‘Research is my superpower’: An interview with Roopa Pai

Explore without biases Roopa Pai says any subject will be fascinating with that approach   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

The next time someone pooh-poohs the idea of studying history, I am going to wave Roopa Pai’s From Leeches to Slug Glue: 25 explosive ideas that made (and are making) modern medicine (Puffin Books). For what is it if not a fun journey into the history of medicine? Beginning with the introduction titled ‘I don’t want to be a doctor. Why should I read this book?’, Roopa takes her reader through how the ancients — Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, Indians — looked at medicine and surgery. What was Ayurveda all about or Traditional Chinese Medicine? How did the microscope evolve? All this and more served up in easy-to-understand humorous prose.

Roopa says her core stimulus when writing for children is not just to introduce them to new ideas “but also, more importantly, to new ways of thinking about existing ideas.” Her earlier books on science was about challenging the popular notion that science is difficult and economics boring (They are both fun!).” The Gita and the Upanishads “have cool tips for living a happy life ... and ... are super relevant even to 21st century children.” This latest one, she says, is to challenge the current view that “all doctors are corrupt, selfish extortionists with their eye firmly on the money — most are in fact supremely dedicated professionals who work themselves to the bone trying to make you better — and that western medicine is a scam.”

From Leeches to Slug Glue: 25 explosive ideas that made (and are making) modern medicine

From Leeches to Slug Glue: 25 explosive ideas that made (and are making) modern medicine   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

The Write Way
  • When: I don’t wait for the Muse to visit. I’m at my desk from 9.00 am to 3.00 pm when I’m working on a book.
  • Where: At my desk, working on my desktop.
  • How: I don’t own a laptop so when I’m not in my room, I’m not writing, period.
  • What: A cup of steaming ginger chai, and a bowl of mixture/murukku/masala chips/ peanuts (Please do NOT try this at home, kids. Eat your fruits and veggies!)

Research is Roopa’s favourite part of writing. “In the past some years, I’ve seldom read anything that is not related to the book I’m researching for at that time.” She begins with books and moves on to looking up specific topics through podcasts or videos by which time she has a fair idea about how the book will be structured and has even narrowed down the subject matter. “Then I actually begin to write, and all the supplementary research (to doubts that crop up) happens in parallel with the writing.”

The specific problem with this book was “I had come up with the number ‘25’ (as the number of ideas the book would explore) quite randomly.” She dithered between whether it was too much (each idea seemed to take 3000+ words to explain properly) or too little (there were so many wonderful stories in there, waiting to be told). Finally she doubled her word count “collapsing many ideas into one when I couldn’t bear to let go of them, and trying to have a good representation of ideas through the ages, ideas from different geographies, breakthrough discoveries, interesting stories, women pioneers, Indian ideas on healing, and so on.”

Roopa was well known for her sci-fi Taranauts series before she moved to non-fiction for kids. She was fictioned out,” she explains, after eight books in four years. But the move to non-fiction wasn’t really a “conscious shift. Research is my selfish indulgence, and my superpower. I love the challenge of demystifying a difficult topic for kids (and for myself!) and turning what are considered dreary subjects into engaging, fun, conversations.” What she hopes her readers will take away is that any subject can be endlessly fascinating if you explore it without biases.” And she would like this thought to apply to approaching human beings too — “with open minds, without preconceived notions, and with the confidence that each of them will reveal themselves to be wonderful, if they (the readers) only engage respectfully with them.”

She thinks “it’s great and very necessary” that there’s more non-fiction for children now. “It also has the advantage of being popular with parents,” she adds, “who love information, believe it is important and valuable and are willing to spend on such books.”

Finally when I ask what her favourite book is, she says it’s too hard to pick just one and names Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird, Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie and Amitav Ghosh’s The Shadow Lines. She’s just finished Alex Michaelides’ disturbing psychological thriller The Silent Patient and is “all ready to plunge into An Orchestra Of Minorities by Chigozie Obioma, which has been shortlisted for the Booker this year.”

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Printable version | Apr 21, 2021 9:09:37 AM |

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