Zainab Sulaiman is the author of Simply Nanju (published April 2016), which gives us a glimpse into the life of the students at United Integrated School, for kids with special needs. She is interviewed by Archit Taneja, author of Case of the Candy Bandits.
AT: The kids in class are busy poking pencils into each other, drooling over Ben 10 bags, dancing to “Why this Kolaveri Di?” and solving classroom crimes. The school activities seemed surprisingly real. How did you manage to do that? Do you have photographic memory of your own childhood? Or were you undercover at a school secretly taking notes?
ZS: The activities were a mixture of some real events, some fiction and a bit of masala.
AT: So, you were partially secretly undercover?
AT: What about the cool lingo the kids used? Did you really come up with “Shutyamouth!” and “Tensioning”? Or did you get it from the kids while you were undercover?
ZS: I wasn’t undercover! But yes, I did get some of the lingo from the kids I worked with at a school. It’s an interesting jumble of their mother tongue and what they learned at school. As teachers, we would try really hard to change this and make them speak “proper English”. However, I’ll admit that I cracked up every time they used them. I secretly wanted them to talk more like that!
AT: In the story, the protagonist Nanju and his best friend Mahesh try to solve the crime of notebooks missing from the bags of the class toppers. Why would anyone steal notebooks, that too from toppers? Doesn’t it make more sense to steal the lunch or a shiny pencil box?
ZS: It’s because I’m a boring person. I couldn’t come up with other cooler stuff. I enjoy books more than most other things. If it were me, I’d probably nick the books too. Besides, the books are an important part in the plot. You’ll need to read the book to find out why.
AT: Nanju and Mahesh aren’t alike at all, but the warmth in their friendship really stands out. Why do you think they are such good friends?
ZS: Nanju and Mahesh are outliers in their own special ways. Mahesh is incredibly smart, but his intelligence is shadowed by his disabilities. Nanju has the biggest heart, but is the classroom clown and the butt of every joke. They are friends because they appreciate each other’s work and value. They see the qualities in each other that others tend to overlook.
AT: Parents these days seem more interested in children’s books than children themselves. They also have more money than kids do. How would you market your book to them?
ZA: I would ideally want every parent to read this book. Disability is looked at with preconceived notions. Parents need to realise how much their children are influenced by them, and how their ideas are passed down. Parents need to lead the way to inclusion. I wouldn’t mind if more parents read this book than children do. The fact that they have more purchasing power doesn’t hurt either!
AT: I’m sold and I’m not even a parent. The story has two teachers. One is old and has been in the school for years, she punishes the kids whenever they are out of line. The other teacher is much younger, she’s way more polite and patient with the kids. Do you think teachers get grumpier with time?
ZS: It would be wrong to generalize such a thing, but I do think there is a bit of truth in that. Teaching kids is a hard job, and the profession isn’t rewarding in this country. No matter how much you care about the cause, if you aren’t appreciated for your work, the pleasure you get out of teaching might diminish. That being said, being grumpy doesn’t necessarily imply being less compassionate. Sometimes, the strictest teachers are the ones who care the most for their students.
AT: The story also had a cool fancy dress competition. I’ve only been to ones where I am either a Robot, Batman or Cinderella. This one had kids dressing up as Provision Store Boy, Bottle Boy, and Grape Boy. What’s up with that?
ZS: It was inspired by a real fancy dress competition. The kids and parents were asked to use what they already had at home to make the costumes. The result was creative, affordable and organic ideas. Unlike regular fancy dress competitions, where parents and kids team up to prove that their rented-out costume is the fanciest and most expensive, this event had humility and genuineness which was very touching.
AT: Besides Nanju and Mahesh, there are a bunch of other students who have their own little stories. What inclined you to have so many characters? And was it challenging to integrate all of them into the story’s plot?
ZS: I included more characters because I had many different stories to tell. Besides their disabilities, they also come from families that are riddled with poverty. They lead tough lives, where abuse and neglect is more common than we think.
Keeping a track of all the timelines in the story had my head spinning at times. Till date, I’m scared that readers would come up with a loophole in the plot. Kids, in particular, have a very sharp eye for little discrepancies. And when they catch one, they demand a good answer. You can even be yelled at if your answers aren’t convincing.
AT: Thank you for bearing all that and coming up with such a compelling storyline. Being yelled at by kids can be hard.
The story dwells on a gloomy subject, but you feel strangely positive and happy once you read it. Why do you think it’s like that?
ZS: Perhaps it’s because I’ve tried to show that their disabilities don’t pull them down. We are the ones who need to stop feeling sorry for them and accept them for who they are. The reality may not be as nice, so I tried hard to strike a balance between being optimistic and telling the truth.
I’m very glad I eventually struck the right note. I hope this helps the readers to learn more about inclusiveness and enjoy the book at the same time.