A Dussera Story

 

Dussera  is an Indian festival that celebrates the triumph of good over evil. Ten days of festivities and good food end with the destruction of evil,  symbolized by the evil King Ravana.

Who are the Ravanas in our lives today, I wondered? The answers resulted in a story that was published today in the children’s pages of  The Hindu. 

 

Ravana, Defeated

 

Tara was ten years old and in that time she had learnt many things about the world. Some of the most important things were about grown-ups; how they were bigger than children, stronger too and how they were impossible to defeat. Her lessons came from all the times grown-ups had done things she hadn’t liked, all the times she had been too scared to say so and all the times they got away.

And that’s why her new school puzzled her. For one thing, no other school she had gone to had celebrated Dussera with a Ramlila performance.

‘Really?’ her new friend Nidhi asked.

‘We have a Ramlila every year,’ Darshan said proudly.

‘It’s great fun!’ Neerav grinned. ‘We defeat Ravana!’

And that brought Tara to an even more puzzling thing about this school. Their Ravana wasn’t a big effigy stuffed with crackers but a real, live Ravana.

‘Watchman Uncle is always Ravana,’ she was told.

‘But…he’s so big!’ Tara stammered. She saw him every day and remembering his immense height, the bigness of him, Tara felt a quiver of fear.

‘Exactly!’ her friends grinned. ‘That’s why he’s such a perfect Ravana!’

That was all fine, Tara thought, staring at the stage where her classmates were rehearsing the Ramlila. ‘But kids…how will they defeat him?’ she asked. Her friends stared at her, puzzled by her question.

‘Huahahahaha!’ a huge roll of laughter sounded at that moment.

A tall man, dressed in the uniform of a security guard, was on the stage. He was thumping about menacingly and stopped now to give another monstrous laughter.

‘Look at that Ravana,’ Tara said. ‘He’s so huge and so…strong. And kids…kids are small and weak!’

‘Just watch what we do,’ Nidhi grinned. ‘Come on, boys!’ And the three of them raced away to join the other children who were waiting by the side of the stage. Ravana was still walking about the stage, uttering his demonic laughter and Tara shivered. At that moment the teacher said, ‘Now!’ The crowd of children standing by the stage rushed up the steps, uttering loud yells. They raced for Ravana, still screaming and grabbed his legs. Ravana fought back but he was no match for the children. With a triumphant scream they pushed Ravana so he went down. A large thump sounded as Ravana landed on the mattress laid ready for him but it was drowned in the huge cry of joy and victory.

‘See?’ Nidhi asked, panting joyfully.

‘One strong push,’ Darshan said.

‘And one loud scream,’ Neerav added.

‘That’s easy to remember,’ Tara nodded. And she did remember it the next time a grown-up did something she didn’t like, something she didn’t want him to do, something that made her uncomfortable and unhappy. She remembered that children could be strong too, and she screamed loudly and then pushed the grown-up with all her might.

And then she watched the Ravana in her life go crashing down. It was that easy and that difficult to do it.

 

 

A Writer’s World #1 Meeting Your Readers

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Storytelling at Little People Tree, Hyderabad

I began writing in the pre-internet era. And so, to the people who read my books, I was nothing by a name. As for me, my readers were complete strangers, living and breathing in a different world that I could not even begin to imagine. And it worked just fine. I wrote books and my readers read them. We each stayed within the limits of our worlds and did not think of crossing lines.

And then came my first interaction with my readers. Suddenly, I was amongst people who owned copies of my books and I was startled to find them discussing my stories and characters from my stories with the easy familiarity of talking about a loved family member. They hailed me like an old friend, ready to share their memories and experiences with my books. It was disconcerting and to begin with I had no clue how I was expected to behave.

Then, the interactions with readers increased and all of a sudden, I was meeting people who knew me and my stories. And that was when it struck me that these readings and interactive sessions were not entirely about marketing my books. They were giving me a peek into the different places my stories were going, the many people who were reading and reacting to my stories. The interactions showed me which stories worked well and taught me to appreciate the qualities that would be enjoyed by my audience.

Most of all, these interactions proved to the children that the author of the books they loved was someone from their own world, someone who they could talk to and discuss characters and plot with, someone willing to answer their questions about writing and reading. And for me it was an opportunity to see how the characters and tales born of my imagination fared in the world.

What anyone would call a fair exchange!

