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Retrieving a lost past

BUDHADITYA BHATTACHARYA
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BOOKMARK Australian writer Kirsty Murray talks about her new book, and why writing for children is really about writing for a universal reader

Respecting intelligenceKirsty MurrayPhoto: Rajeev Bhatt
Respecting intelligenceKirsty MurrayPhoto: Rajeev Bhatt

In the relentless march of history, some stories fall by the wayside. But it is important to pick them up, to listen to them, and, if possible, relay them, for they bear within themselves echoes of a past that most people didn’t think existed. Australian writer Kirsty Murray does precisely this in her new book The Liliputians .

The book is concerned with the events in the life of the members of Pollard’s Liliputian Opera Company, a troupe formed in the 1870s in Tasmania, Australia. The troupe, comprising singers, dancers, child comedians and magicians, was quite popular in the Victorian and Edwardian eras, and regularly toured the world, says Kirsty, on the sidelines of the recent Bookaroo festival.

“In 1909, 29 children between the ages of 7 and 17 set sail from Melbourne and travelled through South East Asia before reaching India. After touring several cities, in February 1910 these children reached the end of their tour in Chennai (then Madras),” she adds. Here, the eight boys and 21 girls turned on their manager and set up their own company. They lived in Madras for three and a half months, getting involved with the local community and embroiled in a battle in the Madras high court.

Kirsty stumbled upon this obscure piece of theatre history while researching an earlier novel. After studying the Edwardian theatre scene meticulously and poring over maps to understand the geography of the children’s journey, Kirsty decided she needed to visit India to physically retrace the steps of the children. In February 2007, she visited University of Madras as a literature resident, accessed court records, and got a feel for what it must have been like for the children.

Although Kirsty’s written eight novels for children and teenagers before, including A Prayer for Blue Delaney and Becoming Billy Dare among others, she describes The Liliputians as the “most difficult” so far.

“It was quite a tangled story. In terms of the history, a lot of the children told different versions of what happened which is why I had to decide in the end to tell it in two voices.” Recalling Mark Twain’s saying that truth is stranger than fiction, Kirsty says “It was really hard to work out what was the truth and what was the best way of telling the story.”

Set firmly within the co-ordinates of colonial rule, the book doesn’t shy away from the uncomfortable realities of Empire. As a children’s writer, Kirsty says she tries to walk the fine line between respecting children’s innocence and their intelligence. “They don’t live in a parallel universe. They understand about war, about racism… and if you water down the history and the truth, then you are doing them a great disservice. Children rely on books to give them the world and to give them the truth… I don’t think you should sell them short.” Her guiding light in this regard has been C.S. Lewis who said a bad children’s book is only read by children, whereas a good children’s book speaks to any reader. “That’s what I attempt to do when I write for a young reader. I really want to write for a universal reader.”

BUDHADITYA BHATTACHARYA

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