Not long ago, I chanced upon the library of the future. It is not very often that one enters a library and does not see racks and stacks of books. Instead, quite akin to a posh lounge, there is comfortable communal ergonomic seating arrangement, carrels, private desks with computer terminals, artificial plants and trees to add a dash of greenery and a huge map of the open spaces of Mumbai, on the wall.
Located on the first floor of the Discovery of India building at Worli, the Nehru Centre Library, is a place one may gently stumble upon, and never want to leave again!
Designed by eminent architect I.M. Kadri, the library and reading room provide a comfortable and welcoming ambience to the reader. Out of the sight of a visitor but very easily accessible is the other larger section of the library which houses the entire rich and diverse collection of materials. The majority of the collections are in English, but there is an enviable list of titles in Hindi, Marathi, Gujarati and Sanskrit. The collections adhere to a diverse mix of subject areas including classical literature, fiction, art, Chinese painting, science, architecture and so on. In fact, the collection boasts of a select number of books on almost every subject. In decor and spirit, the library exudes the aura of a space that belongs to the digital age.
It is very important because librarians today are facing a great challenge. Today we have people saying that libraries don’t have footfalls, people have stopped reading etc. So there is a great challenge. If a librarian doesn’t feel challenged, he is mistaken.
The idea behind it was to provide a form of literary activity to promote reading. As a part of the library’s services and to reach out to the community we conduct these literary activities. It could be a discussion on a particular book, a conversation with an author or a talk on any literary topic. Our options are endless and we don’t limit ourselves to any particular theme. We could have a book that has been recently published and received good reviews, or we have a book launch or an author interaction.
The idea is to have a variety of events, all based on literature. Over the years, since a decade in fact, we have had at least one literary event every month. We have a database of about 1000 readers on our mailing list and, over the years, we have reached out to a diverse group of people who have evinced interest in the events. The book club is informal. It is free for all. Interested people have to register their attendance. We do, however, insist that people should register for the event only if they plan to attend.
Only those people who are really interested in the subject attend, and they go back really enriched. In the recent past, we have organized talks on Amrita Pritam, Munshi Premchand and Jane Austen.
Just for your information, apart from the book club, we also organize meet-the-author workshops for kids wherein those children’s authors living in Mumbai can present their book to children, read from it, and also conduct interesting activities based on it. In the past, we have hosted, among others, some famous children’s authors like Katie Bagli, Deepak Dalal and others.
Our library is a hybrid library. We have a traditional collection of books as well as a digital database of information resources. We have a digital catalogue which is an open source catalogue. This means, a reader can access the online catalogue from any part of the world and search it for his/her subject of interest.
Options to search by are author, title, subject and series. An ‘Advanced Search’ option also helps the reader look for any specific information. In addition to books we have listed all the other information resources such as DVDs, maps, magazine and journal articles listed in a keyword thesaurus, art catalogues, comic strips, board books for little children, archival audio recordings of lectures held at Nehru Centre and so on. The home page of the OPAC has some interesting features. Front covers of new arrivals, some useful links to other libraries and a fast link to the Amazon Books page when you click on a book cover are some of these features. We subscribe to about 200 plus journals and 12 newspapers. These are scanned everyday for articles of probable interest, after which the article is indexed in a specially devised alpha-numeric index.
At present, we have about 2,50,000 magazine and newspaper articles in 200+ subjects which will be soon made available to the reader in soft copy. Of course, the reader will only be able to see the metadata on his subject of interest and full articles will only be available in the library.
As a futuristic and innovative infrastructure plan, we already have an online catalogue, digital services and a beautifully landscaped reading room. We started thinking about what more could we add. Since most people like to read on portable devices these days, we thought we should also ‘keep up with the Jonases’, as they say!
We thought of taking an Amazon Kindle subscription to about a million books in which we provide readers with Kindle stations, that is, fixed Kindle devices and give them an opportunity to read books of their choice from a huge selection. Of course, this is still in the planning stage. Hopefully, we should be able to implement it soon.
Collection-wise, the library is 30 years old. But, space-wise it’s relatively new. We moved into this new space about 4 years back on Children’s Day. Since then the idea has been to increase footfalls and get the community, the neighbourhood, more students, more academicians and scholars, more people involved. This has happened. We are more visible now, and people just love the reading room! We have had all types of positive responses!
People tell us that the reading room looks like an airport lounge or a five-star hotel foyer! Anything but a library’s reading room!
Now, we want this to grow. We want to reach out to more people. Like libraries in the west, we don’t want to have any rules. You may have noticed that we don’t have any board saying “Silence please”! We allow readers to get in their portable devices. As long as they don’t disturb others around them, it’s ok! Although we provide internet wired connections for a nominal charge, we plan to go wireless soon. For scholars and researchers, we have provided special carrels. A scholar working on thesis, a researcher researching a topic, a writer working on his/her new book – all can use these for their work. They only need to write to the librarian explaining the nature of their research or writing and its duration after which a carrel is allotted to them. It has been our pleasure to have some eminent scholars/writers work on their thesis/research at the Nehru Centre Library and we are happy to say that they have gone back completely satisfied with the facilities that were offered to them. We want more writers, scholars and researchers to also come in.
We have had very interesting reactions from different kinds of people. We are a public library. This means that we do not limit people based on age, academic or economic background etc. Thus, we get kids right from 2 year olds to senior citizens who are over 80! We like to attend to and interact with all of them and address their specific requirements. The library staff tries to understand the needs of each and every reader, which is unique and reader-specific and challenging. We show all first-time visitors to the library and give them a detailed orientation about our services. Our aim is that the reader should come back again.
