Litterateur Sumangala says that she was destined to be a children’s writer

Once upon a time there was a little girl who wanted her mother to tell her stories every night. Moreover, she wanted new stories. Her mother cast a spell and transformed all the cats, dogs, squirrels and crows in the vicinity into endearing characters with thousands of tales to tell. Eventually the stories found their way into books that captivated children all across Kerala with their wisdom and humour. Leela Namboothiripad, better known as Sumangala, is all smiles when she narrates how her eldest daughter Usha inspired the storyteller in her.

“Usha made me an author. As a young girl, she wanted to hear a new story daily, while having dinner. I narrated stories from the books in my library. But when that got exhausted, I started writing stories for her. My first story was about a day in the life of Kurinji, the cat. In fact, a cat at our home was the inspiration! Cows, dogs, crows, squirrels… all the creatures in our neighbourhood became characters for my stories. They all thought and talked like human beings. Usha was eight then, now she is 61! Later on I had to come up with more stories for my younger children, Narayanan and Ashtamoorthy,” she says.

The celebrated children’s author is in the city for a short stay with her daughter Usha Namboothiripad. Moving her frail fingers over the book she is reading, Madhavikuttiyude Kathakal Samboornam, Sumangala says she is still in love with books and stories. In her white settu-mundu and large spectacles, she looks the quintessential grandmother with a captivating tale always waiting to be pulled out of her bag of endless stories.

But then, weaving stories has always been child’s play for her. Daughter of O.M.C. Narayanan Namboothiripad and Uma Antharjanam, she and her sister, Urmila read whatever they could lay their hands on and also wrote stories. “We didn’t understand most of the things that we read. In fact, I read Paavangal [translation of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables] when I was only seven. But we were inspired to come up with our own works presumably for adults and thought of ourselves as adults when we wrote them,” she says, breaking into that occasional smile.

But for her friend Radha Padmanabhan, Sumangala would not have thought about publishing her stories. “I never felt that they were worthy enough to be published. But Radha thought otherwise, in spite of the fact that she was not a Malayali. I contacted Poombatta, the children’s magazinePoombatta. My first work, Kurinjiyum Koottukarum (the same story which she first wrote for her daughter) was published in 1965 and I wrote for the magazine for many more years. It was not to make money. Rather, I enjoyed what I was doing. I realised that it was what I was destined to do. When you write for children, you have to become a child and that was not difficult for me. I still remember how children used to write letters after reading my stories and I sent replies to almost all of them. Some of them even came home to meet me,” she says with excitement in her eyes.

Leela became Sumangala due to many reasons. “Leela sounded too short a name and Leela Namboothiripad was too long. Also, in those days, my community was not quite supportive of literary activities. So, I chose a new name, Sumangala, which was suggested by Radha. It was derived from Deshamangalam Mana, the name of my husband’s tharavadu.”

She kept her new identity a secret from all in her family, including her father. “Later, I told my father about this and made him promise that he wouldn’t tell anybody. But, he told about it to one and all!”

So, how would she describe her style? “Though our kids have changed with times, I haven’t changed. I’ve hardly read children’s books by other writers because I didn’t want to get influenced by their style. Also, I have never written on the lines of the Harry Potter series. In fact, I read those books to find out what makes children get hooked to them! People say my stories remind them of Enid Blyton’s, though I have not written much adventure stories. I did write a few short detective stories for boys.”

At 79, she isn’t in the pink of health, and says that she doesn’t feel like writing again. Her last book, Unnikalkku Krishnakathakal, came out two years back. “The last few years were tough, as my husband was ailing and I was too exhausted to concentrate on reading or writing. Ever since he passed away , I got totally detached from books. Now, I have once again taken to reading. But I don’t think I can write again,” she stresses as if to convince herself and the readers.

She has had little interaction with many literary figures in Malayalam. But she remembers somebody telling her that Sukumar Azhikode had called her book Mrigangalude Gramam as a classic. “He even called me the great grand mother of children of Kerala!”

Pleased

“I’m very happy because it is a recognition for children’s literature.” In that simple declaration Sumangala conveys her happiness over winning the Kendra Sahitya Academy award.

Short takes

Of the 37 titles she has written, 23 of them are for children. Some of her notable works are Mithayipothi, Neypayasam, Manjadikkuru, Ee Katha Kettitundo, Nadodi Cholkathakal, Kudamanikal, Muthusanchi, Thankakingini and Rahasyam. She has also written the Panchatantra in prose format in 1978, while working in Kerala Kalamandalam. She was Public Relations Officer at Kalamandalam for 22 years, a period she calls “the happiest period of my life”. She has translated the Valmiki Ramayana into Malayalam from Sanskrit and has compiled the Pachamalayala Nikhandu.