Saturday, November 06, 2010

Interview with Anu Kumar

I recently read the book 'In the country of Gold Digging Ants' and was extremely happy about it.

Caught up with the author, Anu Kumar, and she was very kind to reply back with a lot of details. Hope you enjoy reading her interview.

If you were a time traveler, which of the various travelers described in your book would you love to meet and go along with? I would probably prefer Alexandra David-Neel for her chutzpah and mysticism! What about you?

A: All of them and those I left out! But if I had to choose, I'd pick Marco Polo and Ibn Batuta, for in that period, they covered a great deal more of the known world. And the stories they left behind are so fascinating.

As I read through your book, I could not shake of the quirky notion of "nothing and everything has changed in India". Your thoughts? What went through your mind as you wrote the novel in terms of comparison of the India that is now vs. India that was described by these travellers?

A: True, it was interesting, the contrast or the absence of it, between then and now. But of course, travelling was more arduous and unsafe and that itself was an adventure, left only to the lucky few. Another thing I did note with regard to the travel writing of today was the entire absence of 'nature' in the earlier works. But then its because it was so much a part of our lives, whereas today, 'nature' and the environment make up exotica (for lack of a better word).

[Sathish]- Emphasis is mine. The nature perspective is something that did not occur to me. Very interesting indeed. Never thought of it from that point.

I was surprised about one aspect of the book publication - Almost every page had small graphic image at the bottom of the page (more like a graph) that showed the current traveller being described? Any reasons for choosing this graphics and putting it on every page.

A: That was my editor, Sudeshna's idea, and I thought it worked well. I realise there could have been a map detailing the route taken, places stopped at and described...Maybe in a new edition :-)

Did you have to exclude presenting any travellers due to various constraints? Why choose these 11?

A: I chose the 11 because they represented different time periods - from Megasthenes in the 3rd century BCE, to the Chinese pilgrims, to Alberuni, then ibn batuta, and the Europeans who followed. So the reader would get a sense of history's trajectory, in a way.

There were some interesting travellers I did leave out - those who came in Mughal times such as Tavernier and Manucci (during Shah Jahan's time), then Mark Twain - who left behind some pretty humorous accounts. Then there was Fanny Parkes who travelled through parts of
north India, especially during the time of the 1857 revolt...

One had to pick and choose one's fellow travellers; more's the pity!

What made you decide to write a non-fiction history book for kids? There hardly seems to be any non-fiction book in history genre for kids and even if present they can probably be counted with fingers.

A: I just thought this was a mix of history and adventure; one way of telling young people that history isn't boring at all. And Sudeshna at Penguin liked the idea and was very encouraging.
Also this was another way of looking at history, more than reading flattering accounts of emperors by their courtiers.

Tell us a bit about your other works and what you are currently working on.

A: I had done an adventure set in history featuring a 14 year old time traveller called Atisa, sometime early 2008. The book was called, 'Atisa and the Seven Wonders' and as is obvious Atisa had adventures in each of the seven ancient wonders as he searches for Icarus, the
son of Daedelus. Icarus, in Greek myth, was always believed to have been singed by the sun when he flew too close to it on wings his father had designed. But Atisa thinks otherwise, so again its fiction interspersed with mythology and history (received knowledge that we have about the seven wonders)

This month, the second Atisa book is out. Its called, 'Atisa and the Time Machine: Adventures with Hiuen Tsang", where Atisa travels and comes to the rescue time and time again of the Buddhist monk, Hiuen Tsang.

Am also working on a book on the railways for older readers and there's some other fiction too.

What are you currently reading? Any book recently that has got stuck in your head and does not let go?

A: Have just begun 'Luka and the Fire of Life' - Rushdie's wonderful play with words is fascinating to follow.
A book for children I read recently is Lila Majumdar's translated 'Haldi Pakhir Palok' or 'The Yellow Bird'. A slim book, but its so rich in the fantasies it evokes, in the many different worlds a child's imagination can conjure up. Lila Majumdar was a Bengali writer but one of the finest writers for children anytime.

How easy or tough was it to switch from non-fiction book where one has to do a lot of research to a fiction where one depends more on creative output?

A: Am not sure. Actually, most of the books I have worked on or am engaged in, involve some sort of research or another. To evoke a different time period, or even to conjure up a different
world, you need to be 'authentic' and true to the context and research thus becomes invaluable.

Thanks a lot, Anu Kumar, for providing some wonderful context regarding the book.


Choxbox said...

Wow! What a treat! Thanks Sathish for bringing this to us - great Qs and As.

This book is totally awesome and would go into my top 10 Indian books and not just for kids. And it is being used in a certain elementary school in London to learn Indian history thanks to yours truly!

Think the dateline feature is totally awesome. And yes the nature perspective did not occur to me either. Wow again!

ranjani.sathish said...

Anu, I am reading your book "In the country of Gold digging ants" now and really enjoying it ! I agree that history can become so fascinating when presented like this.

I remember when I was a kid (may be fifth standard or something like that), we used to have Social studies where each country would be dealt with taking a kid from that country and giving all the facts centred around the child's life. So at that age, reading about a kid from another country with all real life experiences used to be so fascinating and I still somehow remember that !!!

I hope to get your other books too - Atisha series and read them !

anu kumar said...

Choxbox - thank you very much for your very kind and encouraging words. I didnt know about this book being used for a school, so that's doubly encouraging.

Ranjani - thank you too. i hope you will let me know what you think of the Atisa books. Incidentally, Priya Kuriyan, and I just read her interview on saffron tree, did the illustrations for the two Atisas too, and as usual her work is really wonderful

Choxbox said...

And oh the first Atisa book was hit in these parts. Look forward to the 2nd one!

@Ranjani: Wow! You studied SS like that?!
And there is this book called 'Children Just Like Me' by DK, which does exactly that. Totally worth getting hold of - one of those books you’ll want forever.

Choxbox said...

*want to keep forever

Harini Gopalswami Srinivasan said...

Lovely interview, Sathish! I really want to read these books now! I love the ideas behind your books, Anu!

sathish said...

Chox, Ranjani, Harini - Thank you.

Vibha said...

Sathish, wanted to get some relaxed time to read this interview. Great QA session.
I agree, so much depends on how the info is dished out to the young readers, it can completely change the approach towards the topic and subject.

anu kumar said...

vibha, thank you,
Harini, thanks too :-)

If I can ask, you wrote that great story in Puffin's sports anthology, didnt you? I liked that a lot.
And if i can add a personal note - sripriya mentioned you when she was here, she's an old friend.

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