Lessons In Small Print: Meet The Authors
“Meet the author” are three words that always got me as goose-bumpy as “I love you.” I’ve never outgrown the feeling, I discovered, when, at a Jaipur literature festival, I stood, like a groupie, in a queue to meet Tom Stoppard. The craggily handsome playwright signed my copy of his noir novel Lord Malquist & Mr Moon, and I thought how perfect life could be.
Keen to offer a flush of such excitement to our book clubbers, Rupal and I set up sessions for them to meet writers they admire in the flesh. While the kids were predictably keyed up to meet the man or woman crafting our book-of-the-month, it was just as great to sense their insatiable curiosity about the process behind the writing. Some titles prompted rather personal questions. It helps to have author friends like Sampurna Chattarji, Jerry Pinto, Rashmi Palkhivala, Deepak Dalal and Shabnam Minwalla, who warmly and frankly responded about their vastly different books.
Sampurna’s Ela is a sensitive account of a girl kept in the dark about her adoption till the news is blurted in school on her thirteenth birthday. Ela’s world falls apart. Her creator captures the heartache so compellingly, children wonder: “You weren’t adopted? But you still know exactly how Ela felt?” Sampurna answered awkward queries with patience and respect, finding the children’s candour refreshing. Accustomed to reading to kids over a microphone in large halls, it was the first time she met an intimate handful of children at home. They were reassured that she could be diffident. “I’m nervous!” she shared. “In smaller circles my shyness resurfaces.”
She needn’t have worried. Right off the bat, a boy bounced in, announcing “I love your book.” Sampurna said, “That was all I needed to relax, to sink into the luxury of discussing my book with young adults it is written for. They made precise and perceptive remarks, asked questions that had been niggling: the tricky issue of being adopted, of what a parent means and real-life instances. A boy shared that his brother once called him ‘adopted’, an insult I’d no idea was common among my target audience. There were questions about process, which made me wish I’d brought my notebooks along.”
Jerry Pinto didn’t bring notebooks either, to his afternoon chat about A Bear for Felicia, but he brought loads of attitude and anecdotes. The book is dotted with charm, from a delightful opening page line (“The author would like to acknowledge the support and guidance of teddy bears everywhere”) and intriguing chapter headings (“Toy Horror Stories You Couldn’t Ever Imagine”) to Felicia’s bear’s introduction (“My name is Thurston Gustavus Buckridge III”) and crazily coined nomenclature for others of his breed (“Urbanie Jenovefa Balaclava”). A tale to laugh out loud with, Pinto’s story for kids is also an insightful take on friendship and family.
“Call me Pinto Bear,” said Jerry, managing what’s best described in his words: “I startled the kids into a good space.” They doubled over giggling as he regaled them with episodes from his childhood. One even asked why he bothered writing for adults at all. “I enjoyed that sense of equity they felt with me,” Pinto said after the session.
Authors, in turn, posed questions. Explaining the choice of her unusual first-person narrator (a wave lapping the Bombay shoreline) in Samundari City, an illustrated local history of the city, Rashmi Palkhivala talked of the ways history can be enlivened. “I helped them realise why it was a wave and not an ephemeral passing cloud that told the story of our city over centuries.”
We got another chance to celebrate cultural heritage on a Saturday morning spent with Deepak Dalal. He complemented the theme of his book, Sahyadri Adventure, with a slideshow of photographs shot in and around present-day and past Bombay. Sadly, most kids, more familiar with exotic foreign destinations than their home turf (London, Spain, and Turkey were the replies to Deepak’s question about recent holidays), were fascinated to find out Bombay Fort actually existed in the southern precinct now casually referred to as Fort, as well as the origin of Churchgate.
Flitting from fiction to verse, Shabnam Minwalla, author of The Six Spellmakers of Dorabji Street, held a workshop on comic verse writing. She read the kids rhymes from a varied bunch of books, including Vikram Seth’s Golden Gate, and encouraged them to attempt their own. The subject was ‘being stuck in a traffic jam,’ and the children wrote amazing poems within 15 minutes.
As book club facilitators, we were struck by comments from two different authors. Sampurna spoke of “the irreplaceable thrill of encountering intensely engaged, intuitive and intelligent readers. Every time I am assailed by doubt about the ‘meaning of life’ or the worth of what I do – in the face of moaning complaints like ‘kids don’t read’ – I recall this (session) and draw new strength.” And Jerry’s advice to parents: “The story alone isn’t important, its reader is. A loved voice telling any story swaddles a child, who feels cocooned in comfort. Just do it.”