rewarding too, metaphorically speaking. But if you think you can live off your earnings from writing for children, or from just any kind of writing, for that matter, you’ve got another think coming. Whoever coined the phrase ‘struggling writer’ was spot on. Unless you belong to that select band of writers with the Midas touch, it is way more sensible to have a steady job that gives you your bread and butter. And maybe you could look for a little dab of jam from your writing.

In India, especially, children’s writers have always struggled. The notable exception is of course Ruskin Bond. How many newspapers and magazines give any space to children’s writing? Long back, magazines had a page devoted to children’s books, but good practices are seldom allowed to continue. In their place you have an odd newspaper here and there coming out with a weekly supplement for children. It is believed to take care of children’s literary needs and interests, but what is discounted here is the fact that adults also need to be made aware of children’s literature and its changing trends. For they hold the whip hand, make decisions and, most importantly, hold the purse strings.

In the absence of such awareness, adults go for children’s books written by established children’s writers from the west that so visibly dominate the market. Nothing wrong in that; they are excellent books, but there are very good, exciting Indian writers too who deserve much wider recognition. And until the general mind set with respect to children’s writing in India changes, the writers will gamely struggle on.

Published: ​Economic and Political Weekly, November 2013

Anna Karenina

Leo Tolstoy begins Anna Karenina with one of the most famous openings in literature – “All happy families resemble one another, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” – and then proceeds to craft a magnificent work of fiction centring around several uniquely unhappy families. His main concern, though, is to portray the inevitability of tragedy in the life of the eponymous heroine, Anna Karenina.

The novel plunges straightaway into a crisis in the Oblonskys’ house in Moscow. Prince Stephen Arkadyevich Oblonsky, a lover of all the good things in life, is discovered by his wife Darya or Dolly, as she is familiarly known, to be unfaithful to her. When the rift between them threatens to become very serious, Oblonsky seeks the help of his favourite sister, Anna Karenina, to effect a reconciliation. Meanwhile, Constantine Levin, Oblonsky’s friend who is his polar opposite in character, has come to Moscow from the country to seek the hand of Catherine or Kitty, Dolly’s youngest sister, who though, has fallen in love with a dashing army officer, Count Alexis Vronsky.

When Anna Karenina, the charming wife of Alexis Karenin, an influential and strait laced government official twenty years her senior, arrives in Moscow from St. Petersburg, she has no inkling of the emotional turmoil that is soon to take possession of her. But at the railway station where she meets Vronsky for the first time, she has a premonition of tragedy when a drunken watchman is fatally run over in a train accident. She says, “It is a bad omen.” The accident assumes an ominous significance later on.

Vronsky is drawn irresistibly to Anna and dumps Kitty without any compunction. Levin returns to the country, disappointed, while the rejection adversely affects Kitty who falls ill. Anna succeeds in bringing her brother and Dolly together but when she returns to St. Petersburg, Vronsky follows her and soon they become lovers. Karenin is shocked to know this but refuses to give Anna a divorce, preferring instead to hoodwink society by putting up a façade of marriage.

Kitty, meanwhile, recovers and meeting Levin once more, realizes that she loves him. They marry and move to the country. While this couple moves closer to happiness, Anna and Vronsky face much pain, unhappiness and hostility. Anna almost dies in child labour, Vronsky attempts suicide. But they survive all this and go to Europe. They return to Russia after some time and Anna finds herself ostracised by the same society that had once adored her. Only Dolly remains loyal and intercedes on her behalf to Karenin for a divorce. Karenin refuses. Things sour between Vronsky and Anna, leading a distraught Anna to eventually throw herself before a train: “I shall punish him and escape from everybody and from myself!”

Vronsky, a broken man, leaves to seek death in the battlefield by joining the Serbs in their war against the Turks. The glimmer of hope in the book comes from Levin’s understanding of the meaning of true goodness.

Anna Karenina (1875-1877), purportedly inspired by a newspaper account of a woman’s suicide on a railway track, is considered to be the greatest novel ever written, surpassing Tolstoy’s own War and Peace (1865-1869).With its admirable insights into the thoughts and feelings of the characters, it is a supreme example of psychological realism in fiction. The book was made into a film in 1935 with the legendary Greta Garbo as Anna Karenina.

