Coimbatore

‘Writing is like an itch that I have to scratch’

All in the family Arefa Tehsin  

Ask Arefa Tehsin what led her to write for children and the reply is a humorous “Some people I am close to declare that I never grew up! Writing for kids was a natural consequence.”

Tehsin has eight books to her credit, all of which have something to do with Nature, the environment and conservation. This, she says, has something to do with the fact that she “was born into a family of nature lovers. While my grandfather was one of the earliest big game hunters-turned-conservationists of India, my father has been a wildlife conservation crusader of sorts.”

Childhood experiences

As a child, she was introduced to bears, crocodiles, leopards and pythons and explored unknown forest caves. “One of my childhood memories is getting up one morning in the jungles of Kumbhalgarh and finding fresh pug marks of a panther that had passed between our cots at night. He must have come to the waterhole near which we were sleeping and decided it was best not to disturb our sleep.”

All these experiences, she says, ensured that wild animals became an extended family, “though we would not sit down and have a meal together.” As a result, when she started writing, she wasn’t stumped for ideas. “If you have so many colourful characters with the most quirky habits in the family, you don’t need to look far.”

But that doesn’t stop her from doing her research. She reads from “credible” sources like the National Geographic, WWF and IUCN, refers to books written by early naturalists and hunters from her father’s library and discusses animal habits and behaviour with her father.

The Globetrotters by Arefa Tehsin

The Globetrotters by Arefa Tehsin  

Her latest book The Globetrotters (Puffin) is a fun read about two bullies who have to undergo many transformations and travel for miles before they figure out that they were doing something wrong. The adventures of Hudhud and Kilkila also offer several lessons in geography and natural history.

Tehsin says the idea came out of a discussion on migratory animals. “Considering the distances they travelled on legs and wings and fins, it seemed most pretentious to call human travellers globetrotters. When I flirted a little more with the idea, it resulted in the adventures of Hudhud.”

Which brings me to the names: Hudhud is Hindi for a hoopoe while Kilkila is the kingfisher. The latter caught her fancy, she says, but “I always knew Hudhud as a regular visitor in our garden when I grew up. And now this bird is a rare sight. I think I just dug Hudhud out of my mind subconsciously to hear the music of the word again.”

Born storyteller

The element of fantasy in the book comes from “being a story-spinner since childhood who loved to live in fantastical worlds. I grew up telling tales…to my friends about the magical pencil box and the teacher’s eyebrows that changed colours at night.”

Another favourite story was of the alien Jack who lived as a beetle in the roots of a banyan tree. Along with her cousin Saadat, Tehsin would sell old bottles to help Jack on his way back home. “I wonder if Saadat, who flies transatlantic flights now, has visions of Jack’s spaceship up there sometimes,” she muses.

The book also references the rampant destruction of nature through pollution and destruction of habitats: a sea serpent who gets all the animals together to battle the plastic menace; the caribou leader who is grumpy about the melting permafrost...

Tehsin recalls an encounter with an elephant in Sri Lanka. “A disturbed female charged us when another jeep recklessly approached her too close. Our jeep had to go inside the tall grass, in front of the trumpeting elephant, to take a turn! John Muir once said that the clearest way into the universe is through a forest wilderness. In those brief breathless moments, we did see our way clear…right up to the heavens.”

This, she says was a reminder of our helplessness in the face of nature’s might. “We may think that we are protecting nature, but it is nature that is protecting us. For how long? Well, that remains to be seen, given our track record.”

Transformations

In the book, Hudhud and Kilkila turn into various creatures: a blue whale, painted lady butterfly, leatherback turtle, caribou, and Arctic tern. “I researched a little about the greatest migratory animals of the world and selected a bird, a marine mammal, a land animal, a fish and an amphibian from the lot,” says Tehsin of her selection.

Favourites

Fiction: Anna Karenina, David Copperfield, The Lord of the Rings, The Moonstone and The Sword of Tipu Sultan, which is too eerily real for fiction, are just some of many

Books on Wildlife/Conservation: The Book of Great Jungles by Ivan Sanderson; Man-Eating Leopard of Rudraprayag by Jim Corbett; Encyclopaedia of Vanished Species by David Day

Authors: Khalil Gibran, Leo Tolstoy, Robert Galbraith, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and George RR Martin among others

Films: So many! Off hand Life is Beautiful for its beauty, To Kill a Mockingbird for its grit and heart, The Shawshank Redemption for its never-say-die spirit, and Children of Heaven for its guilelessness and simple charm


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