A senior citizen from Bandra who is an avid reader and was looking for a good library where she could read a book, a magazine or a newspaper in comfort had this to say. The minute she entered she exclaimed, “Wow! Can I live here?” I will always cherish this reaction. We have a beautifully curated collection. We go through each and every book that comes to us from our vendors and select it to be added only if it is going to add some value to the collection. To further explain how curated our collection us, we had another reader who spent a long time going through the books on the shelves. When he was done, he came out and told us that he felt depressed! On being asked the reason for feeling so, he replied, “It will take me a lifetime to read this wonderful collection!”
When people come in they ask us, “Are you sure this is a library?” This space is indeed unique as it is landscaped beautifully, the lighting is comfortable, there is air conditioning and the furniture is ergonomic. Thus, we keep getting these heartening reactions as new readers keep visiting us!
Not at all! The digital infrastructure is supplementary to the print. Print will never die. As you know, even Amazon has opened physical bookstores a few years ago! Everything comes full circle.
Some years ago, we saw people veering away from the printed word. But there are instances where we have seen families coming closer because of books. In our ‘Let’s Read Together’ initiative which is held in entire month of May every year, we invite parents to bring their children’s own books and read to the children in the library. They can even bring along their children’s friends with them. We’ve had instances where the mother or the father, even grandparents, read out to the child or the child’s friends. We have seen parents motivating their children to read in different ways. Sometimes they read to them. At other times, they pick up a book of their choice and read. The child observes the parent reading and picks up a children’s book from our collection and reads too. So digital can be supplementary and can only act as an add-on to one’s love for reading. I do agree that a digital device has advantages of portability. Yet, it cannot ever replace the physical book!
The swanky and peppy place defies the ‘old-school’ conception of a library as a silent place where one can read books in isolation. With its enviable collection and great infrastructure, the Nehru Centre Library is the modern hub of knowledge where access to information is provided free of cost (being a community library) even while offering the best of digital facilities. Yes, reading has become fashionable once again…and the library is a ‘cool’ place to be!
Puffin Books India’s Junior Lives series starts with an engaging book on Mother Teresa. The biography, by Sonia Mehta brings the saint to life.
Bookedforlife chats with the writer…
I read up a lot of books already published on Mother Teresa. I then looked for facts that are not already mentioned in books for this age group. I also read personal accounts of people who knew her personally, to get facts and snippets that would be otherwise unknown.
It took about 2 months.
In an era that is becoming more and more material, kids need role models who break the mould and go beyond. Mother Teresa is one such person who truly went beyond. She went from a comfortable life in her country, to one of struggle and strife in another country. Another aspect which is relevant today is the importance of breaking geographic barriers. She didn’t choose to do good only in her country. She chose a country and a people based on their need.
The most challenging was to not be repetitive and write what kids already know. So while ensuring that all the base facts and narrative are covered, I needed to find information and facts that were lesser known. Another challenge was not to be moralistic – because that turns children off.
We have another four lined up: Gandhi, Buddha, Rani Laxmibai, Subhash Chandra Bose. These have been chosen with the same objectives as mentioned above.
Above all, I was deeply impacted by her utter selflessness. The fact that she fought a male dominated order, that she completely put aside her personal life and needs as a woman, the combination of ruthless discipline and gentle care.
Mother Teresa lives on in the minds and hearts of the younger generation through books like these!
I’ve been teaching a variety of students from all age groups for the past eight years. I’ve realized that teachers in general have to improvise by adding new teaching aids and techniques to gain the attention of the ultra-modern 21st century child.
However, I can say very confidently that despite all the odds, it holds true that a child who reads using either a physical book or an eBook is definitely a much more empathetic, patient, diligent, and intelligent human being than one who does not read.
Such children who read for pleasure, as I have seen, are not only top rankers in their schools, but also better individuals who are broad-minded, righteous and dedicated. This is because unlike other entertainments like playing a game on a tablet or Xbox, or watching a 3D movie, reading, using any medium, teaches a child many lessons and shows them different points of view which enhances their intellect and develops their creative and innovative thinking abilities. I make it a point in my tutorials to make sure that my students read at least one book every week. I’ve seen the difference in grades and behaviour of pupils who read on a regular basis and those who don’t. So yes, readers do and will always have an edge over children who do not read for pleasure, but teachers and parents will have to find many innovative and creative ways to get children to read these days in the new millennium.
Start them young, is what I always say to parents. Start reading to your children from the time they are born. Books should be associated with love and respect right from the time the child is able to think and reason out in the new environment its born into. If, however, you as a parent have missed the bus and your child is a preteen who hates to read, don’t nag him or her to do so.
Start reading on a regular basis yourself to set an example for your children. Remember, children are constantly watching their parents and will always be influenced by what they see.
To give an example of myself; I am a person who loves to read, as well as, who reads to live. Whenever my students are doing a test or a writing assignment, I sit beside them with a book in my hand and read, keeping an eye on them. Watching me, now my students too during a class break, get out their novels or non-fiction books and read. I never touch my smartphone at all when I am in class, and though my students are not my flesh and blood, they have imitated me for their own betterment. Think about how beneficial therefore it will be for children to see their own parents reading voraciously, instead of constantly working on the laptop, or talking on the smartphone even at the dinner table.
