The number one issue: An interview with author Neha Singh

Neha Singh’s protagonist Rahi is unabashedly vocal about her need to use the toilet, so what if it is inconvenient to others?

May 29, 2018 03:07 pm | Updated 03:07 pm IST

Writing about everyday stuff Neha Singh

Writing about everyday stuff Neha Singh

“Ooh look at how she’s standing?” laughed my colleague when she saw the cover of Neha Singh’s I Need To Pee . Most women, no matter what their age, will be familiar with that crossed-leg stance that signifies a bladder at bursting point.

I Need To Pee Neha Singh Puffin

I Need To Pee Neha Singh Puffin

“This particular book is inspired by my own experience of a 17-hour bus ride from Bhopal to Mumbai, which led to some pretty harrowing and, in hindsight, funny experiences regarding my own toilet needs,” says Singh. “I thought to myself: ‘if I, a confident adult, can feel this vulnerable; how must it be for a little girl?’ That’s when I wrote the book, not just as a story, but also as a tool that little boys and girls can use, as an ally or a voice.” It helped that Singh liked to “write stories about real, everyday, seemingly mundane themes for children, turning the mundane on its head and bringing out the humour in ordinary situations.”

The story is centred around Rahi, a sassy perky young girl who is unapologetic and unashamed about her need to use the toilet. With Rahi as her protagonist, Singh shows us the abysmal state of public toilets where they are available like in malls and on trains or their lack otherwise. And she gets a dig in at how fancy hotels do not allow the public to use their toilets. “I think we need to stop shaming children and young adults for their toilet needs — whether at home, in school, in communities in general — just because our public toilet situation is so bleak. It is not their fault. The government needs to be made accountable for the lack of clean and safe public toilets,” she says.

The book was conceived of as a picture book and the artists she collaborated with —Meenal Singh and Erik Egerup — are her sister and brother-in-law. “When I shared the story with them, they were very excited,” she says.

Drink up

Drink up

A page from the book

A page from the book

Much of the book’s charm is the text and the way it is laid out. Take this for example, “Every parent is worried about this problem. But in my case the situation is worse, Mummy says. You see, I love to drink water and coconut water and juices … pomegranate, orange, watermelon, grape... you name it.” The drinks named are laid out in waves ending with an illustration of a slice of mausambi with juice oozing out.

When I ask Singh about how she arrived at the final text, she says the editors at Puffin helped fine tune the story. Her usual modus operandi is to “stew the story in my head for weeks before I finally spill it all out on paper. Then I don’t look at it for another fortnight, and revisit it only when I have detached myself a bit from my own writing.”

Her next book is for Pratham “about a girl who jumbles up her speech just before going on stage.” She also has another picture book in the works about a young girl, but set in Kashmir this time. Singh believes that “any topic can be made into a fun book using a bit of humour, irony and imagination. The simpler the story, the more you can play with it.” She feels the content of children’s writing in India is on a par with international publishing and thrilled that “Indian children are finally able to read books that are close to their own contexts and lives.”

Her last word about her own writing is that she “likes to write about little girls; usually my protagonists are little girls who are quirky, brave and funny. I like to think they are like me.”

Write side

I usually pick themes that are based in everyday life and experiences. I work with children, so a lot of ideas come from there.

I usually think about a story for a long time and then write it all at once. I have no discipline when it comes to writing everyday.

Sometimes I dig into my own childhood for stories. I like to keep the language very simple, phonetically rich and only use words that Indians use on a daily basis.

A few favourites

Books: too many

Children’s Books: Ek chhuppi jagah by Vinod Kumar Shukla; Timmy in Tangles by Shals Mahajan; Gone Grandmother by Chatura Rao; Princess Easy Pleasy by Natasha Sharma; Dakghar by Rabindranath Tagore

Authors: Rabindranath Tagore, Vijaydaan Detha, RK Narayan, Haruki Murakami, Franz Kafka, Chimamanda Ngoze, Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Movies based on books: Boy in Striped Pajamas, The Guide, Gone With The Wind, Pather Panchali

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