Nilan Singh and Paro Anand in conversation, in the course of which they traverse many paths – down memory lane, to children’s hearts and minds, to schools and parents’ mindsets and finally to the beaches of Goa, where her new book is set.
When Paro Anand began writing, she veered away from the beaten path and struck a vein of gold – at least in a literary sense if not the literal. She was amongst the early creators of modern fiction for her chosen target audience. But even amongst those who eschewed the usual fairy tale/mythological path to sketch out more ‘real’ stories, hers is different sensibility, articulated in a distinctive voice. Today, the accomplished and much awarded writer – who was also conferred the Bal Sahitya Puraskar – is at the top of her game. And, typically, she has made yet another creative leap – this time to a graphic novel with a difference – with her latest publication “2” co-authored with Swedish writer Örjan Persson.
How did you get into writing for children and young adults? Was it a genre you specifically chose?
I would say the genre chose me rather than me choosing it. I started by wanting to do theatre. I did a bit of acting and a bit of backstage work. But, somehow, there were not too many opportunities in theatre in Delhi, when I started out soon after college. It was difficult to make a career in amateur theatre then.
So, I started teaching drama in a school. This way I thought, I could be in touch with drama; and it also gave me the leeway to dabble in theatre as an actress. However, when it came to putting up plays at school, I found there were no good scripts for children. So I just wrote my own plays. They were appreciated by the other teachers and the audiences. And that is how, much like Alice in Wonderland, I fell down the magic hole of writing.
How did you get your first work published?
Publishers didn’t accept my very first play scripts – it was very hard to get anything except mythologies and folklore to be published those days. There was very little space for contemporary stories. I continued writing plays and went door to door on Ansari Road – where Delhi’s publishing industry is located. Sometimes, the guard at the gate would turn me away saying, “No we are not interested!”
I was a drama teacher for a year-and-a-half. And then, finally, Vikas published my book of plays. Since then, I have published several books of a varied kind with different publishers – Rupa, Roli & Penguin, to name a few.
You are able to get inside the skin of the children and young adults in an effortless manner…
Over the years, I have worked with many young persons. I have interacted with perhaps about three lakh children – all of them in difficult circumstances. One learns by listening to them. And then, if I was to make an assessment, I would say I spend 50% of my ‘work’ time interacting with children and 50% writing. All this interaction with children helps to get the voice right. But then, I feel I have never really grown up (smiles).
Much of your interaction with children is through your platform Literature in Action. How did it start?
I started Literature in Action several years ago. Initially, it was a platform to introduce children to my writing. Now, it has become a programme using literature as a constructive, creative outlet for children, particularly those in difficult circumstances. We work with schools and NGOs to reach out to children.
Can you share some of your experiences of interacting with children?
In one of the sessions, I told a group of children a ghost story and one on domestic violence. Afterwards, a young girl came to me looking very troubled and sad, and said, “Ghost stories are not true, but domestic violence is – I know because it happens in my house”.
The children who had heard the story about domestic violence – it was one in which the brother-in-law of a young bride comes to her defence in the face of his brother’s assaults on her. They said, “We can’t do what the boy in the story did. But we can do something”. Some boys said we will not perpetrate violence on women; the girls said we will not tolerate it, if we are faced with it.
One of my most interesting experiences was working with 3000 children across the country to prepare the world’s longest newspaper. It went on to create a record.
I believe a couple of your books* were banned in some schools? Why did that happen?
Actually, one of my books, Like Smoke was actually recommended by a teacher as a supplementary reader for her class. Some of the parents later approached the school and asked for it to be withdrawn. My book No Guns at My Son’s Funeral was also banned.
Like Smoke is a collection of 20 stories about 20 different young persons, all dealing with different themes; subjects extremely relevant to current times. No Guns at My Son’s Funeral is about a boy growing up surrounded by violence in Kashmir.
Considering the changing times, it’s important for children to know about heartache, anger issues, sex, children in Kashmir, domestic violence and so on. Kids are learning about myths and fairytales in books, but they also need to be encouraged to learn about real issues.
And so, we come to your latest book, “2”. Tell us all about it.
I can best describe it as: 2 writers, 2 continents, 2 languages, 2 characters, 2 illustrators, 2 covers, and 2 points of view. ONE story. This book first began when Örjan and I were set the task of writing a book together during a Goa-based workshop conducted by the Swedish Institute. We had no ideas, no starting point. So we went out on a boat and saw some dolphins leaping out of the water. We both turned to each other and said, “Let’s base the story in Goa and let’s have some dolphins in the story.” Örjan and I worked together, both in Sweden and in Delhi where Helga and Ganga (the main characters of the novel) were born. It was hard knitting our stories together as we were writing in different languages and our styles were so different. Finally, we had a story – or rather, two stories that fit.
When Garima Gupta was given the task of illustration, she felt it was a graphic novel waiting to happen. And then, it was decided that since there were 2 writers, there should be 2 illustrators as well and she roped in Kaveri Gopalakrishnan. The four of us have never actually all met together and it is thanks to the internet that this book ever got made into the shape and form it is in today. This is a unique adventure of a book; edgy, weird and wonderful. The only book of its kind in India, and possibly, in the world.