I read a very interesting and thought-provoking book a year ago called The Reading Promise by Alice Ozma, whose father made a promise to read to her every night for one hundred nights, but once they met their goal they couldn’t stop. One hundred became one thousand, and the reading streak continued for 3218 nights, finally ending when the girl was in her twenties. Father and daughter made it a point in any circumstance never to miss a single night.
The book reminded me of my dear uncle, who used to read to me stories every night when I was a toddler and also when I was a preteen and teenager. When I was between twelve and fourteen years of age, my uncle read to me all the Sherlock Holmes titles, until school homework and late-night study made us stop very reluctantly. To me therefore, there is no such thing as an age bar to be read to. We are humans, and we all are storytellers. In the past stories were told to us around a fire by every member of the community, these stories encompassing the whole of humanity.
However, if you want to make a child an independent reader and wean him off being read to, for discipline purposes, then the right grade would be the second or third when the child is intellectually capable of reading a book by him or herself. The age however varies greatly from child to child and family to family. My uncle still reads to me articles, stories and blog posts from his smartphone, and I am twenty-eight years old!
The classics are the repository of wisdom and knowledge, which according to me a student must read to learn from the past and to shape his or her future.
In my book I’ve mentioned numerous techniques that I have used, to impart the love of reading classics to my wards, like the movie first method, reading snippets in class, the PowerPoint method, etc., which can be adopted by parents in their homes.
I would like to mention again here, where parents are concerned, nothing works best than the parents taking an initiative and reading the classics along with the child. Another technique I can think of right now, is the use of abridged classics to first introduce a child to read, as it is easier to read and comprehend, and the child feels he too can read an adult book. Later, when the child gains confidence, supply him or her with the copy of the original unabridged version.
According to me, it does not matter at all through which medium the student gets to read a story; reading is reading whether you read an eBook or a physical tome. We must adapt to the changing times and not be rigid. Remember, in the past we used to read from papyrus, palm leaves, and goat skin, and it was the Chinese who invented paper and changed our reading habits, which we use even to this day. Change is inevitable. Change is dynamic. We need to see and analyse the positive and negative aspects of change and see if it is beneficial to our children or not.
Most of my students read physical books, but there are a growing number of younger students, born post 2005, who are more at home with a Kindle or iPad. As long as they are reading and not finding it a strain, who am I to complain? However, I know that where younger students are concerned, the physical act of turning the page of a regular physical book, touching the pop out images, smelling the pages, makes them better readers than e-readers would do.
Reading and the modern child have a complex and dynamic relationship. Times are changing and reading trends will follow suit, but it is heartening to know that a love for reading is still alive!
Illustrating children’s books is an art in itself. It requires a completely different skill-set. Mihir Joglekar, an Illustrator and Art Director, talks about his experiences in the fascinating world of children’s books.
Joglekar has illustrated Ruskin Bond’s latest book, “Looking for the Rainbow”, that talks about Bond’s close relationship with his father. We all know that Bond’s beautiful prose touches the heart. Here, Joglekar’s thoughtful illustrations somehow catalyse and facilitate this process.
You have illustrated a number of children books. What is it about this field that appeals to you?
Books make an impact on our minds right from childhood. They’re colourful, vivid and imaginative. In short, they are everything a child wants. It wouldn’t be wrong to say that books can influence a lot of our likes and dislikes from a very early age. Moreover, books grow with you. There are books for every age group making them a constant companion.
As a child, I read, subconsciously observed and absorbed a lot of illustrations in children’s books. I was instantly inspired. The idea of creating visuals to go with the story is so fascinating. What I love about this field is that I am able to create characters, environments and tell stories visually. Interpreting and creating the world which an author writes about and putting it in front of the world is a joyful experience.
Your recent work, for “Looking for the Rainbow” by Ruskin Bond was particularly poignant. The book deals with loss. What kind of preparation did you do for this project, besides of course, reading the book?
Ruskin writes, in one of the chapters that his father told him “Paddle your own canoe”. This is a very important line in the book. I felt that the illustrations mostly needed to be about him and how he dealt with his life, then. So the preparation involved trying to sketch out how a situation can be shown, with Ruskin as the focal point and all the other things secondary. In most illustrations I’ve done just that. Whether Ruskin is singing in the choir, or whether he is entering a new school or whether he is at the cinema hall, Ruskin can mostly be seen amidst silhouettes. Showing where Ruskin stands in a situation and how he reacts to it was more important. So when Ruskin’s father told him to paddle his own canoe, he obviously wasn’t talking about actual canoeing. I decided to illustrate this message. I felt it was a window for me to mix imagination with reality to convey the meaning subtly. I showed Ruskin canoeing, amidst flying books (his companions) moving through abstract clouds hinting that he is gently making his way through blinding, troublesome times into the light, on his own. Figuring out how to best convey what I felt was a big part of the preparation.
How does the children’s book illustration process differ from other illustration work you’ve done?
Any book or story requires a buildup of the world the story is taking place in. The characters and environments may change as the story progresses. So, all the illustrations need to be planned beforehand. I also try to keep the illustrations at specific intervals so that the book has a nice balance of text and visuals. Otherwise, a part of the book might have 2 illustrations back to back and then 6 pages of just text. That disturbs the textual and visual flow of the story. While illustrating for advertising, one mostly has just one illustration to convey the message of the campaign. If the message is not conveyed properly through it, the campaign fails to reach the target audience. Illustrations for concept art and storyboards on the other hand are mostly made just to determine the look and feel of a scene, an environment or a character.
