Bal Sahitya Puraskar-winning writer Paro Anand is best known as a performance storyteller, having taken her stories to countries like the UK, France and Switzerland. Author of 26 books for children and young adults, including plays, novels, novellas and short stories, she is described as a fearless writer with a big heart.
Anand headed the National Centre for Children's Literature, The National Book Trust, the apex body for children's literature in India. During her tenure, she not only set up libraries and Readers' Clubs in rural areas but also organised and conducted training programmes on the use of literature.
Anand has also been a resource person with the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation, working with children impacted by terrorist and separatist violence in Kashmir. Based on her experiences, she wrote a critically acclaimed book, No Guns At My Son's Funeral, about a young boy who is conditioned to become a terrorist. Weed, a follow-up novel, also set in Kashmir, tells the story of the son of a terrorist and his struggle to live a life of dignity.
Anand was feted for her contribution to children's literature by The Russian Centre for Science and Culture. This year, she won the prestigious Bal Sahitya Puraskar for her 2011 book Wild Child and Other Stories. Anand, who gave a special reading from her book Wingless to students of Noida's Pathways School recently, spoke about her work in an interview. Edited excerpts.
You started writing in the '80s and have written over 26 books. How has the literary environment changed for writers over the years? How has it affected your writing?
Yes, it's been that long. When I had my first manuscript — a set of performance-ready one-act plays for schools — I went, one very rainy day, up and down Ansari Road in Delhi, where all the publishers were. I had wrapped my copies in as much plastic as I could, but still I got soaked. Often, I was turned away from the door by the guard, sometimes I was let in, but could achieve nothing more than a visit to the loo. A couple of people, I think, felt sorry for me and took a copy, but I think it went down the very same loo as soon as I left.
But one editor said she would like to see more and gave me a glimmer of hope. It was all I needed. From all the naysayers who assured me there was no market for children's books besides retold myths and folk tales, I held my course, continuing to write contemporary stories for young readers. That editor lost her job before I could get my book published with her (I hope not because she had given me that much-needed 'yes'). The book of plays was eventually published as my seventh. And, I admit, it wasn't very good.
Now, three decades later, it is a whole different world. I have a lot of publishers asking me to write for them, there are schools who prescribe my books. Not just me, there are plenty of new writers who are managing to get published. And many publishers are now considering their stables incomplete without adding a children's list.
It's not all rosy, it is still small drops in the ocean, yes, but it's a lot better than three decades ago.
A lot of young-adult writers in the West have made a fortune with their books, getting adapted into blockbuster movies, which enjoy a huge fan base in India. Why have Indian writers not capitalised on this trend?
I think it is a mistake to jump onto a 'trend' just because it succeeded elsewhere. We have to create our own trends. There has been a lot of progress, surely this will happen too. I am optimistic. It took the West a long time to get here too. After all, Tolkien and Lewis Carroll also struggled, though their work was phenomenal.
We don't see larger than life characters like dragons or vampires or superheroes in your stories. What we do see, however, are humanistic characters inspired by reality. Is it a deliberate choice on your part to keep distance from the likes of Tolkien and Rowling?
If that is what appealed to me as a reader, I would write that too. Of course, I do love reading Tolkien and Rowling, but not Eragon, Twilight, or Percy Jackson. Nothing wrong in them, just that I don't enjoy reading that genre much; what appealed to me in Rowling's writing was the humanistic characters, their fallibility, how they triumphed and overcame, not necessarily the fantasy parts, although, gosh, I would love to have a Pensieve to empty my head a bit from time to time, while keeping some memories safe.
Some of your recent books have drawn ire from parents over the sexual nature of the content. Has this deterred you in any way? How important is sexual education for young impressionable readers that your books cater to?
Honestly, I can't be totally sure what they objected to or why some schools decided to ban some of my books. If only they would read the book themselves, I am sure their misgivings would be laid to rest. In one school, it was probably the fact that a girl and boy from different communities exchanged a fleeting kiss, erm... have they read Rowling, Twilight, The Fault in Our Stars, or some of the other books that they have watched their children read? Somehow the same parents are quite fine reading the Mahabharata to their children — which I am okay with, I did the same with mine. But didn't some people kill their cousins, didn't some boys marry several women, didn't a woman marry several men there? The list is endless.
In a new book I am writing, I have talked about the aftermath of rape. I know there are parents who would just shun this. But recently, I wrote an article in a magazine for adults. It talked about a friend of mine who had been raped, although we never openly talked about it, somewhere I knew, but only recognised it when I was at one of the marches for Nirbhaya. In my article, I asserted that we need to have stories on this subject for young readers. I have got literally a deluge from dear friends to strangers alike, telling me they were raped as young girls (and one boy). They all said that such a story would have given them the courage of coming forward with theirs. Some of them were telling it to someone for the very first time. I was so convinced we need such stories. More so than ever before.
I wish we could trust our children more. Just because they read about a boy and girl kissing, they are not going to become promiscuous. Haha, if only stories were that powerful, we could probably make the world a whole lot better!
