Harshikaa Udasi: Interviewed by Arundhati Venkatesh

Harishikaa Udasi is one of the winners of the Children First contest, the target of which was to create more books about kids with special needs. Her book Kittu’s Terrible Horrible No Good Very Mad Day will be published in July 2017.

She is interviewed by Arundhati Venkatesh, the acclaimed author of Petu Pumpkin Tiffin Thief, Petu Pumpkin Tooth Troubles and Bookasura, among others.

“grown-ups were really kids who had grown in body size but not in brain size or maturity. These ‘tiny bigs’, as he called them, would fight over silly things, like why the lights were not put out at nighttime, whose duty it was to fill water in the matka or who should go across the kitchen to get an extra spoon. Sometimes they also fought over whose house it was. Unfathomable.”

AV: How true, I chuckled to myself. Then it dawned on me: I’m one too! Horror of horrors, a grown-up! How does it feel writing about yourself in unflattering terms? That is, assuming you are a grown-up. Or are you an alien in disguise?

HU: In terms of years, I am the ghost who walks, but if I’d have my way I’d be the alien in disguise. Sounds way too cool! I always laugh at myself though my mom still shows me those big big eyes when I do, but then there is so much to laugh about in this sample piece. I think it’s good to laugh at oneself because (a) it’s better to do it before others do and, (b) personally, I look less like a maniac when I am laughing than when I am complaining and crying about something. Now to answer that without rambling, I really think we grown ups sound like silly fools fighting over small things. My son brought this to my notice. One day, one very exhausting day, both my husband and I were at the end of our tether and we realised we had forgotten to get an extra spoon to the dinner table and we actually bickered over who should get it. My son, then four, just ran across and got it. In our defence, we were two really tired adults.

AV: I loved the beginning with Kittu meeting Madhav, the ice-creamwala. Just when I thought it couldn’t get any better, it did. The World’s Most Chaotic Family is hilarious! My favourites are Punni who hates anyone taller than her and Potu with his intermittent cries of ‘Halwa!’. Do you have any?

HU: Punni it is! I was thinking of dachshunds while writing her character! They must be upset with the entire world! Actually I have one more favourite – the inimitable Itee fui. My family, irrespective of gender I must clarify, has given me so much fodder for her character you can’t even imagine.

AV: The World’s Most Chaotic Family made me go ‘This! This is why we need Indian children’s books.’ You’ve captured the idiosyncrasies of an Indian family and how! I was reminded of the eccentric Casson family (series by Hilary McKay). Was making it a large, extended family always part of the plan?

HU: I didn’t grow up in a joint family but we always had outings with my large extended family and I have some crazy memories of the times we spent together. Not as many children today are in touch with their extended family so yes, it was always going to be a humungous mix of the weirdest yet the most warm characters.

AV: They say first novels are heavily autobiographical. Has your life ever been half as chaotic? If so, you “deserve a Nobel Prize or an Olympic medal or something”. Share some stories, please.

HU: Nobel Prize or an Olympic medal for the family please. United we stand and all that! Some of our shenanigans:

  1. I’ve jumped on to a donkey’s back, turn by turn, with four of my cousins. From the first floor balcony. It’s possible but don’t try it ever. We weren’t really thinking animal rights back then and, of course, we were about five or six years of age and tons lighter! Oh and yes, we had managed to lock ourselves in our room somehow and had to be rescued. This was the only thing the family could think of.
  2. Got stuck in the middle of a pond while enjoying a paddle boat ride. The elders of the clan managed to convince us that we were going to sink and began to squabble about the best way to get out of the mess and laugh about it simultaneously. We kids were frozen into inaction.
  3. But the prize-winning act is ordering food. It’s worth watching. We are masters of the turn-the-waiter-mad game.

Loads more but if I tell you everything there won’t be more to reveal in my next book!

AV: The third chapter is called ‘Mad Madder Maddest’. It is completely, utterly mad! (I mean that in the nicest way.) All of us must know a Mangaleshwari with a hyperactive tongue and endless questions. Do you? Tell, tell!

HU: Can we skip this question? If I answer I will certainly let out the person’s name (I am itching to) and get killed! You do want me to be alive when the book sees light of day, don’t you?

AV: We’re letting you go, but only because we need you to write more fabulous books.

How does one deal with the Mangaleshwaris of the world? I desperately need your advice; a day after reading the book, I found myself with a cleaner who had a million questions on mopping. Dropping hints about my previous non-chatty cleaner has only resulted in more questions. I briefly considered telling her I’m on a maun vrat, but think of the questions that will invite – why, for how long, which god … Good lord! Why are my questions so long? Am I turning into a Mangaleshwari myself? Do you have a remedy?