What is your creative process? Do you start off with sketching or is it digital illustration?
I first visualise and figure out what needs the come across from the illustration the most. After that I make extremely rough sketches. I try to work out the composition, the angle, the interaction between characters, the light, environment and many other such things that build the scene. Once I am satisfied with what I have in front of me, I make a digital sketch. This sketch too is rough, but good enough for the client to understand and give feedback or approval upon. Once I have the approval, I start with the final illustration keeping in mind the technical requirements as well.
Where do you find inspiration for your work?
Inspiration is all around us. I constantly make visual notes in my mind if not always in a sketchbook, about everything I observe. One can be inspired by a certain way the light falls on a subject. Simple things like the constantly changing sky, or a person walking or standing in a certain way, a cat stalking a bird, or a bird perching on a branch is all inspiration to me. I try to incorporate all of these observations into my art.
Do you have a study background in design? Since how many years have you been in the design field?
I have a Government Diploma in Applied Art. I’ve been in this field for the last 8 years and have been involved in numerous projects for films, television commercials and print media as an illustrator. I have worked on several brands in advertising campaigns and have won a few awards on the way. My first fully illustrated Children’s book was ‘The Magic Rolling Pin’ written by Chef Vikas Khanna. It was launched in 2014 and published by Penguin Random House India. In the past 3 years I have illustrated 4 books, two for Chef Vikas which includes ‘The Milk Moustache’ and two with Ruskin Bond, ‘Cricket for the crocodile’ and the latest being ‘Looking for the Rainbow’.
Aside from the commissioned artwork, how much do you draw for practice?
Well, I get very little time for personal work. Adequate commissioned work is in a way practice, since it involves a lot of constant experimentation, sketching, colouring etc. However, I believe that no matter how much one practices, it is always less. Apart from commissioned work I sometimes make sketches from the set of reference photos I keep gathering while roaming around.
What has been your favourite project in terms of book illustrations so far?
It’s hard to pick a favourite. I always bring variations to the style of the illustrations for each book. So, each book has its own uniqueness from an artistic point of view. If I am to pick one, I think it would be Ruskin Bond’s ‘Cricket for the Crocodile’. I had a lot of fun making the illustrations. I got to experiment a lot with the style in terms of colours, compositions and angles and bring something to the table that I hadn’t before.
Are there any specific trends in the children’s book illustration space in India today, that you would like to point out?
There’s a lot of scope for experimental illustration. I feel that there’s definitely a need for the artists to be thinking out of the box with their visual depiction. Overall, I feel that colours, form and quirkiness seem to have gained a lot of importance. With how one’s work can go beyond a book and be seen from people over the internet, it’s a good time to be bold with the approach towards art and illustration!
One of his popular works is a historical trilogy comprising of Patan ni Prabhuta (The Glory of Patan), Gujarat no Nath (The Master of Gujarat) and Rajadhiraj (The Emperor). Rita and Abhijit Kothari undertook the task of translating the trilogy to English. “The Glory of Patan”, the first book in the trilogy is now out. It has been well received amongst the English-reading audience.
Rita Kothari teaches humanities at the Indian Institute of Technology, Gandhinagar. She is a leading theoretician in translation studies, and has also written extensively on Sindhi, Gujarat and language politics in India. Her notable translations include Angaliyat: The Stepchild; Unbordered Memories: Partition Stories from Sindh and the novel Fence. Abhijit Kothari combines sociology, business and management in his research and teaching. He lives in Ahmedabad where he runs his own business.
What motivated you to translate “The Glory of Patan” into English?
As insiders to the literary tradition of Gujarat and observers of society in Gujarat we were aware of the formative influence K.M. Munshi’s fiction had played in shaping a sense of history in Gujarat. For better or worse, this seems to form an unshakeable foundation and we felt readers outside Gujarat, as well those from generations within Gujarat that do not read Gujarati, need to know this influential strand. Besides this intellectual concern, we have also been swept by the powerful flow and intrigue and racy quality of Munshi’s fiction. It seemed like a good idea to make this ambitious ouvre available to a wider audience. In the meantime, social scientists working on Gujarat formulate ideas about Gujarat’s ‘asmita’ also need to know what its genesis is, and the roots of this ideology lie in storytelling.
Why does KM Munshi remain largely untranslated in English despite his immense popularity?
Rita Kothari has discussed in Translating India: The Cultural Politics of English at great length how and why Gujarat produced very few bilinguals who could translate from Gujarati into English. You may find considerable number of people translating from English into Gujarati, but the state has had a long-standing and weak relationship with English for several reasons. Besides it’s a daunting task to translate Munshi. One may well ask why was Govardhan Tripathi not translated until recently. The reasons may not be very different. That being said, Bharatiya Vidya Bhawan did bring an English translation of Gujarat no Nath by Naresh Jotwani.
The translation has faithfully maintained the fast-paced narrative. What kind of challenges did you face in the process?
For a story based in medieval Gujarat it is obvious that the translators were required to ‘translate’ themselves into a different period; imagine clothes, turbans, moustaches, doors and windows, lanes and enclaves with particularities that are not available in the present moment. While such challenges were generally enjoyable, what was less enjoyable was Munshi’s tendency for the superlative and effusive description of each character. We have to understand that at its heart the Patan trilogy is feudal and the glorification of men and women – valour, beauty and so on are of a scale that assume almost mythological proportions. What comes to mind are things like Arthurian legends, or Bahubali, albeit with twists and turns that are more in tune with a thriller of contemporary times. We had to constantly remind ourselves when to purposefully sound archaic and when not to.
