In The Tamarind Tree and The Spider’s Web, Lata Mani writes about life’s simple joys
As an academic, Lata Mani used the past to understand the present — she taught History and Women’s Studies at the University of California in Davis. But a head injury taught her to focus on the fragile present, spirituality and Nature. She was also a poet and author, but the last thing she expected to do was write for children.
“I did not read much as a child. My stories were oral. I imagined telling a story, not writing it,” says the soft-spoken Lata.
One for the nephew
All that changed when her nephew Gautam asked her to write a story for him. “When you promise a child something, you have to fulfil it. I bravely ventured into new territory, and enjoyed doing it. That’s because I love children’s books. Take A.A. Milne’s “Winnie the Pooh”.
Earnest H. Shepard’s line drawings of Winnie are still alive… and, the discovery of innocent relationships among species (a tiger, donkey, bear, rabbit, kangaroo and elephant are friends). That is so important at a time when the world of Nature is often shown as uncertain and dangerous,” says Lata, whose “The Tamarind Tree” (her gift to Gautam) and “The Spider’s Web” have just been released by Tulika Publishers in English, Hindi and a host of other Indian languages. So, did she follow a plan to capture children’s attention?
“No, but I realised that my nephew and his friends had very little time to do nothing. As a child, I spent a lot of time looking at the clouds, apparently aimlessly. Now, everything is so activity-and plot-driven…movies, television, books. I wanted to give them a chance to make a discovery that was not didactic.”
That is probably why her books are about slice-of-life moments — four boys’ outing under and atop a tamarind tree, a child and his father marvelling at a spider’s web — and blissful languor.
“A lot can happen when apparently nothing is going on,” she says.
Strangely, for someone who so evocatively describes the act of plucking a ripe tamarind and eating it that you whiz past to your childhood on a magical cloud, Lata has never climbed a tamarind tree or tasted its intense sweet-sour fruit.
“I grew up in Bombay,” she laughs. “I now live in Koramangala and saw some boys climbing a tamarind tree. I discovered Nature late in life. But, I have learnt the joys of paying attention to it. And I want kids to enter a world and discover things.”
Such writing has also helped her get over the trauma of her accident and the rage she felt, post the Babri riots that ravaged Bombay. “I led a life dictated by activity. The accident forced me to embrace this possibility … to look at the totality of the picture. Yes, there is rage, violence, injustice, but there are also a million acts of kindness. And, Nature is not at war. Sitting in my balcony, I watch kites hanging in the sky. That’s an inspiration of how one could be. It teaches you to look at your problems in the right proportion.”
Celebrating that optimism are two more stories — about a boy sweeping leaves in the garden, and another about the plight of bees that move to cities following the destruction of their habitat. The latter is drawn from experience — a man spoke to the bees that had made her balcony their home, calmed them and gently moved them elsewhere.
“It was an awesome, moving experience and I wanted to share it,” concludes Lata.
(The books priced at Rs. 100 each are available at Landmark)SUBHA J. RAO