Writing Tip # 5 What Should You Write?

 

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So, what should you write about? When you are a new writer, the world feels like a sweetshop, with an alluring array of sweets to tempt you. Which sweet should you pick? The familiar peda? Or the wonderfully coloured and imaginatively shaped sweet with the deliciously exotic name?

Some people like to write about worlds whose contours are already familiar to them. There is a sense of security when you do that, like sinking into a chair that has adapted itself to the shape of your body. There are others who like to jump off the high board, straight into the deep end of the swimming pool. Both these choices come with their own advantages and disadvantages.

Choosing to write on a completely new topic can be hugely liberating for any writer, but particularly for a new writer, still finding her feet in the world of writing. The world lies before you and you are free to create a universe of your choice, people it with characters you like and give it a history that you have woven. What could be better?

Writing about the familiar world can be wonderfully encouraging for a new writer. The terrain is familiar and so is the language. And within the limits set by these, the writer can play all she wants.  The first story I wrote was about a school play and friends; a world that was familiar to me not only from the vivid memories of my own childhood, but also because I worked in a school at that time. Of course the characters were my own creation and so was the plot, but the familiarity of the setting was wonderfully reassuring and I used my close knowledge of it to create a fun story. Since then I have returned often to schools as the setting of stories, using the petty rivalries and the dynamics that govern a group to focus on individuals who either use these or fight these to establish their own identities.

Does that mean I spent the rest of my life writing school stories? Fortunately, no, because I had to quit my job since I was moving away. The move brought new experiences and soon, that is what my stories were based on. And when my son was born, it was like I had been presented with the perfect audience of one. And since a baby couldn’t have understood stories about school, I began writing stories that he would understand. And that was the beginning of my career as a picture book writer.

The great thing about writing is that the more you write, the more new ideas are generated by whatever part of the brain controls the Idea Factory. Every single story you write is preparation for the ten stories that lie around the corner, in the Land of the Future.  And so, whether you choose to write about the familiar world or enjoy the buzz of creating your own world, what really matters is your dedication and your determination to present the world in all its details.

And these will help you decide exactly what you should write. And when.

Writing Tip # 4 What Is The Right Time To Write?

 

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

 

 

If I wanted to be cheeky and insensitive, my answer to this question would be, ‘Anytime!’ But I understand the very real confusion that people who dream of writing face. It’s like blundering through a world where there are no rules, no degrees that will help you and no one waving a green flag to set you off on your journey. ‘Anytime!’ is too easy an answer, a lazy response to a very real anxiety.

What exactly is the right time to write? Should you write the minute an idea strikes you? Or should you wait for it to settle down in your head, to put out tender little leaves and then begin to write?

I am afraid there is really no right or wrong answer to this question. It is largely a matter of what suits you. There have been story ideas that have impressed me so much with their brilliance that I have sat down and written them out right away. But there are other stories that simmer and bubble in my mind till one day I am simply longing to write the story. The maturing time between the birth of an idea and the actual writing of the story is a wonderful time and it has a very positive impact on the writing. The writing flows, smooth and rich as chocolate and every sentence you write fills you with joy.  Better still; the writing continues to charm you even after days and months have elapsed. And that’s when you know that yes, this was the right time to tell this particular story.

In most cases, however, the right time to write is the day you decide it is. Pick your favourite spot and that’s a beginning. Spend some time deciding if you want to write longhand or if you want to compose directly on the computer. Once you make this decision, you are ready to write. Don’t allow yourself to be sidetracked by questions like whether you should use a pen or pencil, if a notebook is better than a loose sheaf of papers or even if you need music in the background. These are mere details and they only distract from your main work, which is writing. Concentrate only on the things which will actually help you think and therefore, write better.

And once you put down the first sentence on the paper or computer in front of you, a huge sense of lightness will fill you. And you will know then, what the right time to right is.

It is now. It is always and ever now.

A Writer and Reviews

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What exactly does a review of a book mean to a writer?

For different writers it means different things.

For some it is a sign of recognition, a ticket into the exclusive club of writers, for others it is a validation of their writing. But most of all, I think, for any writer, a review is a sign that there are readers out there who have noticed her book, welcomed it and befriended it. For a book, born in the safe vault of a writer’s mind, being published and sent out into the world is a big outing and both the book and its creator are bound to experience nervous pangs. A review comforts them.