This is a trilogy. So, are you also working at translating the other two books?
Yes. The next novel in the series is called Gujarat no Nath in Gujarati and The Lord of Gujarat in English. The one after is called Rajadhiraj, or The King of Kings.
In the book, Minaldevi, though a strong woman character, ultimately gives in to Munjal. You have outlined this fact in your analysis as well. How well accepted are such characters in today’s times?
That’s difficult to answer. In as much as Minaldevi is ambitious and self-seeking, she is very identifiable. Her ‘giving in’ to Munjal is not at the cost of her own ambitions or even self-respect. The relationship is far more complicated than a ‘dominant male’ and ‘subjugated’ woman here!
Does Munjal’s statecraft and statesmanship have any lessons for us today?
Munjal provides very interesting insights into contemporary politics, and that is why he remains a point of reference in many political speeches and debates in Gujarat. He inspires faith in people, who are willing to follow him. He appears as a disinterested picture of celibacy committed only to the idea of nation. He combines in his statecraft methods of the mind and the battle; adapting and changing policies as he sees fit, and leaves his enemies surprised each time. We need to watch out for him; he could be amongst us. He may not mean any harm, but he has the smarts to do it.
How would you place Munshi, the writer in the context of today’s times? Do you believe his themes and concerns who yet strike a chord?
The debates on nation and religion; insider and outsider continue to be relevant today, more so in fact. The role of Jainism in matters of statecraft in Gujarat, the desire to forge a Hindu nation; the beckoning of Aryavrat – all these themes strike a chord.
Can you talk about initial feedback about the book from readers? Any relevant instances you would like to share?
Munshi’s novels used to be serialized and each episode ends like a television episode, at a point when you waiting to see more with baited breath. Munshi had his readers hooked on for years when this fiction was published and even today he is arguably the most read author in Gujarat. When one of his characters died, Munshi received a spate of letters to bring her alive.
The Glory of Patan may have been written in the early 1900’s, but the universal themes of love and betrayal, and above all the game of politics is something that resonates with a modern readership as well. Rita and Abhijit Kothari have brought back the magic of KM Munshi to a new set of the readers. They can appreciate the greatness of the works in English. Indeed, this opens up the literary treasures of Gujarat to the world!
The Glory Of Patan, K.M. Munshi
Translated by Rita and Abhijit Kothari
Published by Penguin under Viking Imprint
When journalist Sunetra Choudhury started writing about the lives of the rich and famous behind bars, little did she know, that it would be an emotional roller coaster ride for her. Her recently released book, Behind Bars, does accomplish what it set off to do, that is, highlight famous prisoners and their experiences in Indian prisons.
But, what is heart-warming is that it also brings to the forefront, voices and stories that need to be heard- whether they are from a high-profile person or a nameless citizen. She highlights experiences of famous names like Amar Singh and Peter Mukerjea amongst few others, but also of the underdog.
She talks to Bookedforlife about the experience of writing the book and the cases that touched her most.
What kind of psychological impact did the research process for the book have on you?
The book impacted me at many levels. Initially, it consumed me just as a journalist and a story teller. I was gleefully uncovering because I couldn’t believe so much of this was happening right under our noses. It was the feeling of getting a great scoop and the book format allowed many of my subjects to trust me more. But then, it started disturbing me.
Wahid’s story especially disturbed me because I had rushed to the spot to report on 7/11 so I felt that I was to blame as well for not questioning the investigators enough. (note to readers: Wahid’s story is highlighted in the book. He was acquitted in the 7/11 Mumbai train blast case). If it took Wahid 10 years to prove his innocence, wasn’t it because journalists like me had only bothered to speak to the ATS and not listened to lawyers like Shahid enough? It was all very eerie because around the time that the book nearing completion, Rafique’s acquittal also happened in the Delhi blasts.
So, basically, we are constantly making this mistake of trusting law enforcement agencies and not paying any attention to what the accused party has to say. And, I felt that because of that someone like Wahid had suffered, and now he was going blind.
Someone like Rehmana, had spent years in jail, just because she was married to a terrorist. (Note to readers: Rehmana’s story, as mentioned in the book, highlights the plight of an unsuspecting woman who has married a man currently in custody on charges of terrorism). Every time I would visit her in her tiny apartment, I would look at her existence among files in a tiny room and again, feel guilty. The tales of torture made me angry, kept me up at night but I realized that the only thing I can do, is one, to tell their stories well. And also, to make sure that my journalism changes…that I question authorities more!
There is a lot of wealth in the information you have been able to access. Do you believe that it should lead to a change in the way prisoners are treated and the current conditions in Indian prisons?
Yes, yes, yes! That is the only thing I want. That’s the reason I want everyone to read it. That’s the reason it went from being the book about rich and famous in jails, to being about prison tales of the unfortunate few. In between the stories of the high profile, are the stories that really reveal what prisons are like.
If there is one story that does that it is the one about the NRI in Tihar jail who is not named. Can you imagine that even today in Tihar, Kalmadi can spend all his days in the plush Vipassana ward but others have slashers and beatings and stabbings to worry about? There are 40 odd deaths in a year-why doesn’t anyone care?
How much time did the entire process of research and writing take?
This book took me a year from start to finish, but I had to be really disciplined in order to do that!
