Interview | Authors

Change in perception has to begin with children: Anita Nair

NEW DELHI, 06/05/2017: Anita Nair seen during an interview at Hauz Khas, in New Delhi on Saturday. Photo: Sushil Kumar Verma   | Photo Credit: Sushil Kumar Verma

Always sensitive, always contemporary, Anita Nair takes a break from big ticket issues such as female foeticide, child trafficking and war, to pen “Muezza and Baby Jaan” (Puffin Books), a children’s book based on Islamic lore which the prolific author hopes will make children perceive Islam in a different light than the one which is prevailing at present.

Excerpts:

How did “Muezza and Baby Jaan” come into being?

While working on the historical novel “Idris: Keeper of the Light” whose principal character and protagonist was from Somalia, I studied Quran and tried to understand its lessons and associated fables. During that time in 2013 there was this shooting incident in Nairobi in Westgate in which the terrorists segregated Muslims from non-Muslims by asking the name of Prophet’s mother. That to me was a horrible situation as I too like many others did not know the answer. People including children know names of Ravan’s brothers or that Mary is mother of Jesus but not who was Prophet’s mother. This is a strange lacuna because ideally when we have fleeting knowledge about different religions why is that we do not know anything about Islam. So I have tried to fill that space with information through Islamic lore — stories culled from the Quran and the Hadith for children. Perception change has to begin with children.

What made you use the cat and djinn as the main characters

I am fond of cats and have many at home. Through observation I had ready material about them — their personalities, quirks and mannerism. During my research I found that Prophet was very fond of cats and his favourite was Muezza whom he took everywhere. So I thought I will use the cat as narrator who’ll render a straight narration based on hearsay which matched my understanding of the religious text. I believe in serendipity. During reading, I found out about djinns and their multiple classification. One of which are shape shifters who are called jaans. I loved that name – it is a very Urdu word. So I decided on a djinn as a baby camel and named her Baby Jaan. The cat narrates the tales to the baby camel.

Tell us about the stories in the book and their basic source

In all there are 28 stories. So a Muslim family can read one for each day of Ramzan. Each is based on a story from Quran and Hadith while the adventure tales in them have been made up by me. The basic sources are “Stories of the Prophets” and “Stories of the Quran” by Ibn Kathir and “The Meaning of the Glorious Quran” by Marmaduke Pickthall. I also dug into other sources like Internet. It is retelling with some embellishments in terms of creating characters and dialogues though the essence of all the stories remain intact.

What was the reason behind using illustrations

To make it appealing. If the book just had text, it would weigh the children down. Though not a religious book but one based on stories from Quran and those embedded in the Islamic lore, it has no image of God or Prophet. Most stories are woven around animals so I brought in the animal elements. With cat and baby camel as the main characters, we could depict them. The pictures have brought the book to life.

How did the process of illustration take place?

I was very definite about the kind of cat I wanted in terms of looks, like its one eye should be slightly larger than the other. And the camel had to be sweet, young and innocent looking while the cat slightly more world weary looking.

For each story I identified certain key parts. Harshad Marathe, the illustrator chose from them to make illustrations. Like on meeting the cat, the djinn takes the form of a fountain. We have all seen how a cat recoils when splashed with water. This I thought would be funny and connect instantly with children. Likewise, when the cat and camel discuss stories at night I suggested a giant night sky. For the story on flooding we thought a boat with different animals would look fetching. The illustrations and story were laid simultaneously to ensure that both synchronised and there is no mismatch.

What were the challenges while penning the book

I did not want the weight of the story to weigh down the book so I had to make the tales light and easy but at the same time not childlike and babyish. I had to keep in mind the cultural specifics and taboos of the region, so my characters eat dates. Likewise in one instance, I used grape juice and not wine as I cannot do that.

How do you change gears with genres?

In the adult fiction I write, I look at the world in a very unflinching way. I enter into territories which are not happy places. It can be female foeticide, artistic success or child trafficking or war, the realities of life but very brutal. Every time I enter that dark space, to redeem my sense of hope and faith in humanity I have to write a children’s book that allows me shrug that bleakness and write something light and effervescent. That is why I keep shifting gears.

Which genre is the toughest to write?

Undoubtedly, children’s fiction. One I have to be conscious of what I am writing to make sure that I do not pass any of my prejudices and biases into the writing. Secondly, I need to ensure that I am not talking down to the child. It has to be pitched perfectly in a way that the child sees me as a friend rather than as a adult.

When writing adult fiction I do not even think about my readers. They cease to exist because I am my first reader.

Has writing this book changed you?

Yes, it has. My understanding of the religion is much more than before I began writing it. ‘Muezza and Baby Jaan’ has made me realise how religion is actually a bedlam of misinterpretations. A religious text in its original form never says go and kill this or that person. It is just the interpretation and how interpretation is always coloured by human misinterpretations. To further selfish interests, it is misconstrued and manipulated in such a way that things can appear very awry.

What is in the pipeline?

I am working on screenplay for a film set in Malaysia and then there will be more children books and adult fiction.


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