We live in times when the lines between genres are fading away. It is getting more and more difficult to classify fiction. So amidst such fluidity how does one classify a given work as Young Adult fiction? What are the pros and cons of such classifications?
I am grateful for this fluidity. I know booksellers find it easier to have classifications, but I think everyone should be free to read whatever they want. There are loads of definitions of what Young Adult (YA) literature truly is. For me, the best fit is that it is a genre that most often features that age group itself and delves into their psyche, their hearts and their world ... as simple as that.
Kashmir and Kashmiri children have often been central to many your work. Is there any specific reason why you are drawn towards writing stories revolving around Kashmiri children?
I have been fortunate to have been able to work with Kashmiri children through The Rajiv Gandhi Foundation, the National Book Trust, Help Foundation and the Army. Something about how bound they were in their tragedies, how uncertain of their future, how open they were to finding a way out were heartbreakingly tender. It found a resonance deep within me. Even as conflict raged around us, like when we were stuck in Baramullah during the Kargil conflict, how rooted in peace these children were. But they were also so vulnerable. So many of these children desperately wanted their stories told. They were feeling isolated and felt nobody knew what they were going through.
So much of what we read about the area is about how many died. We forget there are people living there too, young people who cannot see a future.
Tell us about your writing and research methodology. How do you zero in on a topic? How long do you usually take to complete a book?
I try to write on a daily basis, just two hours a day, if I can't get more. I often steal time from my day to get it done. Sometimes it's not even in one shot. And it's not as if I have something to write, but even then, I will grab a fragment of a headline, a sound bite, a fragment of an overheard conversation and just write. I treat it like riyaaz. I write anywhere and anyway I can. In fact, I am a freak who loves traffic jams. As I am being driven on these crazy Delhi roads, I bang away on my laptop.
As for zeroing in, well, in any way it happens really. Sometimes the story finds me, sometimes I go hunting and sometimes we sit quietly side by side for quite a while before we can move ahead together. How long it takes is also dependent on the story. I have written one tiny novel in the space of a night (of course this does not count the rewrites), a novel in a fortnight of being a writer in residence where I did nothing else and then one that took five years. The one I am currently working on is now in its second year. The deadlines whoosh past my ear.
You have been quite a prolific writer. But all creative people go through periods of lull. Have you ever encountered what is usually referred to as a writer's block? How do you come out of it?
I am all kinds of freak. I like to write two books at a time, often a short story collection and a novel. Because writing is like breathing for me; if I am not doing it, I feel literally suffocated. So if I am stuck with one, I get on with the other. I panic if I haven't written for a while. Just recently, I had a bad back so I couldn't write. My blood pressure went up. I was so unhappy. Then I discovered a way in which I could stand and write on a raised platform. Guess what, my blood pressure normalised! Is it only because of writing? Probably no, but it certainly made me feel complete. Yes, darling writing, you complete me!
What are your views on the issue of pay parity in the field of creative writing? What are the biggest challenges that a woman writer encounters?
The world of children's writers I inhabit is largely one of woman writers, so that is not the problem here. But it is the parity between children's writers and general writers that I have a problem with. Pay parity, of course, but even in terms of how seriously we take it. For the longest time, when I told someone that I was a children's writer, the response would be, "That's a lovely hobby". It irritated me so much. When I wrote my first serious novel for young adults, someone said, "Oh good, you've written a proper book finally." That's what gets under my skin. Writing for children and young adults is a challenging, engaging art and you have to commit to it just like with any profession. Better pay would be great too.
Tell us about your influences. Who are the authors and thinkers who continue to inspire you? Also your upcoming writing projects. What advice would you like to give to aspiring writers?
I wasn't' a great reader, but we used to have a family reading time in the evenings which I used to resent as I wanted to talk. But then I found Born Free by Joy Adams and I was hooked. I devoured everything about animals, especially animal stories. I went on to reading plays at a young age too because I loved the theatre. Now when parents talk about age-appropriate books, I think back and remember we were free to pull any and every book off the shelf. We were never stopped from picking up a book. If I found I wasn't interested, I would exchange it for another.
I think it is characters that hook me. Of course, they have to belong in a well-told story, but I like to become a character. Maybe that comes from acting in a lot of plays early on. I don't necessarily consider myself well-read, because I haven't read many classics. But I love to trawl bookstores and choose books by author, title, blurb, by reading a couple of pages. I always have a stack of books awaiting a crack at the spine.
Currently, I am writing a collection of short stories for Speaking Tiger called The Other. It pushes further from Wild Child and Like Smoke with the focus on young people on the edge of crisis or within a crisis. It is taking its time and life — and death — has got in the way of my being able to write it. I am also working on a couple of other projects, a novel about rootlessness, a book about menopausal women and two collaborative works that I am trying to figure out. There is a book for younger kids called A Very Naughty Bear, which I have worked on with a Bhutanese friend, Kunzang Choden, coming out with Scholastic soon.
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