Sunday, January 24, 2010

Interview with Roopa Pai

This is an email interview done with Roopa Pai, author of the Taranauts series, the review of which has been already posted. Sathish and me would like to thank Roopa for having promptly and patiently replied to all our questions. Please read on to find what interesting things Roopa has got to say !

In the few books that we have read of yours (like Sister, Sister series & Taranauts), there is a lot of discussion on scientific concepts for children. What is your inspiration for this?
I didn't actually think that Taranauts had anything 'scientific' about it, but now that you put it that way, yes, maybe it does. Even the Children's Book Trust award I won several years ago was in the category 'Science Writing for Children'. The truth is, I am a student of science (I studied computer science and have an engineering degree), and I am very keen on puzzles of every kind - mathematical, logical, verbal...

When I was studying engineering, we used a lot of American books, since computer engineering was a relatively new department and there weren't many Indian textbooks yet. They were a revelation! Suddenly, our textbooks became books we loved to read - everything was so clearly, simply explained, even the most complex scientific concepts. I loved that the books always started with the assumption that you knew nothing, unlike Indian books that assumed that you knew things already, and if you didn't, well,it was your responsibility to go find out! I realised four things -

1. Clarity and simplicity were the keys to great science writing, and starting from the basics did not equate to dumbing down.

2. Science writing need not be jargon-filled and inaccessible and intimidating, it could be, and should be, fun and wonder-inducing and accessible even to a complete novice. To me, the greatest scientist is one who understands his subject so deeply, feels it so instinctively, that he can explain what he does from day to day even to a child.

3. If science teaching was approached in a ' how wonderful our world is' way, we would have many more children who fell in love with science and grew up to be real innovators and inventors.

4. Science teaching could, and should, penetrate every subject in the curriculum, just as history teaching should, and art teaching, and language teaching, and math teaching. Keeping all these subjects separate should be just for convenience, in no way are these, or should these be, isolated from each other. Only with that kind of holistic learning does the world begin to make sense to a child. Why can you not teach science through a story? Or art through math? Or history through geography?

I am delighted that schools nowadays have begun to realise this. And the new NCERT books are quite amazing - miles better than what we used to have.

I also feel that all children love science and math instinctively - if it is presented properly, they will enjoy it. And that is my inspiration - to present science in as many different fun ways as possible, so that children can begin to relate to it, and feel the wonder of it.

How did you get into writing for children?

I was one of those kids who read all the time. And I always knew I wanted to be a writer. Rather late in life - maybe I was 12 or 13 already - I discovered Target magazine (the children's magazine, now no longer around, published by Living Media). I fell in love with it and continued to read it until I was 15 or 16, although it was clearly meant for a younger audience. I think it must have been then that I decided I wanted to write for kids. A job at Target became my life's ambition. When I moved to Delhi after my degree at the age of 22, I went straight there and applied. Luckily, an editorial position had just fallen vacant. I got the job! Usually there is a wide chasm between expectation and reality, but that didn't happen with me - I realised I actually loved writing for kids. And here I am.

From what we have seen, there are very few Indian based fantasy books for children. Yours is probably one of the few that have come out in the recent past. What is your take on children's fantasy writing in India?

Well, actually, there isn't much of any writing out of India in English for the 8-12 age group, fantasy or otherwise. But I think it is beginning now - there is plenty to look forward to.

As far as fantasy is concerned, we have a huge and outstanding tradition of fantasy literature in India. Our mythological stories are our biggest fund of fantasy literature for kids - worlds where animals and birds talk (Panchantra and Jataka tales), worlds where powerful birdmen, beastmen, seven-hooded serpents, gods and demons live companionably (or not!) with each other, worlds where the most amazing things emerge when an ocean of milk is churned - if that isn't fantasy, what is?

And I think Indians are different from westerners in that we believe that the fantastic is always with us. We never ever - even in the middle of our demanding, very real daily lives - lose our sense of the fantastic. If the real in India is sometimes fantastic, then, equally, the fantastic is real. The Indian mind will as easily accept that an Indian will go to the moon in 2020 as it will that a stone idol of Ganesha can drink milk.

So why do we not have more fantasy writing for children in India? I think it is precisely because of this. I'm guessing that because the lines between fantasy and reality are so blurred in the Indian mind, and because the two are so interchangeable, we haven't felt the need to create a special genre called fantasy literature. The west, on the other hand (and I mean particularly the English-speaking west), has probably felt the need to do it because they have become such terrible rationalists that they have lost the sense of the fantastic in their daily lives, and need such literature - and Santa Claus! - to escape.

But if our children now want to read 'fantasy literature', after having 'discovered' it with Harry Potter, I am sure Indian writers will have no problem creating new worlds for them to inhabit in their imaginations. Which is what Taranauts is about - churning that ocean of Indian story-milk to come up with an exciting story that is as new as it is old.

There are two girls and one boy as the main stars of your book. Was this combination chosen in order to appeal to both genders? I think our son would not have been as much interested in the book, if all the stars were girls :)

Yes, definitely. :) Why two girls and a boy and not two boys and a girl? Because I felt more confident about writing a story that would appeal to all girls, and also to boys of that age that read, than about writing a story that would appeal to all boys. Apparently, it is a smart move, because I have been told recently that statistics show that when children are between 8 and 10, there are many more girls reading than boys. But I didn't know that when I was writing it.

When do you plan to release the other books in the Taranauts series? Do you have any other books in the pipeline apart from the Taranauts?

