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Arundhati Venkatesh is the author of Petu Pumpkin Tiffin Thief and Petu Pumpkin Tooth Troubles, among other books. She was recently in Pune as part of Bookaroo 2015.

I’m not a butterflies-in-the-tummy kind of person; my stomach is too busy rumbling noisily to do delicate things like fluttering. I realise I’m nervous only when I have trouble sleeping. That’s what happened ahead of Bookaroo ; I found myself tossing and turning in bed. I was pretty cool about the two Petu Pumpkin sessions and the Junior Kumbhakarna (http://www.amazon.in/Junior-Kumbhakarna-Arundhati-Venkatesh/dp/9350464764) one. I’ve done those before and knew I could pull them off even with a crowd of two-hundred energetic kids. The one I was jittery about was my most recent release, Bookasura – The Adventures of Bala and the Book-eating Monster (http://www.amazon.in/Bookasura-Adventures-Bala-Eating-Monster/dp/9351037061). I felt much better after I’d armed myself with a cool mask and fun activities to engage the children. Still, it was my first time participating at a lit fest, and I knew no one. Those were my thoughts when I left for Pune.

It was a short flight–shorter than the drive to the airport from home. We landed twenty minutes ahead of time, but there was a cab driver waiting. I felt sheepish when he scolded me (I swear he did) for not answering his calls, because I’m usually guilty of this. It turned out he’d dialled the wrong number, so for once it wasn’t my fault! We drove through the city and all the shutters were down. Apparently, shops are closed between 1 and 4 in Pune. I asked the driver what I mustn’t miss and his response was ‘Kayani Bakery’. Why do people assume I’m asking about food? Not that I’m complaining!

As I strolled into the hotel lobby, I saw a group perched precariously on the staircase. ‘You’re just in time for the photo shoot,’ I was told, ‘Bring your books.’ I abandoned my bags and scurried up the steps, books in hand. The photographer wanted me to sport a “Kumbhakarna expression”. I was reminded of my wedding reception–that was the last time I’d given a photographer such a bad time (and vice versa).

‘What are you planning to do this evening?’
‘I want to eat vada paav and dabeli.’
‘Me too.’
And just like that, the ice was broken. I found a soul sister in Paarvathi Om, and I say that not just because I could see her mouth watering at the mention of chaat. The others were not too sure about eating street food, but they were happy to cheer us on while we hogged. We sampled the fresh figs and strawberries and headed back to the hotel, where we met again for dinner. Food does bring people together!

By this time, we were all at ease and chatting away. We discovered we had a lot in common. ‘Your phone can’t be cheaper than mine,’ Nandini Nayar challenged. Paarvathi and I had already confessed that we were “bad with our mobile phones”. But Alice Charbin trumped everything with her declaration: she did not have an email account until a few months ago!

The authors and illustrators from overseas had all been to India before:
– French designer and illustrator, Alice Charbin, is in Pondicherry for a year.
– The charming author-illustrator couple from Australia, Frané Lessac and Mark Greenwood, have been to more FabIndia outlets than any of us have. Frané is almost twice as old as me and has double the energy I do!
– Israeli author Yannets Levi knew more about India than the rest of us put together, including where one can get the best lassi in Pushkar! We discussed everything from children’s publishing in our respective countries to religious fanaticism and politics.

Bookaroo was kicked off the next morning. Pandit Farms is a beautiful outdoor venue and the tents made it look festive and carnival-like. Bookasura had a fantastic launch, with hundreds of book-devouring young monsters. I also had a Junior Kumbhakarna session that afternoon with the little ones; we had a blast trying to wake the sleeping giant.

There wasn’t much time to interact with the local speakers, but I did meet Lavanya Karthik, Payal Kapadia, Swati Shome, Vinitha Ramchandani, Prashant Pinge and Ketaki Karnik at the author signing desk. Leela Gour Broome inspired us all with her story of life on a farm–a place she’d built from scratch four decades ago!

Seasoned storyteller Usha Venkataraman and I wanted to shop for Puneri cotton saris. That was our plan for the evening. No one else was interested in buying saris, but everyone wanted to come along and watch us spend money. An hour later, eight of us walked out of the shop with our loot, and Bookaroo 2016 had a potential sponsor–the grinning shop owner who’d had a month’s business in an evening.

Did I mention Surabhi Singh was disgusted with the rest of us for choosing quiet time over dancing? And that Delhi-based illustrator Suvidha Mistry was generous not just with her time and skills, but also with the Shrewsbury cookies fresh from Kayani Bakery. Apart from storytellers Lakshmi Devaraj and Paarvathi Om who’ve known each other for a few months, the rest of us hadn’t met before, but it certainly didn’t seem that way.

The next morning, Alice wanted a 101 on the different styles of stitching Indian clothes. I was treated to real-time illustrations as I described salwars and chudidhars, blouses and petticoats.

Day 2 began with the Petu Pumpkin: Tooth Troubles session. It was a splendid audience and I had great fun. So did the two-hundred enthusiastic kids, I’m told.

After signing books and listening to what the young readers had to say, I had some time to kill. I spent the next hour hopping from one session to another. I thought Yannet’s impersonation of a crow was fabulous. At lunch, when Yannets told me he’d seen me, I thought he’d spotted me in the audience, but it turned out he was appreciating my Petu session!

After the Petu Pumpkin: Tiffin Thief session that afternoon, and the subsequent book signing, Yannets and I were the last to leave the venue. Apart from the organisers, that is: the super-organised ultra-efficient Jo Williams, the ever-smiling Swati Roy and the cool-cat-in-the-hat Venky. I sent up a silent prayer for Bookaroo in more cities, and for many many years.

We’d been so busy having fun and making memories that we’d forgotten to take pictures, but we left with enough warmth and inspiration to last a long time. Thank you, Bookaroo and Pune.

A few hours later, I was stuck at Marathahalli for forty minutes; traffic had piled up because a concrete mixer had toppled over. Yup, I was back in Bangalore.

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