Zai Whitaker on ‘Zyrus the Virus’, her latest e-book on the pandemic

Writer and naturalist Zai Whitaker on her latest e-book Zyrus the Virus, and thinking up various virus-related words during lockdown

July 01, 2020 04:48 pm | Updated July 02, 2020 05:42 pm IST

Zai Whitaker

Zai Whitaker

Far, far away, in a capsule (read: country) of the Virule viruses, Zyrus skipped and tumbled into a meeting of the Virule Congress. She was late; she overslept, you see.

Naturalist and writer Zai Whitaker’s engaging e-book for Tulika, Zyrus the Virus, was recently launched online. It features a helpful glossary for technical terms such as ‘Dearth’ for Earth and ‘swosh’, meaning a virus flight to Dearth to spread disease.

In her sci-fi take on COVID-19, Zai, who is the managing trustee of the Madras Crocodile Bank Trust, also talks about important environmental issues that have to be addressed now more than ever.

There have been so many children’s books on the pandemic: how did you approach the subject?

Well, the pandemic is a story at so many levels and with so many angles… social, political, environmental, psychological and many more. It’s also an adventure story like no other, and we have yet to see the ending. So I approached it like the ultimate human adventure; which it is, of course.

You have created an engaging world, encapsulating an important message. Was it challenging to entertain and educate at the same time?

Yes, this is always a challenge for a writer; you have to straddle that fine line between those two elements. One wobble, on either side, can mess up the whole thing.

I remember begging my mother before my birthday, “Please, no educational books please!” This is always at the back of my mind when I write. The story should be at the centre, and it should be a good one, worth reading for its own sake.

Is this your first attempt at sci-fi? Are you a fan of the genre yourself?

I love Jules Verne and Margaret Atwood. And of course, we’re living science fiction today; things that were fiction a few years ago are happening now. I can see Gilead just round the corner!

I didn’t realise I’d written “science fiction” until someone mentioned it the other day, I thought I was just writing a story. But yes, certainly my first attempt and I do hope there isn’t another pandemic in my lifetime and I won’t be writing another one.

Could you share a line or two on the importance of taking care of our planet, the message that forms the crux of your book?

In my mind, this is surely the biggest challenge humanity has faced and unless all of us — politicians and citizens alike — work together to resolve today’s burning environmental issues, these climate change-related catastrophes will continue and worsen.

Did writing this book help you deal with lockdown blues?

Of course, reading and watching news about the human misery in our country and indeed across the world is terrible, but the least one can do is bear witness. The lockdown has brought out the best and the worst in humanity. We have people like Vikas Khanna feeding millions of people; we have others cheating the poorest of the poor, as happened recently in the Irula village of Selayur.

At a personal level: I am a part of the Croc Bank team, which is engaged in keeping the zoo going in spite of having no visitors and income. Our focus is the animals and their welfare. This helps take care of the ‘blues’ and keeps self-pity at bay (most of the time).

Writing this book was a great ‘time pass’. It was certainly different from any of my earlier writing experiences. I really enjoyed thinking up vyrious virus-related words!

How do you feel about this ‘new normal’ in which book launches are held online?

I’m trying to get better at the online stuff, because there’s no doubt that even when ‘normal’ returns, social and work routines are going to be very different. They have to be, they better be.

Still find myself hitting the wrong key and disappearing from Zoom chats, or waving to strangers at video meetings, but there are plenty of smart young people here at the Croc Bank who manage to rescue me most of the time.

The online book launch was great, except that one of the smart young people who was helping me, loudly announced that I’d gone to the washroom and would be back soon. He’ll be hearing about this!

How do you envision a world post pandemic?

In my most pessimistic moments, I envision it being what it was before the pandemic. In my most optimistic moments, I envision it being very, very different.

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