Writing children's books is an unpretentious act for Anushka Ravishankar
Anushka Ravishankar's craft is defined by a lucid philosophy. The well-known children's author and playwright, when writing for her young readers, cordons off her mind to narrow down only “on the characters and how they will behave.” There is no ache to preach, serve out a moral or the dreaded flaw — sounding false. “With children when the tone is false, it really sounds false and they see through. What they want to know, you have to write without making it too simplified. One can challenge them by leaving gaps,” says the author.
The Capital got a whiff of Anushka's works over the past couple of weeks. The play “Coat Tales” authored by her was staged a few times and her latest book, “At least a Fish” from Scholastic was launched.
At the Imperial Hotel, Anushka settles for lunch at the aesthetic restaurant The Spice Route where a Sri Lankan food fest is on.
Settling against soups, she opts for fish vinegarthial – mackerel sautéed with spices, devilled mutton, gal curry as she likes pumpkins and egg hoppers minus the egg — the plain appam. Food has at times trickled into her children's books, of course scented as they are by elements of the absurd and fantasy.
In her re-telling of “The goose that laid golden eggs” published 8-10 years ago, she placed the tale in an Andhra village around Gundu who loved to eat goose eggs. “Most of my earlier books were on animals, so food didn't come to it. But I did write about ‘Moin and the monster' where the monster loved to eat bananas and I put in a lot of banana recipes there,” she recalls.
Quite a few of Anushka's books, though not all, are firmly rooted in an Indian regional milieu. “I do that to get it right. Even in “At least a fish” it is somewhere in western India – Maharashtra, where it is set,” she says. The appam comes to the table with the accompaniments and Anushka admires the demure appam sitting upright on her plate. “It is very well done,” she says.
For a writer, one of the “pioneers” in children's books in English, not having a precedent helped as it opened doors to experimentation.
“Having nothing to refer back to was liberating.” Thirteen years ago, when she began writing for publishing firm Tara, every book was an experiment. “‘Tiger on a Tree' was a black and white book for children,” she says. The exquisite mutton, meanwhile, casts its spell.
At Tara, she says, they brought out books they agreed upon — felt were right. Anushka is aware her books from Tara don't come cheap, most priced over Rs.350.
“It does limit the number of those with access to them,” she says and adds at Tara the books were made with handmade paper and were of enhanced quality, which heightened the price. Yet, she hopes with time, paperbacks would too come in, slashing costs.
The chef sends in old fashioned chicken curry for the special guest. As she tries the chef's special, Anushka traces back her link with children's books.
“Growing up in a small town like Nashik, I read anything — lot of Enid Blyton, Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys. Your choice of reading was not gendered. You read a lot of classics as there was such a shortage.”
It is from her early reading that she gained an inextricable part of her writing — nonsense. The influences were predictable, Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear. Anushka believes there is a strong tradition of nonsense in our folk tales, but it is the British term ‘nonsense' that misleads us.
Though not one with a sweet tooth but likes jaggery, Anushka rightly opts for jaggery pancake with ice cream for dessert. Scooping in the cake, she says, it is important to have the “right values” when writing for children. “Your ideas will reflect in your book. If you are regressive or gendered, it will be reflected. A children's author has to be responsible, a book has it sublimal messages,” she says.
Anushka, meanwhile, is working on the second book from the ‘Zain and Ana' series, she informs sipping jasmine tea.