Society

Zai Whitaker and the art of writing

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.

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Printable version | Nov 30, 2020 8:26:54 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/metroplus/society/zai-whitaker-and-the-art-of-writing/article7530071.ece

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