Of course, this is assuming a review is positive. There are reviews that find huge holes in the plot, dismiss the logic of the story and sneer at the way the book ends. What does a writer do then? How does she react to a negative review of her book?

A negative review is painful, it leaves the writer feeling vulnerable and unsure, wondering if she ought to even write again. No well meaning comfort from friends, family and editors works at this point. It is entirely the writer’s responsibility to understand that no story can be universally liked. The writer has to accept that every reader is bound to have an opinion on how the book could have been edited better, or how the characters could have been made more likeable or even what would have been a truly thrilling climax. Some reviewers even offer kind suggestions on how the writer can improve her writing style, her characterization or even her dialogues.

All I can say is – take these in good part. What they all mean is that your reviewers have read your book with close attention. It shows that the reviewer spent some time thinking about the story and the characters, and some additional time coming up with suggestions for you.   The involved nature of their comments suggests a level of engagement with your book that should thrill any writer.

Because, after all, isn’t that why you became a writer?

So people would read your stories?

That Flying Feeling

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I was introduced to reading when I was 6 or 7 years old. By today’s standards that is late indeed. But books were not as easily available as they are today. Plus they came only in one format – the old-fashioned one, that was printed on paper and came in various sizes.

My first introduction to the world of stories occurred when my mother subscribed to a children’s magazine for my brother and me to read. When I look back on the quality of stories and the unimaginative format they used, the magazine seems like a rather pathetic way to begin the voyage of reading. As a child, though, it was like being granted entry into a secret world that was far removed from the routine one of friends and petty quarrels, homework and the whole process of growing up.

I graduated soon to novels and books became my way of dealing with the world. Every new child I met was classified into various categories, based on how they answered my question, ‘Do you read?’ It was a question that was to decide many things, and I always waited with bated breath to hear what the answer would be. People who looked puzzled at the question were doomed to never feature on my list of close friends. To my delight, I discovered that reading was a bug that had bitten many of the people who lived around me. What was more, I further discovered that each of them was a potential book lender. And thus began the lovely, magical process of exchanging books.

The books came from various people and were carried into the house either by my brother and me. The identity of the original owner of the books was always a closely guarded secret. And we never knew if he was aware of the way his books were being merrily circulated. All we knew was the golden promise each book hid within its covers and our eagerness to read it. Most of these books were on very short loans and had to be returned in a matter to hours. Indeed, the primary condition on which they had been lent was that they would be handed back to the lender at the appointed hour.

It was no use explaining that there were two of us in the house, two eager readers longing to lose themselves in the illogical, difficult to believe rules on which most of these books operated. So, we made the best of things, my brother and I, and became experts at reading very fast. This often meant that we had to read thorough meal times. My mother hated the sight of a book propped up against the nearest object as we busily ate and read. She thought, and rightly so, that we ought to concentrate on eating. She was also suspicious of the tattered books and their yellowing pages and faded print.

But what did my brother or I care about how dirty the book was? Or where the book had been? The story possessed us and turned us deaf and blind to everything around us. One day, as one of us sat reading a book, my mother, tired of telling us again and again to stop reading, simply plucked the book away and threw it from the balcony.

We lived on the eighth floor in those days and had plenty of time to see the book float down. It was a comic, flimsily held together and the strong wind was too much for its fragile condition. It simply fell apart halfway through its fall and we watched in horror as pages came apart and went floating merrily to the ground.

We pelted down the stairs, hearts thudding in fear, not even daring to guess what we would find when we finally reached the ground. We spent a lot of time running around the park, gathering the drifting pages, yellow as autumn leaves but so much more precious.

I wish I could say that my mother cured us of our habit of reading at meal times. But even today I like to read when I eat. My mother complains that it distracts me from the taste and texture of the food I put into my mouth. Perhaps it does. But all I notice is the wonderful feeling I get when I am immersed in a good book. It’s a feeling that belies description. It’s the feeling of having lost contact with the world and its noises. It is the feeling of having cut loose from all the anchors that weigh you down. But most of all, it is the feeling of floating free and easy.

It is the feeling of wings spouting suddenly and the wind whistling past my ears.

At such times, I know exactly what that tattered comic book felt as it floated lazily through the air.

Because I feel the exact same flying feeling each time I read a book.

