Turn the page, with joy

HEMA VIJAY | Updated on: Mar 24, 2011


Hers are supposed to be ‘children's books', but the insights in award-winning writer and playwright Anushka Ravishankar's works appeal to all age groups. “I think the best children's books are the ones that anybody can read and enjoy — not just children. I don't believe in age-banding readers. If you write for a pre-conceived child audience, you tend to write down to them. Of course, you have the audience in mind, but you actually write for yourself,” says Anushka, whose latest book, The Storyteller , is a retelling of the Arabian Nights, but with an interesting twist.

It is told from the perspective of the clever Scherade, who marries King Schariar and relies on her storytelling skills to end his practice of marrying and axing a wife a day to ensure they had no time to be disloyal to him!

Thus, in her book, “the storytelling is the hero”, says Anushka. It is humour that carries the story swiftly ahead, while the characters strongly impress, especially the strong-willed Scherade, who spins a story a day to keep the axe away.

Even though the stories of Ali Baba and Aladdin are familiar to many, Anushka's narrative is not just witty and perceptive but also laced with a faintly feminist perspective and uses wordplay that is simple and sparkling at the same time, making it an interesting read for all ages. Sample this excerpt: “…it (cutting off heads) was easier for kings because… kings didn't have to do it themselves. They just had to say, ‘Off with his head' and they didn't even need to wash their hands after the deed was done”.

Fresh talent required

For someone who has just retold the Arabian Nights, Anushka is candid enough to admit that the Indian literary scene for children is badly in need of some fresh, new writing. “We need books in contemporary settings that kids can relate to,” she says. A self-taught writer, Anushka does not believe in formal learning for creative writing. “Your charm as a writer is what you bring to it — your own way of looking at things and presenting it. I would think that teaching creative writing formally would homogenise the literary attempt. At least, it wouldn't work for me; I would get self-conscious… it would stop me in my tracks,” she says.

Writing codes

Anushka used to write software codes early in her career. But her love for creative writing soon found her sending in stories for the children's magazine Tinkle . For a while she juggled between writing software codes and stories. Finally, when she moved to Chennai from Mumbai and quit her job to take care of her young daughter, she settled down to be a writer. “Not that I didn't enjoy writing software. But it wouldn't have done for my husband and I to both hold high-pressure and time-consuming corporate jobs, with a child to take care of,” she says. Her first book, Tiger on a Tree (1997), had illustrations by the famous Pulak Biswas. Catch That Crocodile! (1999), Today Is My Day (2003), One, Two, Tree! (2003) followed. She is now working on the second book in the Zain and Ana series created by her.

‘Nonsense' writing

Nonsense happens to be Anushka's favourite genre of writing; especially nonsense verse. Although our regional literature does have some amount of nonsense writing, there is very little in Indian writing in English. The West boasts famous works of nonsense writing such as Edward Lear's The Owl and the Pussycat and, of course, Lewis Carroll's Alice books. “Nonsense writing in verse is easier and faster, because the rhyme element keeps the verses flowing fast,” Anushka says. “Her nonsense comes from gut instinct, from her childhood reading of Lear and Carroll, and like Carroll himself, from her background in mathematics,” says Michael Heyman, a founding member of the Society for the Prevention of Sense, and Chief Editor of The Tenth Rasa: An Anthology of Indian Nonsense .

“Nonsense is difficult to explain. It is something like this — it sounds like it should be making sense, but only it doesn't,” Anushka says, adding, “Many people ask me, ‘What do your books teach?' My answer is ‘nothing'. Why should a book be instructive or serve some purpose. Can't it just be enjoyed?”

Published on March 24, 2011
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