Zai Whitaker and the art of writing

Zai Whitaker on her work and latest book, Kanna Panna

August 12, 2015 03:28 pm | Updated March 29, 2016 02:48 pm IST

CHENNAI / TAMILNADU, 11.08.2015:FOR METRO PLUS:- Zai Whitaker, Writer " Kanna Panna" during an interview with The Hindu Metro Plus in Chennai on Tuesday. Photo. M. Moorthy

CHENNAI / TAMILNADU, 11.08.2015:FOR METRO PLUS:- Zai Whitaker, Writer " Kanna Panna" during an interview with The Hindu Metro Plus in Chennai on Tuesday. Photo. M. Moorthy

Zai Whitaker’s earliest memories of writing are from when she was about 10 years old. “I wrote some ghastly stories when I was a child. There was one about a rabbit called Goomag Spindle, for which I also did the illustrations, which were equally horrible,” laughs the writer. However, her proud mother, Laeeq Futehally, an author herself, thought it was wonderful and promptly sent it to the National Book Trust for publication. “Of course, back it came, with a letter of apology. I saw the story recently; it is full of inverted letters and misspelled words,” chuckles Zai, who, since then, has penned many children’s books like  Cobra In My KitchenAndamans Boy  and Kali And The Rat Snake , including a collection of poems called  Boastful Centipede And Other Creatures In Verse,  among others.  

“I grew up in a family of naturalists and I’m very interested in natural history and animals,” says Zai, the daughter of conservationist Zafar Rashid Futehally, who was Honorary Secretary of the Bombay Natural History Society, and grand niece of ornithologist Dr. Salim Ali, who was referred to as the ‘bird man of India’. She was married to Romulus Whitaker with whom she co-founded the Madras Snake Park and the Madras Crocodile Bank, where she now lives.  Her comfort zone, she says, is in writing for children, and chuckles, “I enjoy talking to kids; it is more worthwhile than talking to adults.” And her stories for them are drawn from her topics of interest such as snake charmers of the Irula community, natural history and conservation. 

But her latest book,  Kanna Panna , deals with a hitherto unexplored topic: disability. Why? “The simple answer is that I did not dare say no to Radhika Menon of Tulika,” laughs Zai, and adds, pensively, “A lot of what I’ve written is because someone has asked me for a story.” Also, as a teacher at Kodai International School for 18 years, she has come across children with disability and their social interactions intrigued her. So, although initially hesitant, Zai decided to pen the story of visually-challenged Kanna, who hardly vocalises the many thoughts that riddle his head. One day, while he is at the cave temples with his aunt’s family, the lights go off and the place is plunged into darkness. Everyone is scared, except, of course, Kanna. As he finds the way for his family, he also finds his strength, and in the process, his voice.

0 / 0
Sign in to unlock member-only benefits!
  • Access 10 free stories every month
  • Save stories to read later
  • Access to comment on every story
  • Sign-up/manage your newsletter subscriptions with a single click
  • Get notified by email for early access to discounts & offers on our products
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.