Writing Tip #3 Preparing To Be A Writer

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Look around you and you will find the world offering you courses to learn every single skill. There are courses that promise to teach you to paint and knit, repair computers and swim. It sometimes appears as if all the skills in the world have been packaged into easy to digest components and marketed. If all these courses did as they promised and turned the rawest of talent into polished writers, painters and translators, wouldn’t the world be overflowing with people equipped to do these things?

Does that mean that these courses don’t deliver on their promises?

Not at all.

The courses are prepared by experts and taught by experts too. But what of the students drinking in the instructions, making careful notes of secret tips and bits of advice? How many of them really want to write? How many of them are willing to face the grueling process of writing, rewriting, editing and then submitting to various editors?

I have nothing against creative writing courses. In fact, I’ve done one myself. I was a model student, turning in my assignments on time and I did reasonably well. But between the completion of the course and the first story I wrote, three long years stretched. Why didn’t I write as soon as I finished the creative writing course? After all, I was pumped full of the most useful bits of suggestions, I had been taught the components of various kinds of writing.

The simple reason is that I wrote only when I was ready to do so.

Does that mean you sit around waiting to be struck on the back of the head by a heavy object and understand that this is the signal to begin writing? You could,  if you wish to but a better way to spend the time would be to prepare to be a writer by reading and writing.

Fortunately, there is no list of prescribed books that you have to read in order to be a writer. The world is your bookshelf and you are free to pick anything that strikes your fancy. The best part – you don’t have to justify your choices. You could pick up a book because you like the author’s name or are fascinated by the title. Or you could pick one because you like the cover or font. All you have to ensure is that you read. A lot.

Writing helps too. It helps by telling you when you should stop reading and start reading. Or you might well turn into one of those people who spend their lives reading in preparation for the book they plan to write.

Sit down and write. It could be a short story, an article or simply something that you feel very strongly about. The process of putting pen to paper, or in today’s world, typing your words out, will break the chain of reading books.

And push you onto the first step of becoming a writer.

By writing something.

 

A Pranav Tale

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A kite is a free spirit and it breaks hearts when it escapes its strings and floats away. But what if the wind brought it back? This story was published in Young Buzz, the children’s pages of Sakal Times.

 

                              How Pranav lost a kite

One day Pranav’s mother bought him a beautiful kite. It had yellow, purple, red, orange and even green on it. Pranav liked the kite very much. He liked the kite’s eyes the best of all. They seemed to be smiling at him.

“I want to fly my kite,” Pranav told his mother.

“But it is very windy today,” Pranav’s mother told him.

“My kite will enjoy the wind,” Pranav said.

“Yes,” Pranav’s mother agreed, “But will you be able to manage the kite?”

“Yes,” Pranav said, “This kite is my friend and I can fly it well!”

So Pranav took his kite and went out to fly it. The kite danced happily in the wind, the colours shone brightly and the kite’s eyes seemed to smile even more widely. Pranav pulled the string to make the kite dance a little more. The string broke. The wind carried the kite away, while Pranav stood holding the string. The kite’s eyes looked sadly at Pranav.

“The wind has taken away my kite!” Pranav told his mother.

“It is all right,” his mother said, “I will buy you another kite!”

Pranav felt very sad. He stood staring at the sky, looking for his kite. He could see the blue sky with some fluffy white clouds. And he could see some birds flying.  And then suddenly, Pranav could see nothing. “What happened?” he shouted in fear. “It is nothing,” Pranav’s mother said, “It is only a sheet of paper that the wind has thrown on you!” Pranav’s mother took off the paper and Pranav could see everything again. He felt happy. And then he looked at the paper. It was a yellow paper with purple, red and orange flowers on it. Under each flower were green leaves. “It’s my kite!” Pranav said, “Look, it’s my kite!”

“It is not your kite Pranav,” Pranav’s mother said, “It is just a sheet of paper that the wind brought you!”

Pranav felt a little sad. He had been so sure that it was his kite, come back to him. Then his mother said, “But if you want, you can make a kite with it!”

So that is what Pranav did. His mother helped him make a kite out of the paper and Pranav flew it in the air. He watched the yellow, red, orange, green and purple kite dance in the air and he was happy. The wind had taken his kite and he had been sad. But the wind had brought his kite back and that was important.

 

 

Writing Tip #2 Who Can Be A Writer?

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There is a general feeling that writers are special people, possessed of skills and talents that the rest of the world lacks.

