Rustom Dadachanji is the author of Ravana Refuses to Die, which will be out in bookshops shortly. He is interviewed by Parinita Shetty, book writer, book curator and book lover.
PS: I loved the modern theories the four children (particularly Muru) came up with to explain a centuries-old tale – rakshasa sweat with radio-transmitted radioactivity, the vimana as a spaceship, Ravana as an astronaut. How did you come across the Ramayana as a child? Did you come up with any theories about the tale like your characters did?
RD: I remember the Ramayana being first mentioned in a fleeting two-line summary back in my schooldays. Buried inside the pages of a stodgily boring sixth-grade history book. Much later, my voracious teen curiosity got piqued through some borrowed Amar Chitra Kathas (much like the Babubari boys!).
I don’t recall concocting any fanciful made-up theories then … not till forty-five years later. Does that make me more of a Muru today?
PS: I enjoyed the unusual connections to the Ramayana which all four stories in the book have. Do you have a favourite mythological story which isn’t as well-known as the more famous events of the Ramayana?
RD: There are several stories that fascinate though perhaps not as well known as the Ramayana. I love the Babylonian creation myth, particularly the epic adventures of Gilgamesh, the ancient king of Uruk. This myth which the Semites of Mesopotamia inherited from the Sumerians and developed presents a colourful, entertaining, bewildering kaleidoscope. I love tales of gods and mortals, the rich and deeply evocative insights they offer. And the way they can extend human potential.
PS: In Muru, Jitu, Chipkili and Chippa, you’ve perfectly displayed childhood tendencies of unleashing the imagination in a way which leans towards terrifying explanations over more rational ones. Do you remember any frights during your childhood which resulted out of rumours or an overactive imagination?
RD: Oh several! I certainly did possess an overactive engine, which needed a good bit of harnessing. I remember regaling a captive audience during lunch recess with stories that I’d invent on the spot. I was always happiest on stage or when reciting a funny poem by Ogden Nash before the entire school.
One of my scariest moments?
When I polished off Sandra Long’s home-science project which just happened to be a chocolate cake and which just happened to be cooling off one afternoon on an inspection table ready to be graded by the home-science teacher Mrs Samson. (A horror situation out of your scariest comic book that came about when I took on a personal challenge which hideously misfired.) The aforementioned Sandra unfortunately caught a very hungry school boy as he stretched wide his jaw over a humongous slice of her moist handiwork and screamed (most unforgivingly!) for the large, aforementioned Bible-built home-science teacher. Who arresting the guilty party on the spot, had him promptly marched down to a Mr Hunter (yes, that was his name!) for a caning. Once again, storytelling came to the rescue and narrowly averted Hunter’s dreaded stick from reddening a bottom.
‘It was to die for, Sir! and I was immensely hungry, Sir! please forgive me, Sir! why don’t we go upstairs and we can both decide how good it really was, Sir!’
… Or was it just Hunter realising there wasn’t all that much of a bottom bending over for him to cane?
PS: The stories really capture the essence of life in small town India for a city brat like me. I had a great time vacationing in your world of Babubari. Have you spent time in a small Indian town yourself? Are any of the instances and characters inspired by real life?
RD: There is a town that does go by the name Babubari. I liked the name so I decided on it. Though I haven’t visited the actual town in these stories, I have visited several small towns over the years and have been struck by their quaintness, the ways things seem unchanged, even amusingly askew. The unhurried pace. The higgledy-piggledy houses with their narrow winding streets. The congestion and tumult all around. The rubbish heaps and crows. Cycles. Stray dogs. Blinking cows. Bazaars. Funny names for shops. Oddly worded advertisements. The way people stare, chat, laze, dress. Or cross a street. Priya [Kuriyan] has caught the whacky feel of small-town India in her illustrations.
One small town instance which may have crept into these stories, albeit subconsciously … sliced bread with dollops of strawberry jam and an over-generous sprinkle of chilly powder on top of the strawberry jam (not forgetting the heavy blanket of flies) to whet a Sunday breakfast appetite. This curious mishmash may have been the reason why ‘jam-toast and pesky houseflies that needed constant whacking into fly goo’ (though minus chilly powder) somehow found its way into the Babubari stories!
Again, some of the characters as well as certain defining traits were definitely familiar to me while growing up. Chipkili wanting to be included in everything boys did was based on a younger sister. The Baba of ‘Hanuman’s Army’ was a familiar sight on summer holidays in Mahabaleshwar, though he was never sinister or evil in any way… just a wandering down-at-heel magician with a very funny way of speaking while he pulled a pigeon out of your ear. Or a boiled egg from inside your shorts which had cooked perfectly while you sat on it.
PS: I loved your feats of linguistic gymnastics throughout the book and found myself constantly delighted by the clever turns of phrase. What books did you grow up with? Did any authors influence your writing style?
RD: I grew up loving books and many of them remain best friends to this day. I grew up in a house which encouraged reading. My absolute favs were Wind In The Willows, The Wizard Of Oz and The 1001 Nights.
I never tire of reading the last. I still love reading children’s books … Paul Gallico, Roald Dahl, Phillip Pullman and Lemony Snicket (Daniel Handler) being big-time favourites. Handler’s style, in particular in A Series Of Unfortunate Events, did exert some influence when I decided in favour of the Grand Hyperbolic for the present work.
PS: Do you echo Chippa’s opinion of Ravana? What do you think of one of India’s most notorious mythological villains?
RD: Naturally! I agree with Chippa.
For in the course of a night, when Good traditionally triumphs over Evil in the yearly Ram Leela of Babubari Town, Chippa discovers first-hand something entirely new about King Ravana, something so remarkably unfamiliar, so surprisingly inspiring, it changes his life. This is the crux of the first story. From an eight-year-old’s POV King Ravana is worthy of hero worship and definitely an autograph. You don’t have to be the villain when actually playing one. It needs courage to stand for your rights and to defend what is owed to you. Especially if you have no recourse but to take a way that is bound to be shocking.
As to my own opinions, Ravana as ‘Ultimate Baddie’ is debatable. No doubt he was prodigiously gifted and supremely talented. Not forgetting multi-dexterous. Even the gods testify to that! Just count the number of heads the poor guy had to tutor, drill and groom over the years. And that battalion of fingers that needed constant manicuring for just being king. Far more ferociously intelligent and learned than any opponent. There is some truth in the claim that for the Hero to come off as truly Great, he must first overcome a Villain of Equal or Even Greater Stature. Lord Rama naturally is indebted to his nemesis for making him Hero material.
PS: Throughout the stories, I loved witnessing how the Babubari Gang’s imagination seeps into reality, blurring the lines between the two. Do you practise this habit as an adult as well?
RD: Occasionally. Just for fun!
I, for one, am of the belief you construct your own Reality. No matter what.
Or allow another to construct it for you.
PS: What should one do if one is being menaced by monkeys but doesn’t have a monkey-costume-lending Ram Leela Company handy?
RD: How good are your karate chops?
PS: Thank you for sharing your top-secret instructions to build a vimana. All I’ve managed to get my hands on, are a chair, a calculator (on my phone), several houseflies (not bottled), Parachute coconut oil, and a number of assorted umbrellas. Do you think I’ll be able to build a rudimentary version?
RD: Perhaps. All depends:
a.on how badly you want to reach for the moon.
b. do you make a good enough thief?
c. can you at the very least launch a kite and make it soar?
Better still. Ask Muru for an expert opinion.
Or sneak into the Babubari Public School Library cupboard and lay your hands on those mouldy ACK comics.