Her books have captured the minds of a whole generation of young, impressionable readers. With themes ranging from fantasy fiction to Economics, she carries the distinction of distilling a topic so clearly that even a child with no prior induction into the topic is quite well-informed by the time they have finished the book, minus the dreariness of a classroom. Add to the fact that even adults find her books immensely enjoyable, it is really no surprise that Roopa Pai is one of the most well-known Indian authors in the world of children’s literature, and what’s more, she wrote the oldest self-help book, Bhagavad Gita to kids and youth. We managed to lure Roopa into an interview, and it was such a delight to get to know her! She talks about her journey and her popular book. ‘The Gita For Children’! Read on!
Such a pleasure to have you here with us. Tell us a little about your journey from being an engineer to becoming one of India’s most well-known children’s book authors.
Thank you for having me. I’m delighted to be here. At school and college, I was always a keen and conscientious student who did well in academics. But I was also one of the lucky few who knew, quite early on in life, what I wanted to do when I grew up – I wanted to write.
Once I had encountered the cult Indian children’s magazine, Target, at the age of 12 or so, I decided I wanted to grow up and write for Target, which meant writing Indian stories for Indian children. The course of my future, or so I thought, had been set. But I had reckoned without my south-Indian middle-class parents, who believed that both girls and boys who had the marks for it should be doing engineering or medicine because, seriously, if you studied anything else, you were bound to end up on the dung-heap. 🙂 So I took that 4-year detour into engineering, handed my degree over to my mom to frame or do whatever with it that she thought fit, and vamoosed to pursue my dream. I ended up landing my dream job at Target (Destiny! There’s no other explanation for it!) and learning a lot about the nuances of writing for children. I haven’t looked back since!
Your series “Taranauts” is deemed India’s first fantasy series and referred to as the ‘Harry Potter’ of India. How did your stumble upon the idea for the book?
Even though I grew up on a steady diet of British children’s books – particularly those by Enid Blyton, who totally lit up my childhood – I was also a huge Amar Chitra Katha and Chandamama fan. When I found Target, which carried only Indian stories, but ‘cool’ and contemporary ones, about children like me, not ones from mythology, it was like a lightbulb went off in my head. I think it must have been then, even though the thought may not have been so concrete, that my ambitions for the future became even more fine-tuned – I would not just write stories for children, but Indian stories for Indian children.
So when Vatsala Kaul-Banerjee, my erstwhile editor from Target, called out of the blue a dozen years after I had quit Target, to let me know that she had just taken over as the editor of the children’s list at Hachette India, which had just opened its India office, and said she wanted me to write a children’s series for them, I knew it was going to be an ‘Indian’ series. But we both decided that it should not be too Indian either – we knew, from experience, that the exotic is always more appealing to children than the familiar. So it had to be fantasy, but I was very clear it had to have an Indian underpinning – not just contemporary India but classical India, mythological India as well.
That’s how the idea of the universe of Mithya was born. (If you read the books as an adult, you will catch a lot of references to Indian society, politics, mythology, and iconic Indian symbols from the seventies and eighties, that children may miss entirely. You will also recognize that a lot of words in Taratongue, the language of Mithya, have Indian words mixed up in them.) In the years after Target, I had been a journalist, lived abroad both in the UK and the USA, had two kids, and written a travel book and a couple of books for children. I had also co-founded BangaloreWalks, a heritage walks company, which had gotten me reading a lot about south Indian temples.
Two of my favorite temples in Karnataka are the 11th century Hoysala temples at Belur and Halebid, and one of the most fascinating things to me about them is the eight-directional ‘compass’ they have engraved in their ceilings. The directions are not named but feature the god who rules that particular direction. I was fascinated by the concept of a ‘Guardians of the Eight Directions’ and took my idea for the eight worlds of Mithya from there.
“The Gita for Children” is my favorite among your books. I think it takes immense talent and a big vision to break the illusion that the Gita is meant to be studied at old age, and bring it to the demographic that needs it the most! Congratulations on that! Tell us about your work on that book.