I agree wholeheartedly with this feeling.

Yes, writers are special people and yes, they do posses a special skill that the rest of the human race seems to lack. This special skill is called imagination.

But I don’t believe that only some people are blessed with imagination while the rest are forced to make do with their dull, commonplace way of looking at the world.

The rest of the world obviously thinks this way and that’s why people often ask me, ‘But how do you imagine all this? How do you even think of it?’

This is a question that is on par with a question that a magician is usually asked, ‘But how do you make things appear and disappear?’ Both these questions are uttered in tones of incredulous surprise by people wide-eyed with amazement and disbelief.

When I tell them, with complete truth, that every one of us is born with the ability to be a writer, they give me a disbelieving stare. But I do believe that each of us is born with the powers of imagination. We muffle it, we suffocate it and let it die a silent, un-mourned death.

What if we nurtured our imagination? What if we fed it with words and phrases, with images and sounds? What if we allowed our imagination free rein, and let it write where it willed? Let it draw what it wanted to? To begin with, it might well be like letting a child loose with coloured chalks in a pristine walled house. But in time, the imaginative child in us is sure to graduate, just like children move on to notebooks. And that is when writing becomes serious, notebooks are a mess of ideas and computer documents stuffed with neat pages of politely spaced words, an organized, well-mannered line of ants going about their business.

So, does that mean that each one of us can be a writer?

I am not sure about that, but I am certain that all of us come equipped with the skills to do so. What we choose to do with this is up to us. After all, most cars come with at least five gears. What if we are happy to chug along at a sedate pace, content with the second gear? We are sure to envy others who have adventurously put their cars into the fifth gear, as they shoot ahead of us. When the truth is we have no one to blame but ourselves.

And that’s why I believe that anyone can write.

But not many choose to do so.

A Summer Story

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Summer means a long break from school,  games with cousins and usually, if you are lucky,  some thrilling story sessions with your grandmother. But perhaps children today have forgotten these simple joys of summer? This story was published in Young World, the children’s pages of The Hindu.

“Summer vacation at your grandmother’s house?” Sushma Aunty asked, “I envy you! You’ll have so much fun — listening to stories, playing with cousins and sleeping on the terrace!” Minu nodded because there wasn’t anything else she could do but she was thinking of how she and her cousins spent every summer with Aaji. They had fun, yes. But they didn’t do any of the things Sushma Aunty had mentioned. Minu thought of how her cousin Shefali spent hours on the computer, and how the boys — Shefali’s brother Sanju and Minu’s brother Nitesh — watched TV all day while she read the summer away.

Had they ever been on the terrace? Minu didn’t think so. And as for asking Aaji for stories, none of them even had the time to talk to her! This summer, Minu decided, would be different!

The very first evening at Aaji’s the house was plunged into darkness. Shefali emerged grumbling about a mail she wanted to send while Sanju and Nitesh moaned about missing their cartoon show.

“Let’s go on the terrace!” Minu suggested. The others weren’t keen on the idea but without electricity there was nothing to do in the house. So they trooped up, Aaji leading the way and Minu carrying a durrie.

“Now what?” Shefali asked, when the durrie had been spread out and they were all sitting on it.

“ Aaji will tell us a story!” Minu said.

No one seemed terribly excited at the treat but when Aaji started telling them the story, they were swept up in the frantic pace as demons and magicians fought and thrilling things happened. Even Shefali groaned when Aaji stopped at an exciting point.

“What happened next?” Sanju demanded.

“Let’s find out tomorrow!” Minu suggested. She scrambled to her feet and went racing down the stairs. The others followed.

Strangely enough the power went off at exactly the same time the next night and immediately the children, reminded of the story, clamoured to hear the rest of it. And since there was no power it made sense to go up to the terrace. The power went off a few more times that week. By the third day they had all got used to the idea of spending the evening on the terrace and were soon racing up the stairs without the lights going out. It was Shefali who suggested that sleeping under the stars would be fun and after that they all slept on the terrace. Aaji was hard pressed to find new stories and often one of the others would step in with their own contributions.

On their last night with Aaji, they had dinner on the terrace and it was Sanju who put all their feelings into words when he said, “This has been the best summer vacation ever!”

Minu smiled. The trouble she had taken to locate the main switch had been worth it. It had given them all a joyful Granny summer!