Leo Tolstoy, (1828-1910), the most famous Russian writer and one of the world’s greatest novelists, was also a great moral philosopher whose life was a journey from dissipation to social consciousness and religious faith. His empathy for the Russian peasantry finds expression in his short stories and novels.

Published: New Indian Express

Saree: The Quintessentially Indian Dress

There are dresses and dresses and dresses, but when it comes to sheer elegance and class, there is nothing to beat the saree. That a long unimaginative looking piece of rectangular cloth can, by the way it is draped around a woman, transform itself into a fashion statement is one of the sartorial wonders of the world. The saree, India’s gift to female pulchritude, has staved off threats from other Indian and western attires to carve a permanent niche for itself in the world of clothes through its adaptability and aesthetic appeal. Whether it is wound around a seductive Zeenath Aman in Raj Kapoor’s famous film Sathyam Sivam Sundaram or is used as a very utilitarian and modest uniform by the sisters belonging to Mother Theresa’s Missionaries of Charity, the saree lends itself easily to diverse needs.

The saree is believed to be the oldest dress in the world that is still worn in everyday life. It is unclear when women in India began to wear it. Legend has it that a weaver imagined the sheen of a woman’s tears, the cascades of her long flowing hair, the colours of her moods and the softness of her touch and wove these imaginings into the cloth he was weaving and smiled when he saw the result…Thus the saree was born as the epitome of a woman.

The first recorded evidence of the saree is believed to be in The Mahabharata where the incident of how the never ending garment draped around Draupadi protected her virtue is described. Unstitched cloth has long been considered pure in India. Ancient Indian sculptures and paintings that depict women wearing something that resembles a saree give credence to the belief that it has been worn in India for a very long time.

The word ‘saree’, also spelt ‘sari’, comes from the Sanskrit word ‘chira’ which means a ‘strip of cloth.’ Referred to as ‘sadi’ in colloquial Hindi, ‘saree’ in Malayalam, ‘podavai’ in Tamil and so on, a saree is generally five and a half metres in length, though the longer version, called ‘the nine yard wonder’, is worn by members of the Brahmin community of Tamil Nadu in what is called the ‘madisaar’ style. The famous painter Raja Ravi Varma had selected the nine yard saree as the ideal female garb.

Just as the saree is referred to differently in different states of India, it is also worn in varying styles. Raja Ravi Varma has, in his painting titled Indian Musical Instruments, beautifully depicted women wearing sarees in traditional styles playing music on different instruments.

There are more than a mind boggling fifteen ways of draping a saree, but the most common one is the ‘nivi’ style. According to this style, one end of the saree is tucked into a full length petticoat that is also referred to as the lehenga or the pavadai, taken round the back to be brought again into the front where it is arranged into pleats and tucked into the petticoat. These pleats are called ‘kick pleats’ as they help in walking freely, or as freely as one can in such an attire. Then the rest of the saree is wound again and brought to the front over the bosom and allowed to hang down from the left shoulder to form what is called the ‘pallu’ or ‘pallav’ (the word is believed to have been derived from ‘pallava’ since this style began during the time of the Pallavas, a dynasty that ruled over ancient southern India). The saree is worn with a close fitting blouse called the ‘choli’.

In the midst of a riot of colour and a range of costly silks that are unique to various states of India, the simple and elegant Kerala cotton saree stands classily apart. Made of unbleached cotton and adorned only with a slim single coloured border, it is not just soothing to the eye, but is also tailor made for the sultry Kerala weather. This Kerala saree is also called the ‘set saree’ and is woven traditionally in Balaramapuram, a town in Thiruvananthapuram district that is famous for its handloom industry.

The Kerala saree is a more convenient alternative to the traditional attire of Kerala – the two piece saree known as ‘mundu’ and ‘neriyathu’ that it closely resembles. The mundu is worn like a dhoti around the waist and the neriyathu is worn like a half saree and both are made out of unbleached cotton with a border of a single colour. Often the border is made of zari or golden thread. This attire symbolizes the Malayalee woman. Raja Ravi Varma has, in some of his paintings, brought out the elegant splendour of the Malayalee woman in mundu and neriyathu.

