A tale of unusual buddies

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LIFE TO FICTION Anita Nair: `I think stereotypes emerge from actual experiences, and experiences that repeat themselves again and again'
LIFE TO FICTION Anita Nair: `I think stereotypes emerge from actual experiences, and experiences that repeat themselves again and again'

Anita Nair now has a cute little story for children in Living Next Door to Alise

Anita Nair, the author of three novels and a short story collection, now has a children's book in her kitty. Living Next Door To Alise, is an engaging tale of a lonely eight-year-old who befriends a talking elephant. The greatest of writers have always felt committed to write for children. And so you have a firebrand activist-writer Mahashweta Devi, filmmaker-writer Satyajit Ray, poet Rabindranath Tagore, and our own Kuvempu who've written some brilliant stuff for children, In fact, Mahashweta Devi even said, "For children one has to write with a great deal of love and respect. That is why those children's books are usually the best, which grown-ups cannot resist."Excerpts of an interview with the author:As a writer who's published novels and short stories, what was it that prompted you to write a book for children?I didn't set out to be a children's writer and nor do I see myself as one. This is really a detour. I had just finished a very demanding book Mistress about artistic success, relationships and Kathakali and there I was in Kerala during a school term and my sister-in-law was having much trouble persuading my nephew Siddharth to eat. To get him to eat , I started a series of stories about an elephant Alise and a boy Siddharth.Why did you choose to "humanise" or "civilise" the elephant? Was it to swing with the fantasies of the child? Or was it to push the imaginative boundaries of today's child who spends most of his time in front of the television? Lonely children have imaginary friends. To get my nephew to instantly fall in love with the characters of the story, I created a boy who was a combination of him and my son, the older cousin he looks upto and a talking elephant who became a sort of companion for him beyond the story. As you put it, I knew I could get him to stretch the boundaries of his imagination if I filled it with enough commonplace happenings. It was his faith in Alise's existence that prompted me to take it beyond that first episode.And finally, elephants, scientifically proven, have an intelligence quotient which is almost on par with humans. If they were to speak their thoughts about how they are treated and what they see, what would they say? My sense of fun wanted me to give them a voice. Do you think there is a serious lack of literature for children? Both Kannada (probably most regional languages) and English have had traditions of publications that were so vital in shaping a child's perception. They seem to have disappeared.True. It is sad that marketing techniques and advertising space shape what readers ought to read. It's not just children's pages but fiction and poetry and long essay journalism that seem to have been ousted out.In terms of what there is for children to read, I think regional publications seem to allot a little more space for children and there are many more books for children published in regional languages than there is in English and at very affordable prices. However, they seem to be all for children below nine and there is very little available for pre teens and early teens.Even as the setting is clearly urban, middle-class, and contemporary, why do we so easily slip into stereotypes? For instance, the bit when father goes behind his newspaper and mother is off to badger the maid Rukmini? Also the lemonade episode... I think stereotypes emerge from actual experiences, and experiences that repeat themselves again and again. Countless children anywhere in India or perhaps countries where household help are available will readily understand both the episodes. One is a traditional norm: Mothers/women deal with household help unless it is a driver. Fathers don't get too involved with affairs of the house or maids. And as all working women who depend on housemaids to run their homes in their absentia will tell you they feel the need to control not just the spending pattern in the home but also the housekeeping methods. So from monitoring the sugar level in the jar to soap powder used, almost all of them feel the need to monitor the role of another woman who is taking charge of what they feel is perhaps their domain.The assumption is children don't see any of these. But they very well do and draw their own inferences. And someone as exceptionally astute as Siddharth would comment on this. He is someone who scoffs at adult foibles and can see through adult posturing.For a woman writer of your generation, - a generation that can take many things for granted - what do the struggles of women who paved the way mean to you? What are the compulsions of a woman writing now? Does the "guarded tongue" factor still work in subtle ways?If the writers came before had to fight for a place in the literary establishment, women writers now have to work very hard to be taken seriously. Writing by a woman is considered perhaps not that important enough or expansive or deep enough as compared to male writing. It is a bane women writers have to live with. Worse, the literary world very often dismisses women writers as inconsequential if their works appealed more to women than men. I can't speak for others but the guarded tongue factor does still exist and not just in subtle ways. Since my books do question some societal norms, this always comes up for discussion... and speculation. DEEPA GANESH




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