BENGALURU : Roopa Pai is the well-known author of Taranauts, said to be the country’s first fantasy adventure series for children. She is a computer engineer who harboured a wish to be a writer from her school days. With a fond love for Indian mythology, Pai draws heavy inspiration from the Gita, Vedas and Upanishads. Her recent book, The Vedas and Upanishads for Children, explores and reinterprets India’s secular wisdom. Excerpts from an interview:
What was your trigger for writing The Vedas and Upanishads for Children?
I have always been hugely into Indian mythology, but I was quite unfamiliar with ancient sacred texts like the Vedas, the Upanishads or the Gita, until five to six years ago. It was my editor who persuaded me to take a shot at retelling the Gita for children, which I did in my 2015 book The Gita For Children. Once I had discovered the treasure that was the Gita, there was no looking back - or rather, there was a LOT of looking back, towards the more ancient texts, from which the Gita’s wisdoms and lessons have been derived. The result of that journey is The Vedas and Upanishads for Children.
Have you always seen yourself as a writer?
I am one of the lucky ones who knew, when I was still in school, not only that I wanted to be a writer, but that I wanted to write Indian stories for Indian children.
What has been your inspiration as a writer?
Indian mythology and the Indian world-view is a huge inspiration, specifically ideas like (1) No one is all good or all bad (2) Our destinies lie in our hands, to be shaped by the choices we make (3) Make space in your listening and learning for every point of view, and treat each with respect, for each of them is as valid as your own and (4) You are not insignificant or irrelevant, for you contain the cosmos. As for the stories themselves, my inspirations come from everywhere - history, the great epics of all cultures, books, movies, conversations. As far as the craft of writing is concerned, I have several favourite writers who I consider my gurus.
Does your writing draw influence from vernacular books?
Not so much. Although I am currently working on a book of translation, translating 100 poems of the celebrated Kannada poet KS Nisar Ahmed into English, I don’t read much contemporary fiction or non-fiction in Kannada.
With the digitisation of books, have you moved to reading books on screen or do you prefer the old-fashioned books?
I enjoy both, although I prefer to read certain kinds of books - crime fiction or thrillers, for instance - on my Kindle, and certain others, like books by writers like Yuval Noah Harari or Amitav Ghosh as physical books.
What is the process you undergo while writing?
Once I have thought of an idea, I have to let the idea marinate for a few weeks before I begin. Once I start writing, I write most days of the week (except for Sunday), between 9.30 am and 4.30 pm at my desktop. I don’t own a laptop because I don’t like the idea of taking my work with me when I travel or go out to have a chai with myself. As for writer’s block, fortunately, I haven’t had to deal with it; as a looming deadline has served as my most effective muse.
How difficult or easy is it to get published?
For aspiring children’s writers (who write in English), I think the present time is way better than any other time in the past. There is now more appreciation for the importance of writing targeted specifically at children, a greater public awareness of the Indian children’s books in the market, thanks to dedicated mummy bloggers and writers who run book review websites.
Who’s your first reader? And who are your biggest critics?
It’s usually my editor. I am superstitious about talking too much about my books or showing the manuscript around until it is actually out in print.
Do you think marketing plays an integral role in the success of a book?
It helps to get the first word out about the book. By marketing, I mean (a) distribution - making sure the book is always available at online and offline stores, at least for six months after it has first come out (b) publicity, through media reviews (although those are very hard to come by for children’s books) (c) author visibility - at children’s literary festivals, school events, and so on. But in the end, it is really about whether the book grabs a child’s (or parent’s) imagination.