Comic book author Prabha Nair learnt her craft under Anant Pai. She talks about her latest book, Amar Chitra Katha's Thanjavur – City of Brihadeeswara
Grandmothers make the best storytellers. Prabha Nair, city-based author of Amar Chitra Katha's latest comic Thanjavur – City of Brihadeeswara, the first of its series on historic cities, appears to be one such grandma who's brimming with stories, fables, myths and legends to tell her nine-year-old grandson, Rohan, and millions of other children too. In simple prose, accompanied by glossy illustrations, Prabha has narrated the history of the temple town of Thanjavur, once the seat of the ancient Chola Empire and home to the 1,000-year-old Brihadeeswara temple. Weaving together myths and legends surrounding the shrine, peppered with anecdotes, architecture details and facts, the book aims at keeping children hooked on heritage.
“The challenge of writing for children is to get them hooked on what you're writing. It's very easy for them to lose interest. At the same time don't dumb down. Kids are very smart. Nowadays, especially, the kind of exposure that they get is so much more and you'll find that their interests are not quite what you experienced in your own childhood. That's why you've got to keep abreast with what's happening in their world, what with their iPads and iPods. However, I feel that traditional storytelling with nice plots and good guys-bad guys will never go out of fashion. At the same time, though, you've also got to move a little bit with the times,” says Prabha.
But then she's got an ace up her sleeve – her grandson Rohan, who lives in Sydney. “Rohan's my sounding board. He's an avid reader and I always run my stories by him, even if its stories meant for very young kids. I know I'm on the right track when he gets back to me with ‘Ammumma (grandma)... it's ok!' Rohan is my friend, philosopher and guide,” adds Prabha.
Learning from the best
Then again, Prabha learnt all about writing for children from “the best in the business” – the legendary Anant Pai himself, with whom she had the “privilege” of working with during a six-year stint on the desk at Tinkle. “I grew up in Delhi and had always been interested in children's fiction, having worked with the American Library in Delhi and later as a school librarian wherever my husband, submariner (late) Commodore Unnikrishnan Nair, was posted. I'd always had this desire to write – I actually wanted to be a journalist but instead chose to study Library Science (from University of Kerala) – and one day, while on a Mumbai local train, I saw an ad for the job of a sub-editor at Tinkle. It said: ‘Must have a sense of humour and a good command of English.' That's check, on both counts I thought, and sent in my application. To my delight, Mr. Pai hired me!” she remembers, with a fond smile.
For six years, from 1993 to 1998, Prabha worked her way up the ladder at Tinkle eventually rising to the post of assistant editor of the publication. Pai was then the editor of the magazine, and Prabha, recollects those days as “a learning period”, a dream come true. “I owe much to Mr. Pai. A lot of what I learnt under Mr. Pai has gone into Thanjavur. He was a stickler for attention to detail. His mantra was to check facts again and again. I learnt how to include all what was needed and yet keep the flow of the script. Also, I learnt the art of conveying to the artist doing the accompanying illustrations, exactly what I was looking for in each frame. He was a genius, a living, breathing repository of knowledge with a phenomenal memory, who could rattle off slokas and quotes and stories at the blink of an eye. It was great fun to watch him interacting with children. Scripts were always vetted by him. We used to wait anxiously for his verdict, breathing a sigh of relief when it came back to us with an Ok written in red ink. Mr. Pai was also meticulous about research,” she recollects.
As part of her research, Prabha spent three days exploring Thanjavur. “The architecture of the Brihadeeswara temple was amazing. I had a guide show me around the place. The Saraswati Mahal Library, the Bronze Museum, the Arts Village, and so on were of great help for my research. I also got to talk to a local fellow who told me a few stories about his city,” says Prabha.
The author is now a freelance writer for Tinkle – “Countless!” she says when asked about the number of her stories published in the magazine – and Amar Chitra Katha (ACK), and a few other publications too. She has also written Ganesha and the Moon (part of ACK's epic and mythology series), and Tumku Goes Zip Zap Zoom and Tumku and the Yoo Mans (for its Tumku, the lion cub, series), among others.