Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar on writing his first children's book, depicting small-town India in fiction
Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar on taking inspiration from the children's magazine Champak and his favourite children's books
Critically acclaimed author Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar has just come out with his first children’s book, Jwala Kumar And The Gift Of Fire. A delightful story set in the fictional village of Champakbagh, the book follows the fortunes of a family after the man of the house discovers an unidentifiable creature outside his residence and decides to take it in. In this interview with Firstpost, Shekhar talks about his journey of writing the book, why small towns feature so predominantly in his works, and how a major controversy has shaped him as a writer.
When and why did you decide to write a children’s book? Was it at the insistence of your publisher?
I just felt like writing a children’s book. There was a longish period of unseasonal rainfall and cloudy weather in my hometown Ghatsila, and I was watching the first season of HBO’s Game of Thrones at that time (it was the free first month of my Hotsar subscription and Jason Momoa is so handsome!) and I just felt like writing Jwala Kumar’s story. My publisher did not insist on it. In fact, my publisher was not even aware that I was writing a children’s book.
The writing style seems just apt for the target age group and the book doesn’t read like a debut children’s novel. Did it require a lot of editing? Have you written any children’s stories in the past?
No, the manuscript did not require a lot of editing. I only added a few parts to show what Jwala Kumar does, that’s all. I have not written any children’s book before, but my first short story that was published somewhere was a story about a school-going teenage boy. That story was originally titled Amit Returns Home and it was published in 'The School Age' page of The Asian Age with a new title, 'Joys and Sorrows of Childhood'. It was in December 1998 (I do not remember the date but the day was perhaps Monday, because, if I remember correctly, The School Age page would come on Mondays) and I was 15 years old at that time — 15 going on 16, a student of Class 10.
You’ve incorporated the myths and folklore of Jharkhand in your earlier works. Is the creature Jwala Kumar also a part of mythology or is it a figment of your imagination?
Jwala Kumar is total imagination.
Is the fictional village of Champakbagh fashioned on a real village?
Champakbagh is a fictional village modelled on some villages I have seen and known. The 'Champak' in Champakbagh of course comes from Champak, the children’s magazine from Delhi Press that I – and so many of us – have grown up reading.
How difficult was it to translate your vision of Jwala Kumar into the visual medium? What was it like working with your illustrator, Krishna Bala Shenoi?
I totally loved working with Krishna Bala Shenoi who is a very talented artist. I explained the background of the characters and my own vision for the story to Krishna Bala Shenoi and he created illustrations just as I had wanted.
What I loved most about the book was that its plot and the concerns of its primary characters are very much rooted in the village ethos. Do you think villages and small towns are underrepresented in Indian Writing in English (IWE), especially in children’s literature?
I cannot say. I have read children’s literature, I have read IWE, but not enough to be able to answer this question.
The book has very unusual and dramatic chapter headings. How did you come up with them?
Just like that!
I think the book can do very well as a TV series for children. Do you or your publishers have any plans to pitch it to production houses?
This question is for Speaking Tiger, not for me.
The ending of the book leaves room for a sequel. Are you planning to write one?
I cannot say. Right now, I have run out of things for Jwala Kumar to do, and I do not want Jwala Kumar to do what others of his kind do.
Which Indian children’s authors do you enjoying reading the most?
I have grown up reading books by Poile Sengupta (An Exquisite Balance), Anuradha Khati Rajivan (Undirs: The Mouse Family), AK Srikumar (The Shami Tree), Ira Saxena (Caught by Computer), Deepa Agarwal (Traveller’s Ghost), Swapna Dutta (the St Avila’s series), and other authors. I read children’s books now, as an adult. Anushka Ravishankar (Moin and the Monster), Shals Mahajan (Timmi books), Himanjali Sankar (Talking of Muskaan), and others. They are all very good.
Has the major controversy around your short story collection changed you as a writer? Have you become more circumspect about what you write?
I have learnt several lessons. That is all I can say.
You’re one of the few active writers who regularly reviews books. What do you enjoy most about book reviewing?
I enjoy reading books, and that pleasure and those insights that I find in reading books are what I try to express in my book reviews.
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