A whole lot of research and fact-substantiation has gone into each case. Yet, it reads like a very interesting story that common people can understand. How challenging was it to write and present the information in this manner?
Thank you for saying that. It is exactly what I was aiming for. I guess it helped that they are all very compelling stories. I chose my subjects because they were stories that I wanted to read about. So for example, what struck me about Rehmana was the poetry of it all, the tragic love story. A woman who puts an ad in the paper because of her circumstances of being physically not 100%, ends up marrying a terrorist and even though their marriage is not consummated, she is now going to spend the rest of her life (if needed) fighting to save him from death row- I mean, for me, you can’t get a more moving story. It really broke my heart.
Many of the cases you discuss are high-profile ones. Were you ever daunted by the prospect of being under scrutiny?
Yes, especially with Wahid’s case. Because he talks about being tortured by very eminent, decorated police officers. But, I also spoke to these police officers. In the end, you have to take all the versions and tell what you perceive as the truth. That’s all you can do. Also, you can’t worry about the consequences- I don’t think that’s a storyteller’s job. In a book format, where your reader has also invested in you, they also understand, I think, where you are coming from and what your intentions are.
I was only worried about my subjects- would Kobad be okay in jail? Would his jailors start harassing him because of my book? I wouldn’t want to add to the problems of any of the inmates in jail like him or Peter, because of my writing. (note to readers: Maoist leader Kobad Ghandy’s account is the last one in the book, and a particularly moving one, given that he is still waiting for justice at 70)
Is there anyone you would have loved to interview but could not include in this book?
Yes, RK Sharma, the IPS officer. In his story there’s such irony. He was the DGP jail who ended up in jail himself. He also fought for the right of inmates to make phone calls which was revolutionary for them. It would have been brilliant and we spoke and exchanged mails but I think he wants to tell his own story. And, Subrata Roy
Which case amongst those you presented do you believe proved to be the most challenging to write about? Why?
I think Peter’s was the most challenging case to write about. One, because he’s the only one whose communication with me was through intermediaries and the process of asking counter questions was very elaborate. It was also challenging because we haven’t heard the last word yet, it is forever changing. And yet, I felt it was important to include him in my book because it was the ultimate case of a privileged gent in the dark, dreary environs of Arthur Road jail.
Which one is your favourite story?
Rehmana’s for the reasons I mentioned above which perhaps also led to me writing it much better than the others, I think. Amar Singh’s because it shows how the smallest jail stint can be life-changing even if you do get luxurious benefits and the story of the juvenile, because it is not just a jail story, it is also an insight into the dangerous lives of the young in the city.
Sunetra Choudhury’s Behind Bars is an eye-opener to a world that has been more or less hidden from public view. It presents an honest insight into a strange world where lawlessness can also exist in the confines of law! Do read a full book review of “Behind Bars” next week on Bookedforlife.
Amazon link for Behind Bars: https://www.amazon.in/dp/9351941310/ref=cm_sw_r_cp_api_mPJXybKJGFNBW
‘Main Shakeel Bhai bol raha hoon. Farmaiyen, Sheelaji!’
This line has become immensely popular and captures the spirit of the work of Sheela Raval, who is among the first female crime journalists in India to investigate the underworld. What sets Raval apart is the sensitivity, boldness and honesty with which she has undertaken these dangerous projects.
Her book, Godfathers of Crime, published last year was an honest and objective chronicle of the Indian mafia, their lives and their personal journeys. Her three-decade-long career trajectory in print and television has been eventful, to say the least! She has been face-to-face with some of the most notorious criminals across different parts of the globe. Yes, she has attended Dawood Ibrahim’s daughter’s wedding in Dubai. She broke the news about Chhota Rajan surviving a brutal assassination attempt in Bangkok in 2000. She is the only person to have interviewed Samira Jumani, noted gangster Abu Salem’s first wife, after Salem’s arrest and extradition. The list goes on……
Godfathers of Crime will soon be translated into Hindi, Marathi and Gujarati. Bookedforlife converses with Sheela Raval to know more about her interesting trajectory. Edited excerpts:
Let’s go back to your very first crime writing story. How did it all begin?
It just happened. It was never planned or desired. Crime was one of the many areas that I covered as a reporter, but it was noticed prominently. I am adventurous by nature. It was the typical Gujarati mindset that works when it comes to take risk in life or profession- that if I fail, it will be a huge learning, but if I get any success on the way then I had have hit the jackpot. I feel I have been lucky. But yes, it wasn’t a cake walk ever! The process is very painful and arduous.
Being a female crime reporter comes with its share of challenges. Have you ever felt unsafe?
I never felt unsafe due to the nature of my work. Journalism is all about interacting with a set of people. In my case it was the underworld mafia, terrorists or white collar criminals. In my long innings of 25 years, I have not faced any major issues with them. But, it would be wrong to say that problems don’t exist. Intimidation, veiled threats, subtle harrying techniques are common professional hazards. I have had my share of these too!
There were unnerving moments. It is surely not a good feeling when you know that you have been under the surveillances of the mafia or white-collar sharks. It has been a tight rope-walk for me, strictly working within professional limits while adhering to all legal parameters. More than the underworld mafia, it is the political and official class that is more adept at flexing muscles.
What made the members of the ‘underworld’ open up to you? What gave you the kind of access that is indeed required to write as detailed an account as you wrote in the book?
