The little girl who saved the planet

Manjula Padmanabhan’s latest book, Shrinking Vanita, features a ‘different’ kind of superhero

August 14, 2018 05:56 pm | Updated 06:02 pm IST

Illustration in Manjula Padmanabhan's 'Shrinking Vanita'

Illustration in Manjula Padmanabhan's 'Shrinking Vanita'

“An octopus has no interest in eating you,” Manjula Padmanabhan told the children seated before her, in all seriousness. Her audience replied with equal enthusiasm, and a lively discussion ensued, covering everything from the glow of a firefly to the fragility of a Venus flytrap.

This was well over an hour into Padmanabhan’s book launch and reading at Tulika Publishers’ book store in Alwarpet. The focus had shifted from the title in question. The original star of the event had been her latest children’s fiction book, Shrinking Vanita , launched over the weekend.

The protagonist is a 10-year-old who saves the world. As the title suggests, Vanita has the ability to shrink: a phenomenon that worries her parents, baffles doctors, and makes the child ‘different’ than most. Vanita herself is the only one who doesn’t see it as a negative, and eventually turns it into her anti-apocalyptic superpower.

The concept of children embracing what makes them different is a recurring one in Padmanabhan’s books. It is a struggle she identifies with, having grown up in the US before her family moved to India. “All through my childhood, I was used to being the — or one of the —‘foreigners’ in the group,” she explained in a tête-à-tête after the launch, “It is something you grow up with. And by the time you come back to what is supposed to be your country of origin, you are termed as ‘different’ here, too.”

With Shrinking Vanita , Padmanabhan takes the idea of being different a step further. She plans to do this in future books as well: this is the first of a series on children saving the world despite — or because of — a disability.

Having said that, she clarified that her characters won’t have existing disabilities, but science-fiction ones, like Vanita’s trigger-based shrinking.

“Because I write science fiction, it makes sense for me to write something completely out of the ordinary,” she said, “My idea is writing a book with a positive message about how someone overcame a peculiar disability.”

The message, though not a result of deliberate design, does form an important part of her writing. “I cannot say forcefully enough that I am very conscious of this. That’s the pleasure of writing for children: making it naturally enriching. There are a lot of inspiring messages in the world. Communicating them to a child is my particular challenge.”

This, despite the novelist, playwright and cartoonist’s declaration that children’s writing is not her preferred medium. “It’s something I do as a kind of relaxation; for pleasure,” stated Padmanabhan.

A similar dichotomy could be seen in her interaction with her little readers as well. The author said that she “almost never” gets to meet her readers and hold such readings, adding, “I am very solitary in the way I work. This happens long after my process is done. The process of writing is so removed from the readers, that their reaction to the work doesn’t really affect me much.”

And yet, not long ago, she had read, heard and discussed, in length, the fascinating world of the night with a bunch of excited toddlers, each with a copy of her Mama, what is the night? in her hand. “I would have done it with any other book, by any other author,” she said with a shrug and a smile.

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