Arundhati Venkatesh is the author of Petu Pumpkin Tiffin Thief, a hOle book which will be in bookshops shortly. She is interviewed by Sandhya Renukamba, bibliophile and writer.
SR: You are an engineer by profession. How did you become a children’s writer?
AV: It’s all the fault of the monster. My engineering degree, I mean. Every time I managed to get a word out – important sounding words like ‘literature’ or ‘psychology’, mind you – it would spit out, “But you’re good at maths!” or “Everyone breaks five hundred coconuts and climbs five thousand steps to get into this college, you can’t just throw a seat away!”
When I had my engineering degree, it held me by the neck and hissed, ‘It’s a job that pays well, what more do you want?’ I gave in and actually enjoyed it, for a bit.
After two fierce battles, the Battle of Panipuripat and the Battle of Lassiloo, I managed to overpower the monster. I took the plunge and began writing. It was peaceful … for a while.
SR: How did you come up with the idea for this book?
AV: This was just after the Duckbill writing workshop. I was itching to write and bursting with ideas. But the monster was back, and wanted me to write a monster book! So I changed course and made it a school story. There can’t be monsters in schools! Look what happened when Moin took a monster to school. There was no arguing with that logic. It didn’t let me off easily though. “No monsters? Then there must be lots of food in the book.” I gasped and spluttered and finally struck a deal. Monsters, no. Food, yes. That’s how Petu Pumpkin Tiffin Thief came about.
SR: Tell us about the journey about publishing this book with Duckbill.
AV: I wasn’t thinking of getting published at all. Petu Pumpkin and his gang of friends created such a ruckus in my head, I just had to get them out of there. So I wrote, revised, agonised, revised some more. Finally, I mustered the courage to send it to Anushka and Sayoni, hoping for feedback. They wrote saying it would make a lovely book.
I consider myself extremely fortunate to have worked with Anushka and Sayoni. They’re fabulous editors and excellent role models. I thoroughly enjoyed the process and learnt a lot.
SR: The illustrations add to the ‘yumminess’ of the story. How did you coordinate with the illustrator, Shilpa Ranade?
AV: I was blown away by Shilpa Ranade’s work in Gulzar saab’s Ali Baba aur Chaalees Chor. Every single illustration is a masterpiece. I’ve spent hours admiring the artwork. I’m delighted that Shilpa is illustrating the Petu Pumpkin books.
As for coordinating, it is best writers don’t interfere and I hope I didn’t!
SR: Both your books published till now have food as their theme. Why is that?
AV: Err… Are you hinting at something? I assure you it’s the monster that’s obsessed with food, not me. Please see above. Humph.
SR: Petu’s grandmother sounds much like my grandmother – summer holidays would mean yummy eats, every day. Is any character/scene in Petu Pumpkin taken from real life?
AV: All writers put a little of themselves in their books. I don’t think there’s any scene or character in the book that’s lifted straight from real life but a lot of it has been inspired by my growing up years. Climbing trees, playing with worms, forming secret societies, finding hideouts, thinking up passwords, coming up with nicknames … many enriching childhood experiences have found their way into Petu Pumpkin Tiffin Thief.
When it comes to naming characters, I do use friends’ names if it suits the character.
SR: You have a son around Petu Pumpkin’s age. What is his take on both your books?
AV: I heard strange sounds one afternoon and thought we had another monster visitor. Turned out it was my son giggling through the printouts. This went on for weeks and months.
Now he’s excited about the books of course, but like me, he’s more interested in what I’m writing next.
SR: When is this book expected in stores?
AV: Very soon! It will be in bookshops in early May.
SR: Tell us a bit about your first book too – Junior Kumbhakarna with Tulika books.
AV: Junior Kumbhakarna is a picture book for the very young. It is a fun take on an episode from the Ramayana. The illustrations are lovely and are by Shreya Sen, who’s also done a Duckbill hOle book, Timmi in Tangles. The book has been very well-received.
SR: Any words for aspiring, struggling writers?
AV: I don’t know if there’s any writer who isn’t struggling. All writers aspire to get better at their craft, to attempt something they haven’t done before, struggle to shut everything out and write. Published authors are torn between promotions and getting on with their next.
I understand your question though. A great deal has been written and said, all of it is excellent advice. But stories are a lot like babies. Everyone tells you how tough it is; how it is done … you get it only when you go through it yourself.
There are more similarities.
− You carry them around until they are ready to come out.
− Once they decide they’re ready to pop out, there’s no stopping them.
− They need to be nurtured with care; they require more time and patience than you think you are capable of.
− You do your best to mould and shape them, and then when it’s time, you let go.
SR: Lastly, ten of your favourite books from childhood?
AV: Like everyone else in India back then, I grew up on Enid Blyton. I read everything I could lay my hands on … Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys, Amar Chitra Kathas, Tintin comics, the Target magazine … If I had to pick ten:
To Kill a Mockingbird
To Sir, With Love
Swami and Friends
Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass (I sneaked in two there)
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn
The Five Find-outers and dog
I wish I had the books that are available now.