Your intention matters. It is how you approach the matter that makes or breaks it. Communication is an art and with experience you can master any art. They tend to keep tab on journalists, particularly those who cover crimes. Only when you ‘pass’ their perception test, you gain an entry point.
What fascinates you about the underworld?
I was not fascinated but was just curious to explore the new professional area that was more challenging. I was curious to see the way they travelled so far despite being from humble backgrounds, and the survival and killer instincts that drove them to the point of no return. I have no sympathy for them when I am saying this, but I would just imagine the kind of instincts that they would have had to reach a level where they are now dealing with the international financial system, dabbling in foreign currency counterfeiting, allegedly printing currencies of various countries, smuggling drugs, organizing violence and so on. When I wanted to meet Dawood, it was not to listen to his fairy tale story or about his bravado and exploits. He is human at the end, just like you and I. I saw that most of them, were craving for social dignity.
The book is soon going to be released in Hindi, Marathi and Gujarati. The response to the English edition has been great as well. Could you share any memorable feedback from readers on the publication of the English version?
The response has been overwhelmingly great. Among all the readers, M N Singh, former Police Commissioner of Mumbai, shared a secret with the audience at the book launch. That was very special. Singh said, “She appeared to me as someone who was over enthusiastic and trying to get into very dangerous zone at times. I always used to hate her because she always out did us.”
What is your secret to maintaining professional credibility and objectivity?
Balancing the role of a journalist with credibility, one who never breached the trust of her subjects, given that these gangsters knew that whatever they spoke to me could go against them, was a tough part. When they chose to speak with me, it reflects their trust in my skills as a journalist who would convey what the matter is, the way it is told. I religiously stick to what I primarily set out to do. I stick to the subject. I try to be alert when I talk to criminals or gangsters. I don’t take sides ever and stick to the subject. I remain alert about how they perceive what I say. I never forget that I can be heard by the agencies, which perceives reality differently.
Is it true that you also conduct workshops with defence forces? Could you give us a brief glimpse into that?
I can’t share much about it except that it was a valuable experience to have audience from all three forces with different sensibilities.
What are the kinds of book you like to read, at present?
On my bed side now are: Givers and Takers by Adam Grant, Five People You Meet in Heaven by Mitch Albom, Five weeks in Balloon by Jules Verne, Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel, Being Mortal: Medicine and What Happens in the End by Atul Gawande, Nujeen: one Girl’s Incredible Journey from War-Torn Syria in a Wheelchair by Nujeen.
Is there another book in the pipeline?
A sequel to the first one.
Subscription boxes evoke a sense of nostalgia and surprise. In recent times the idea of activity based boxes has become very popular. However, for the very first time the magic of reading finds itself packaged in a monthly box. Enchantico is a subscription box comprising books and activities – designed to bring back the love of reading for children.
Founders Ravi Subramanian, Sangram Surve and Shalini Bajaj hit upon this idea a little over a year back. Just one year on they already have about 200 subscribers, with new additions day by day.
So, what’s in the box? Each month, Enchantico delivers a box comprising of at least two carefully curated age-appropriate books and one activity designed around one of the books to subscribers. Their website, www.enchantico.in, gives details about the age classifications and costing.
Can you talk about the process of selection of books?
We have a tie up with about eleven publishing houses. Every month we get an intimation of books that are new, written by both Indian and foreign writers. We take the entire set of books into consideration. Our curator panel headed by Lubaina Bandukwala, parents, and Ravi and myself, we go through the entire list and shortlist titles. We have discussions about the topic and relevance to age group. We shortlist three books per age group and get in touch with publishers. We go through the pre-read copies. At this stage we may reject some books. By the time the release date comes, we are ready. At any given time, our boxes have at least two books.
Curation is something that sets you apart…
Curation happens through a panel from the latest books that the publisher sends us. If the book is not the latest, then its distribution in the country has been limited. Many retail stores are not able to stock some of these fantastic titles for a number of reasons, such as preference to fast selling popular fiction. Given that, we have access to a whole new set of books that even stores don’t have. Curation starts from what is it that we have access to and what it is that’s new. We also include interesting nonfiction books and special editions of classics as well.
There is also one activity included in each box. Can you tell us about it?
Parallel to the selection process the design team works on the activity: we take into consideration learning, motor skills, sensorial skills and engagement to take forward the concept of the book. The concept needs to be different. Some of our subscribers are hard-core readers and for them the activity is secondary, albeit a beautiful add on. But then there is a group of reluctant readers who need an incentive to get engaged with the book. The activity is a great way to increase engagement and make the reading more fun. For example, we had a book about an elephant who was invited for a pajama party, but had no pajamas. Our activity was a paint-it-yourself pillow! This brought in the concept of sleepovers. Another book had a lighthouse playing a key role in the story. Hence, the activity involved making a working lighthouse, which could be used as a table lamp!
What if there is a repeat and a child has read the book included in the box?
Technically the possibility of a repeat does exist. But, let me share this example. One of our subscribers, an 11-year-old girl is a voracious reader. Her mother was worried about the possibility of a repeat. She’s been subscribing for six months now and there has not been a single instance of repeat! There are many beautiful books which people have not heard of.
What is your assessment of the business model of a subscription box?
Initially people go into trial mode. If the box appeals and is looked forward to it works. Right now, this is a metro phenomenon but moving to two-tier cities. As long as there is need, it will always have traction. In the long term there has to be newness and scope for engaging further, or else it will lose hold. This engagement is for us to explore. We have maintained the element of surprise so far. A kid loves the concept of a surprise. Currently the concept is doing very well but it will have to have a lot of legs to be able to survive in the long term. We need to create an ecosystem around it and it has to have value in the long term.