The saree’s perennial popularity could stem from the fact that it is flattering to any kind of figure. It has the magical ability of making the fat ladies look slimmer and the slim ones look more rounded. Besides, no one can dispute its charm and elegance when worn at weddings, parties and formal functions. In spite of stiff competition from the salwar kameez that keeps threatening to put it on the endangered attire category, there need be no fear that, given its unique history and its obvious advantages, this lovely pan Indian attire will hold its own.

Published: Kerala Calling, October 2012

Metamorphosis

“As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect”. Incredible? Disturbing? Comical? Frightening? Metamorphosis, Franz Kafka’s extraordinary story that begins with this attention-capturing sentence, is all these and more.

Gregor Samsa is a young travelling salesman and sole breadwinner for his family. Hardworking and conscientious, he works at his dreary, unglamorous job tirelessly, selflessly, even soullessly, to take care of his family and pay off his father’s debts. He has not taken even a day off in five years.

Waking up one fateful morning, he is amazed to discover that he has metamorphosed into an insect. This is no dream and lying on his newly acquired hard armour-plated back, Gregor examines himself dispassionately. His dome-like brown belly is divided into stiffed-arched segments and his numerous thin legs wave helplessly about. He is neither able to get up nor go back to sleep. As his family calls him, Gregor struggles to come to terms with his new body. When the chief clerk from his office arrives to enquire about his absence and insinuates that Gregor may have misappropriated the office funds, Gregor defends himself from inside the room but not a word can be understood. When he finally opens the door, his shocked mother faints, the clerk flees in terror and his father forces him back into the room with a walking stick. The door is closed on him.

Gregor soon becomes a burden to his family. His sister who initially cared for him slowly turns against him. The cook and the servant girl leave. His parents and sister take up jobs. Gregor is like a guilty secret, locked up, isolated and unwanted. When once in anger his father throws an apple on his back, it sticks there and rots. His health deteriorates. He comes out one day in response to his sister’s music but is chased back into the room where he dies. The charwoman gets rid of his corpse. His death brings relief to his family who takes a day off. His parents turn all their attention on their young and beautiful daughter.

Metamorphosis (1916, trans. 1933) bears many similarities to Kafk’s own life. Like Gregor Kafka lived with his parents and was always in awe of his father who dominated over him. His father hated artists and writers to him were despicable vermin (the literal translation of the German word “ungeziefer” used in the original means vermin). Kafka wrote in the night without his father’s knowledge.

Metamorphosis is a fine piece of existentialist writing and has been read as everything from an allegory of life to a psychoanalytic case history. But Kafka’s ability to make this fantastic story credible by writing convincingly and clearly is his greatest merit. Whatever its interpretations, this 80 page story is a gripping read.

Franz Kafka (1883-1924), a Czech of Jewish descent, wrote his books in German. Less than a quarter were published during his life-time. Sadly lacking in self-confidence, Kafka, who was suffering from tuberculosis, left his manuscripts that included his three novels The Trial (1925), The Castle (1926) and Amerika (1927), to his friend Max Brod with instructions to burn them after his death. Brod chose to publish them. Lovers of literature will remain eternally grateful to Brod for disregarding his friend’s death bed wish.

Published: New Indian Express

To Teacher, With Love

With the passing away of Prof. B. Hrdayakumari on 8 November 2014, the academic world has lost a much loved scholar-teacher and a tireless crusader for preserving high standards in education. It goes without saying that she was a wonderful human being.

Her students called her Teacher with respect and fondness while also referring to her as HK. Teaching English in various colleges for thirty six years is no joke, and Teacher would have been the first to admit that. People believed that the aura of dignity she exuded and the respect she automatically commanded must have made her task much easier. What they failed to understand was that such an aura is not easy to come by; she acquired it through her scholarship, her devotion to her calling and the high seriousness she brought to her lectures.

Her classes were a revelation. She would enter the classroom, an elegant figure in simple yet striking khadi, her intelligent face devoid of any make-up ( if I’m not mistaken, there was not even a dab of powder), walk majestically to the table, take her seat and proceed to mesmerise us with her vast knowledge and her sheer command of the English language. She never shouted; she didn’t need to, for we gave her complete attention, quite bowled over by her scholarship.