The second book -The Riddle of the Lustr Sapphires - will be out late Feb - early March. The next one 'The Secret of the Sparkl Amethysts' in mid- to late-June, and so on. No, I have no other books in the pipeline right now - the Taranauts are very demanding mithyakins and they take up all my dings and mind-space!

Who are you personal favourite authors and what is the latest interesting book that you've read.

Like it says in my little bio in the book, I read more children's books than adult books. Among children's authors, Dr Seuss (who I incidentally never knew as a child - I was only introduced to him a few years ago, when my kids were young - he's one of the greatest), Enid Blyton (yes, she is not so popular now, but her books and the worlds she created lit up my entire childhood), J K Rowling (what a compelling storyteller!), Roddy Doyle, Terry Deary (brilliant example of writing history and science in fun, engaging ways), Judy Blume, Louis Sachar...

Where short stories for children are concerned, I have several Indian favourites - Sigrun Srivastava (every story was guaranteed to make me choke up and learn something - tolerance, not judging a book by its cover...), Subhadra Sen Gupta (engaging, entertaining, and beautifully told historical fiction), Monisha Mukundan (her book of recipes for children 'My Mother the Sandwich Maker' is one of my favourites), Geeta Dharmarajan, Vijaya Ghose, and so many others.

I just finished the first book of the Young Bond series, called Silverfin, by Charlie Higson. It chronicles the adventures of James Bond when he was a lad at Eton. It is a very 'boy' book, full of action and adventure - I thoroughly, thoroughly enjoyed it. Could not put it down from start to finish.

How did you get involved in Bangalore Walks ? Can you please tell us more about it.

Just like I believe science can be and should be presented better to kids, I believe very strongly that history also should be presented better. Knowing your history gives you a sense of identity, a rootedness, and pride in who you are.

In the last 16 years or so, my husband and I have lived at various times in Delhi, London, Mumbai and New York, and we despaired at how much London and New York made of their histories and how little we did here in India. We also marvelled at how fantastic the tourist experience was in these places, just in terms of finding information about things to do, discovering the history of any place through audio guides, and so on. So when we came back to live in our hometown Bangalore after 12 years of being away, we were playing around with this idea of creating something that would enhance the tourist experience in Bangalore.

Slowly, the idea of heritage walks came up. It seemed almost oxymoronic - the idea of heritage walks in a modern cosmopolitan glass-and-chrome metropolis totally devoid of impressive historical monuments, forts, or temples. But when we did our research, we were stunned at how many stories there were to tell.

We started in 2005 with the Victorian Bangalore walk on MG Road on Sunday mornings. We wanted it to do well, of course, but even we could not have predicted just how popular it would become. Even today, although we have two other walks - the Traditional Bengaluru Walk in Basavanagudi and the Green Heritage Walk in Lalbagh - every weekend, the Victorian continues to be the flagship walk. You can get all the details at

At BangaloreWalks, although I do occasionally lead walks and tours for senior corporate teams and high-powered leadership teams from all over the world, my real responsibility is leading the children's / students' walks and tours. I conceptualise, create, and execute customised tours for children between the ages of 6 and 18, both from here and from abroad. I can safely say that my job is very very rewarding, apart from being something that, for me at least, seems like anything but work.

Anything else that you would be interested in sharing with the readers of SaffronTree...

I think I have already said a lot more than you or I anticipated. Thanks for the opportunity - answering your questions has actually helped me clarify my own thoughts on a variety of issues.

Pic source : Bookaroo, Nov 2009


Choxbox said...

That was really interesting. Thanks Ranjani!

Praba Ram said...

Gosh - such an intellectually stimulating interview, Ranjani!

Thanks to Roopa for doing this for ST. Very thoughtfully answered. Her views on science teaching and Indian fantasy were interesting to read.

Thank you, R!

Meera Sriram said...

Thoroughly enjoyed it! I could not agree more with what Roopa has shared on presenting Science to children and on Indian tourism. Very inspirational too.
Thanks Roopa and Ranjani. Good luck Roopa!

Vibha said...

Thanks Ranjani. Very interesting interview. Her books are great and so are her answers - very inspirational and motivating.

Tharini said...

awesome interview. What clear thoughts! Love the point about all the subjects flowing into one another and being so interconnected. I never quite looked at them at that way before.

Thanks Roopa for so many eye-opening viewpoints.

Sheela said...

Thanks, Ranjani, and Thank You, Roopa!

Really enjoyed reading this - I could relate to science books being staid and intimidating when I was little... am glad we are recognizing that and are leaning towards believing that it doesn't have to be that way anymore.

Eni said...

Great interview Ranjani. I think reading Enid Blyton should be a means to an end nowadays. Many people from all walks of life, e.g. novelists, politicians, teachers, etc have read many of her books and have been inspired by them to write books that are in tally with their socio-politico-economic environments. Thus, it is my remembrance of Enid Blyton and her literature that inspired me to write a book on her, titled, The Famous Five: A Personal Anecdotage (
Stephen Isabirye

Eni said...

Great interview Ranjani. I think reading Enid Blyton should be a means to an end nowadays. Many people from all walks of life, e.g. novelists, politicians, teachers, etc have read many of her books and have been inspired by them to write books that are in tally with their socio-politico-economic environments. Thus, it is my remembrance of Enid Blyton and her literature that inspired me to write a book on her, titled, The Famous Five: A Personal Anecdotage (
Stephen Isabirye

ranjani.sathish said...

Thank you everyone ! Glad you enjoyed the interview as much as I did :-)

Roopa Pai said...

Hi all. Very glad your thoughts and ideas resonate with mine - always nice to know one is not alone. Thanks for the opportunity, Ranjani!

Choxbox said...

Here's one from the weekend:

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