You have your own digital currency- litpoints?
Yes, but this will be in the second phase. We intend to have a digital platform. There needs to be interaction with kids, parents and recommendations need to start coming from them as well. This platform will encourage a community of readers to come together. We want to reward this community. So litpoints would be our currency that is a reward for participation and can be redeemed for book related rewards.
E-books have now become an integral part of people’s lives. How does this factor play in books for children?
It’s not something that you can stop. I have nothing against e-books, but at a fundamental level a tablet or device could be detrimental. A book takes an X amount of time to read. The physical feel of paper, the joy of buying and placing a bookmark is something different. We hope parents realise, especially for young children, that they should be allowed to explore joys of a physical book. As a child I remember I used to get excited about getting a big book, or accessing beautiful illustrations without having to zoom in. An e-book cannot give that visual joy. The joy of your own book where you have your secrets embedded is different.
What are your future plans for this concept?
The idea was always to give a product that people did not have, with a quality that they would only expect an international brand to provide. The product brings kids back to an environment where they can have active exchanges. We want to make kids fall in love with reading again. Reading ultimately has the power to impact the social fabric of the country. We are looking at a full 360 degree eco system with festivals, interactions, school tie-ups and ultimately mentoring readers through a program which engages them through interactions with leading writers.
In the age of the click of a button or swipe of the screen, it is heartening to know that the good old magic of books has been rekindled, and that too with an element of surprise, month after month!
Neeraa Maini Srivastav is a media professional who straddles two realms of storytelling with equal ease and panache. A postgraduate in English literature from Mumbai University, she began her career as a creative professional in advertising. She has won several awards for her creativity and is known for her strong diversity of creative expressions.
Her fiction works include ‘The White Crow’ (introduced as syllabus by a reputed school in Mumbai), ‘The Adventures of the Bubblegum Boy’ (successfully adapted to a theatre production) and ‘1 friend request sent from Hanuman’. Her most recent book, 150 Brilliant Ideas to Keep YOUNG MINDS Fit & Fine, is a self-help book for teenagers.
What was the thought process behind 150 Brilliant Ideas to Keep YOUNG MINDS Fit & Fine? A non-moralistic self-help book for teenagers is not very common…
The book was conceived one day when I heard a school counsellor recount an incident of a 3-year-old who claimed she was under depression! That was the starting point of delving into what was happening inside young minds today. They have a million followers but are lonely! Devices are their friends. They are faced with polarities within and without. All these insights led to further enquiry and the information I found was so astounding that I felt that a book addressing those concerns would be of huge value today. We are living in an age when the self-esteem of the young has become so fragile that an Instagram post has to be ‘make-up’ perfect! The danger of both narcissism and fractured self-worth made a book like that seem like just the thing the young world perhaps needs.
Can you talk about the response to the book, especially in terms of feedback from young readers?
The ease and friendliness of the book have resonated with the young readers who certainly do not have the appetite for loaded philosophy being dished out to them. They are seeking a lot of answers. They felt the book acted as a daily go-to companion as they navigated through their mindscapes, looking for anything that added value. The contemporary idiom and presentation of an otherwise ‘serious’ subject also melted barriers.
You are well-versed with the field of advertising…what do you enjoy more? Telling ‘brand-stories’ or writing fiction in the traditional sense?
For me ‘storytelling’ straddles both worlds. The more compelling a brand story, the more effective it is in terms of affecting some kind of behaviour change. So for me, it works like cross-pollination rather than two separate worlds. I love stories. Whether for brands or for pure fiction. And…like is known of love, it happened by chance.
Your book, ‘1 friend request sent from Hanuman’ takes up a very significant theme- interaction in the age of social media. In the context of your interaction with children and young adults, how can one get across ‘stories’ to them by using mediums that are most relevant to them?
My book really contrasts the magical with the scientific and technological. The idea was to dramatize a magical event in the most unexpected place- a social media platform. But honestly, taking the bigger picture into consideration, while social media is emerging as the most significant platform for ‘conversation’ and digital is becoming a way to be, I still feel conventional ‘storytelling’ has its merits as it evokes a richer tapestry of emotions- from body language to human exchange that seem to be becoming more obsolete. So while Kindle comes with its promise of relevance to a digitized world, it is addressing a very niche audience. There is no reason why stories should not be accessible to a child studying in a school, tucked in the remote valley of Udampur. Maybe it’s time for storytellers to be more creative! Maybe it’s time to bring the folklore alive across classes, across geographies to enrich the storyscape.
With a profusion of digital media, there is also a danger of good stories being lost. As a writer who is also a part of the media communications community, what’s your take on this?
Unfortunately, the digital culture has resulted in ‘search engine junkies’, rather than knowledge seekers. Reading has taken a back-seat and not everything is still available online. The content that is online is not all inspiring or elevating. The romance with books is slowly diminishing but I still see huge potential in kindling an interest, bring reading back as a culture. Even today in Paris, the young and old both can be seeing lolling away in cafes, their faces buried in a book! I feel a paradigm cultural shift is what will resurrect stories that are today being threatened with extinction due to a digital invasion of our sensibilities.
What are your sources of inspiration, especially for your fiction?
Daily life and the quintessential muse- the human being
What is the next project you are working on?
A travel series.