She would begin her lectures on Shakespeare in her deep voice by giving a bibliography of over a hundred books and would speak about each one, taking more time with her favourites. She admitted to not having read only a couple of books in the list and that was probably because she had not been able to lay her hands on them. Her teaching and her concept of her subject were therefore book and library oriented. In most of her classes she would also draw comparisons with Malayalam literature and quote liberally from Malayalam poetry. Those whose knowledge of Malayalam was merely functional were impressed by the erudition and very disappointed too for they realised they were losing out on a good thing.

Drama was her forte and she kindled such an interest in the plays she taught that nobody demurred when she suggested play reading sessions after classes. A play by Shaw was the first choice in our class and she saw to it that everybody got a chance to read, assigning roles to each student. She listened keenly, made allowances if some student got overawed by the occasion, gently corrected pronunciation, and allowed herself the luxury of a little smile while she offered the occasional comment like, ‘Bring some more life into the reading’ or ‘the repetition of “darling” there is tender, not ironic. Remember it’s a lover who is speaking. A little more gentleness in the tone is needed…’ and so on.

She had her own methods of fostering discipline. Of course her imposing presence wiped out most thoughts the indifferent students might have harboured of creating problems, but if, in spite of this, a few were determined to make trouble, she would confront them head on, give them a crisp but telling lecture in a clipped tone on why they are in college in the first place and subdue them sufficiently to make them either her devotees forever or cause them to disappear from the scene, sometimes never ever to return to the classroom.

A friend’s husband who did his pre-degree at Arts College, Thiruvananthapuram, before going on to do his Engineering at CET, describes how amazed he was when she accosted him one day, calling him by his full name and then enquiring why he had not attended classes for the last two days. He hadn’t thought she would have even noticed him, let alone know his name. Needless to say, he never missed any of her classes after that and says she was responsible for making him like English.

She was a born teacher but when she had to take on the mantle of Principal at the Government College for Women, Thiruvananthapuram, she revealed her calibre by getting completely involved in the effective running of the college. She showed deep concern for students with problems – academic, domestic or monetary – and took a personal interest in getting them solved as best, as quickly and as discreetly as possible.

After she retired, she went back to her first love – academics – and immersed herself in reading, once again becoming a familiar face in the libraries of the city. She also followed keenly the changes in the academic atmosphere in the colleges of Kerala. She was different from most of the other teachers for she really believed, and rightly so, that higher education had a crucial role to play in the development of society. Education for her did not end with getting a degree; in fact that was the least of her concerns. Unlike most teachers for whom education meant preparing students to pass examinations that would act as passports to lucrative jobs and good careers, it had a higher purpose for her.

She shared some of the views of the nineteenth century educator Thomas Arnold who, according to H.C. Bradby, ‘took a much broader view of the objects of education; while deeply impressed with the importance of learning, he realized that it was only a part of education, and that the great end and aim of education was the formation of character… ‘(quoted in his book Rugby). For Teacher, education meant knowledge, understanding and the refinement of the mind which she thought would naturally follow. Clearly she had an enlightened, exalted concept of education and the body of knowledge that each department dealt with. While very rooted in the culture of Kerala, she had a cosmopolitan outlook. She is reported to have said that ‘English is what makes higher education possible in India.’

She understood the importance of English in the context of education and was very much concerned about the steady dilution of standards in the study of the subject here. When the new CBCS (Choice-based Semester System) for the degree courses that was introduced in 2010 developed teething troubles, she willingly took the responsibility of heading the committee to look into the problems. She went into it with her characteristic thoroughness, talking to teachers, students and the officials responsible for its introduction, studied the ramifications of the changes introduced, examined critically the new syllabus and finally came up with some significant findings. She recommended a few changes for the better, and much as, in private, she preferred the annual system to the semester system, she knew that going back to it would not be immediately possible or feasible. At the end of it, she had collected matter that could fill a book.

She loved her students and always had time for them. All were welcome to call her or call on her. Her student-visitors ranged from those belonging to her first batch to those who had got admission this year for the under graduate or the graduate courses. Anyone could approach her with doubts or seek her advice. She loved learning to such an extent that she remained a student all her life, continuing to add on to her wealth of knowledge and updating it till the end with her keen interest in recently published books which she would read whenever possible. Her daughter Sreedevi says she has more than 1600 books in her home library. Teacher believed that genuine teachers never really retire because receiving and spreading knowledge is second nature to them. How admirably she practised these ideals!

