Natasha Sharma, the author of Ashoka and the Muddled Messages and Akbar and the Tricky Traitor, the first two books in the History-Mystery series, is interviewed by Devika Cariapa, historian and writer.
DC: Natasha, your History-Mystery series is off to a rollicking start with Akbar and the Tricky Traitor and Ashoka and the Muddled Messages. You have a maths degree and an MBA, so where did stories for children pop up from? Were these History-Mysteries rattling around in your head as you dealt firmly with Calculus?
NS: The thing is … that I’ve always been a bit muddled about what I’ve wanted to do with myself. I would figure it out for a bit and then poof! All plans would change. Through college, my head was firmly full of theorems. I was convinced I’d go on to do my masters in computers. Poof! I did an MBA. I was convinced I’d be a part of the corporate world forever as I worked to market watches, coffee and pizzas … and then poof! I began writing. I had taken a break from the corporate world and decided not to go back to it.
This was at the time that I had my first child. I was thrilled that I could get a dog, for there would be additional help for the newborn. (I was thrilled about the newborn as well.) The same someone could help babysit the puppy along with the kid. I was obviously a first-time mother. I have no idea why I just told you about the dog plan, but the kid (and then another), led to shelves full of children’s books that led me back into the magical world that I had existed in, growing up. Stories began rattling around in my head and after a bit of struggle, found their way into books. The dog, by the way, still hasn’t appeared since the help keeps disappearing. I have written a book about a boy and his dog, though – Bonkers!
The first History Mystery grew out of a prop – a sock – at a Duckbill writing workshop. Socks and stuff related to it – feet, footsteps are integral to Akbar and the Tricky Traitor. From there on, the mysteries set in history continue to grow. Each time I get stuck, I go rummaging around in my cupboard in the hope of finding inspiration amidst my shirts and jeans, since socks have fulfilled their task.
DC: What kind of research did you have to do for each story? Did you spend hours poring over heavy books with tiny print? Or did you merely shake the information out of the nearest History Professor……a bit like the Tremendous Ten from Ashoka and the Muddled Messages may have done?
NS: Now that’s a thought! Since you are an archaeologist, I know whom to shake when I can’t dig out information. It hasn’t been as easy as that though. I’ve read through most of the Ain-e-Akbari and large chunks of the Arthashastra – all heavy books with tiny print. I’ve also read many other books on Indian history, on different eras and emperors to come up with stuff for the stories. The Internet is a great resource as well. It is all tremendously interesting, though my eyes now are big and puffy and popping out, rather like those of a Pekingese (a breed of dog – for all you non-dog lovers).
DC: How difficult was it to take all that serious stuff and turn it into hilarious stories?
NS: The rulers and their times lend themselves tremendously well to all manner of madness. Coloured beards as fashion, watching spiders fight, over fifteen steps in preparing Akbar’s food with utmost secrecy and many rounds of checks and royal seals before it would make its way to him… I honestly never knew history could be so much fun till I started researching.
I was clear that the stories needed to be funny and the facts had to blend in seamlessly for history to be fun for a child as young as eight years.
DC: Both books are packed with interesting and fun bits. Did you reluctantly leave out any particularly juicy bits from your research that you can share with us?
NS: A lot! There was this detail of Akbar’s set up for an encampment when he went on a journey. I couldn’t build in all the detail, but it was quite mind-boggling. According to the details in the Ain-e-Akbari, they required for the carriage of material to set up the encampment, “100 elephants, 500 camels, 400 carts, and 100 bearers. It is escorted by 500 troopers, Mansabdárs,* Ahadís. Besides, there are employed a thousand Farráshes, natives of I´rán, Túrán, and Hindustan, 500 pioneers, 100 water-carriers, 50 carpenters, tent-makers, and torch-bearers, 30 workers in leather, and 150 sweepers.”
DC: And did you find anything unexpected in the facts that you unearthed about each period? Like Ashoka’s all-female bodyguard for instance?
NS: Probably the most unexpected thing for me was learning that we had lost all trace of there ever being an emperor named Ashoka for almost two thousand years. That his inscriptions on pillars and rocks across our country were undecipherable, for no one knew how to read what is now called Ashokan Brahmi, India’s earliest written script to have been decoded in 1836. With all other records either burnt or lost, there was no way of knowing about Ashoka. Today, we have his chakra on our flag and his four lions as India’s emblem. I wonder why these facts are not presented to children in schools. Make it exciting, turn it into a fact-finding, code-cracking mission – as James Prinsep had done in 1836 and history would truly be exciting.
DC: What’s a normal writing day for you like? Have you ever been tempted to do a little time travelling….perhaps to the time that you’re writing about?
NS: There is nothing normal about my writing day! Between packing kids off to school, attempting to exercise, having my doorbell ring incessantly, the phone intermittently, attempting to avoid surfing the net for unnecessary stuff as I surf it for research, not facing facebook, trying hard to keep my blog alive, kids project work, music practice and trying to make the basil grow in my little flower pot on my little balcony … writing squeezes in somewhere and keeps me sane. I go through phases of focused writing every single day when I am in the midst of a story – even if it is for a few hours, spread out over the entire day. It all builds up to something.
Time traveling … I don’t know whether I could deal with the skimpy clothing from the Mauryan age, or with eating peacocks and hedgehogs for that matter, but I’d certainly like a peek!
DC: Evil rumours are afloat that children these days don’t like History. Any words of wisdom to all these rumoured History-hating kids out there?
NS: I come from a history-hating childhood myself, so these words of wisdom are for parents and educators! Over the years, I discovered what I was missing out on for history is immensely fascinating and exciting. Dry school textbooks full of dates to learn and a few dull facts aren’t going to make them enjoy history! Take them to historical monuments in your city and when you travel. Get a guide to tell you the story behind a place. Discover with them the interconnectedness of empires. Get them books that will have them think of history as fun and exciting. Get them History Mysteries!
DC: What sort of children’s books would you like to see more of in our bookshops?
NS: All kinds. The important thing is variety and quality content. There is such wonderful content being created in children’s literature by many Indian publishers. I wish that bookstores would stock them better and give them pride of place. It is still hard to reach parents and children to have them know about the books, especially when they are often not on shelves. There are some stores that are very supportive and keep a well thought out range of both Indian and international titles. Alongside, children’s literature events and festivals are gaining a huge following, so there is much hope ahead.
DC: Are your lips sealed or can you give us a sneak peek into what’s next in the History-Mystery series?
NS: The next one is set in the Chola empire with the spotlight on Raja Raja Chola (who can resist a name like that in the title of a book). It focuses on the trade between the Chola empire and the Song dynasty in China. All is not well for sacks of stuff being sent to China are getting swapped with worthless goods, somewhere and by someone. There is a super sleuth called Only One on the job even as pirates are about with a captain called Kalapathy Arrghety from the pirate ship of Arrggh!