Thank you. I’m touched that you enjoyed it so much. Again, it was my editor Vatsala who urged me to take a shot at this book. She had realized while editing the eight Taranauts books, that I was very much into mythology and symbolism, and she believed I was good at breaking down complex concepts for children. I was very, very reluctant. I had never read the Gita before, had not even engaged with it at any level. But on her urging, I decided to take a shot at reading the Gita and seeing if there was something there that appealed to me, almost 100% sure that there would not be. Once I had begun to read a few commentaries, however, I was completely hooked! In fact, my whole reaction to it turned around 180 degrees – I wondered why no one had ever pointed me in its direction before.
I was very pleasantly surprised to find that it was a wonderfully secular and liberal text, the world’s original self-help book, as it were. With the strong conviction that Indian children (and their parents!) were missing out by not having an ‘Intro to the life-affirming wisdom of the Gita’ book, I set myself the task of writing ‘The Gita For Children’. It was an absolute joy to write, and it was transformational for me, on several levels. I am thrilled and humbled that so many people have taken it into their hearts.
Here’s Roopa’s TEDx talk on the Bhagavad Gita
“So You Want To Know About Economics” is a great book too and notably a topic completely different from the Gita. How do you decide on your book topics and titles?
So after it was apparent, within the first couple of months after its release itself, that the Gita was a success, several people wanted me to write other books in a similar genre. But I was dead against it. I didn’t want to be ‘typecast’ in a particular genre.
The other thing about me is that I am interested in a bunch of different things, and don’t like repeating myself. One of the things the Gita did for me was to give me the confidence that I could take up a subject I knew nothing about, and figure it out at least at a superficial, introductory level.
Given all these reasons, I decided to take up, as the subject of my next book, another topic that I knew nothing about but wished I did. I made a list of different topics – my editor Sudeshna Shome Ghosh was sweet enough to allow me that liberty – and picked Economics. That’s all there is to it. 🙂
Your latest book “Ready!: 99 Must-Have Skills For The World-Conquering Teenager (And Almost-Teenager)” has inspired a movement among young kids. Tell us more about it.
The seed of the idea for Ready! came, once again, from Vatsala. It had been a century since the books of Lord Baden-Powell, who founded the legendary Scouts and Guides Movement, had been published, so they were now out of copyright, and anyone could liberally borrow from them without having to pay anyone a royalty. Vatsala wondered if I could maybe think about a Life Skills book for urban Indian teenagers inspired by Baden Powell’s Scouting movement. I got very excited. I had been a Girl Guide in school and had loved it. I began to think about what vital skills Indian teenagers of this generation were missing, and the book grew out of that.
Interviewer’s note: Roopa’s book ready has now inspired the ” Wo-Co Teen challenge“- a challenge spanning 4 weeks designed to build stellar life-building skills in children. I also have to add that my daughter and I have burst out laughing while reading the book together. The flowchart on food choices carried some hilarious reasons for reaching out to the bag of chips and my daughter literally fell off the bed laughing!!!
How do you do your research for your books?
I read books on the topic, I use the internet extensively, and I speak to people. I also read a lot of stuff that is only tangentially related to the topic to get a broader understanding of the subject’s history, context, and evolution, apart from all its different applications. Plus, I always make sure, with my editor’s ok, to run the manuscript by a bunch of people – both experts and passionistas – so that I get a lot of different kinds of feedback before I finalize it.
You are also a nature enthusiast who conducts regular walks in the city of Bengaluru. How do you divide your time between your writing, family, public appearances, and other interests like Nature walks?
I am naturally more a history enthusiast than a nature enthusiast. I have started taking a keen interest in trees only in the past ten years or so. How do I divide time? I think I’m quite disciplined about my writing hours – I have always written only between 9 am and 3 pm (school hours for the kids), and never on weekends if I can help it. The other stuff is fitted around the writing. Oh, also, I try not to have book-writing projects in the latter part of the year because there is so much travel around that time – to lit fests and such.
What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
Only two rules.
- Read, read, read
- Write, write, write
And now, after writing The Gita For Children, a third has joined the list.
- 100% effort, 0% expectation
What do you have for your readers in the future?
Hmm, let’s see now. I am working on two books right now that I’d prefer not to talk about yet. I am a little superstitious about talking about works in progress. In the later part of the year, I hope to be working on another book for children, and also a book of translation, where I will be translating the poetry of celebrated Kannada poet K S Nisar Ahmed into English. I can tell you that all these four books are in the non-fiction genre, but nothing more. Sorry about that, but I promise you will be among the first to know when I feel ready to spill the beans. Yeah!!! Thank you, Roopa!