She delivered what was probably her last lecture when she was quite ill but she did not compromise on the quality of the content, taking a lot of pains over it and bringing the same level of perfection to her preparation that she had brought to every talk of hers when she was fully fit. It was the first in the Thunchath Ezhuthachan Malayalam University’s series of lectures – The Vallathol Smaraka Prabhashanam 2014 – on September 18. All those present could only admire her commitment and her scholarship.

Her name was constantly misspelt and she was not too pleased when that happened, though she was too cultured to give the culprits a good talking to. ‘It is Hrdayakumari, not Hridayakumari,’ she would say. Ironically, even when her demise was reported, most newspapers got the spelling wrong. Only people with names that are difficult to spell or pronounce are able to empathise with those who are miffed by the casual way in which names are handled. According to Teacher, care must be taken over every little detail in anything that you do, and that extends to spelling a name correctly.

Hrdayakumari, the teacher, the writer, the critic, the academic and the orator, is very well known. But how many of us know that she enjoyed children’s literature, had a lovely sense of humour, loved birds and animals, was an ardent admirer of European paintings, enjoyed Malayalam songs, indulged in milk sweets and chocolates, took pleasure in gardening and baked the most wonderful cakes? Yes, Teacher had all these loves and likes, and we are not talking about Face Book here. Her daughter Sreedevi was able to give me invaluable glimpses into what made Teacher such a warm, multi-faceted person.

There was clearly a child in Teacher and a not so well hidden child either. She enjoyed reading Balarama and children’s fiction in both English and Malayalam. If she saw an Enid Blyton book lying about, her hand would reach out for it. She had a collection of Dennis the Menace books, and anyone who likes Dennis is bound to have soft corner for children, especially the mischievous ones, and, of course, possess a great sense of humour. She would often narrate absurd experiences and gurgle with unbridled delight. Sreedevi talks about how she would chuckle as she marked errors made by journalists in newspapers and magazines, underlining the howlers in red or green ink and then ask her to read them.

She loved nature. The late Prof. K.K. Neelakantan’s seminal work on the birds of Kerala, Keralathile Pakshikal, published under his pen name Induchoodan, led her into the rich world of birds and converted her into a chronic bird lover. She was probably several years junior to Prof. Neelakantan, but had worked with him and admired him greatly. Though she had some hearing loss, she continued to be alert to the sounds of birds and was interested in any new sound she heard.

Dogs, cats, plants, gardening… she loved them all. She would talk to cats and dogs and there was a mongoose in the garden that she fed regularly. The poor creature is now confused, wondering what has happened to his patron. She was devoted to plants, acquiring new ones and watering the garden regularly, even when ill.

And who would have associated Teacher with a sweet tooth? We always thought devouring books was more in her line, but apparently she loved sweets and chocolates and her grand nephew traded them with her for help with his homework. An even greater revelation was her expertise in baking cakes. It is difficult to conjure up a picture of Teacher with her hands elbow deep in flour, but she appears to have enjoyed making divine cakes. Helping her along in her culinary efforts was an impressive collection of cookery books.

Next to literature, painting was Teacher’s passion. No, she did not paint, but she had a keen interest in the European painters, especially the Impressionists. Her birthday gifts to Sreedevi were invariably books on painting and painters. During the last year the French Impressionist Claude Monet’s paintings captured much of her attention.

It was again a surprise that Teacher loved Malayalam film songs, especially Yesudas’. She never missed any of Yesudas’ programmes at the Surya Festival, except this year’s, when, unfortunately, her medical tests coincided with the date of his performance.

Even with regard to clothes and jewellery, though she had very simple tastes in clothes, she appreciated aesthetically chosen sarees and delicate jewellery. She also saw to it that she was always elegantly turned out.

She enjoyed solitude but also loved being with people. She valued friendship, maintaining ties with friends either through telephone calls or by keeping the postal department going by sending letters. She wanted to keep herself well up on modern technology too and learnt to send emails and loved to surf the net.

She was full of life and never believed she was going to die, making plans for the future even while she was very unwell. And many of those plans were about education. She will be sorely missed and the least we can do is to see that her dream for a Kerala that goes back to its high standards in education is realised – to see that her unstinting work in that direction is not in vain. Here was an exceptional teacher, one of a kind. When comes such another? The answer would be, as in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, ‘Never, never.’


Published: Kerala Calling, December 2014