HU: Knrgh knrgh knrgh. I do sound like Kittu when I laugh! Have you tried playing along? An eye for an eye, a question for a question. One of these two things will happen: She will be stunned into silence or you will be another Mangaleshwari in the making! Hurrah! We need more of the tribe 😀

AV: Foram Kaki, Itee Fui – How do you come up with these names? Should I try with randomly picked Scrabble tiles or is it one of those things that goes with the disclaimer ‘Caution: Do not try this stunt at home; it was performed by experts in a special setup.’

HU: Names are a fetish. I love unearthing new names and unusual names stick to my head. If I don’t call them out, I develop nameocolothis – the condition of knowing an unusual name and ignoring it for too long! Itee is a name I love, by the way. Side note to self: This Scrabble idea is good. Hmmm.

AV: The descriptions–like that of Itee Fui’s robust voice, of the unenthusiastic police personnel as the “human personification of wet blankets”–do you tend to do this in real life too? Has it landed you in trouble? If you manage to hold your tongue, do share tips.

HU: Aiyyo! I am going to land in trouble! Okay here it is.

An aunt of mine can speak through the wall. The Great Wall of China, I mean. She has the loudest voice on this planet; I can vouch for it! Whenever I am with her, I have to resist hard not to imitate her. Success rate 2/10. Good thing is mom doesn’t show me those big big eyes I mentioned earlier. It hasn’t landed me in trouble because aunt doesn’t notice it. It’s normal. (Now can we just write this para in invisible ink, please? I mean the hyper-volume is normal but she CAN read.)

As for run-ins with the uniformed, well, I had once filed a complaint against a bus conductor who had slapped a ten-year-old kid in the bus that I was travelling by. Consequence? I was ‘summoned’ to the bus depot for the trade union leader to ‘apologise’ to me. A gold chain, a gold ring, a thick gold bracelet and dark glasses joined hands and said “Sorry Madam”. I was sixteen, shitting bricks but still was looking like Scrappy Doo (remember that pup who goes, ‘Let me at them! Let me at them’?) Reason I kept quiet was my mom, knowing me very well, was stepping hard on my toes.

I think I am quite in the position to share tips about this one!

  1. When you sense the mouth opening, stuff a pani puri in it. Not only will the anger vanish and you will be saved form any backlash of the opposite party, but also the PP will reach the insides and elevate you to yogic meditation.
  2. Seek parental help when expecting a situation like this. Moms are pros at the glaring eyes and stubbing toes business and dads are good at waving hands (at least mine is!) You will forget what you were about to lash out against.
  3. Sing a song. Works. And annoys the hell out of the other person. Tried and tested on brother. Throughout our childhood. Works better if you sing in gibberish.
  4. When all else fails, say it. Vent out. Feel good. Sit glum and ready yourself for the repercussions.

AV: The description of Kittu enjoying a ride on the cycle with Madhav is well thought-out, especially the little details. Is there a story behind it?

HU: No back story but we all have these little desires in our heart and I just wanted Kittu to grab at the opportunity that has come his way. I often see my son practice flying, yes, from the edge of the bed or from a low wall because he wants to be a bird when he grows up! I thought if my son really gets a chance to fly, it will be an extraordinary experience for him and that’s how I wrote out that scene with Kittu.

AH: While Kittu’s Very Mad Day is great fun, it is also sensitively written. There’s a line when Kittu’s crutches get taken away that really struck a chord. (I’ve been dealing with broken bones for more than a year.) How do you know what it feels like? Did you worry about not getting it right?

HU: It’s about getting bullied. The victim feels so helpless. I have been through it too as I am sure many of us at some point. I recreated the same emotions with Kittu’s crutches being pulled away. I didn’t think of not getting it right, not when I was writing.

Handling broken bones must be terribly painful. Never had that experience – do get well soon!

AV: You’ve managed not to adopt a condescending tone or to let Kittu’s disability define him. Was this something you were conscious of when writing or did the thought not occur at all?

HU: I know a young girl (and I have known her since her childhood) who is disabled and she is perfectly comfortable in her skin. She is smart and intelligent and humorous. She is tech savvy and is updated with the latest news and fashion trends alike. Then there was one disabled student in college who was actually annoying and nasty. Which is why I had a fun-loving independent protagonist (who could be pesky and naughty too!) in my head for the longest time so when the concept of Children First was put forth by Parag Initiative, Vidya Sagar School and Duckbill, I knew I would write out that story finally.

AV: The skate park idea is brilliant. How did it come about? And have you visited the place?

HU: I haven’t physically visited the skate park but I have had a telephonic interaction with Ulrike Reinhard who is the person behind this initiative while I was writing the manuscript. I interviewed her for a website I write for. She is doing a brilliant job out there. Ulrike introduced me to the joys of skateboarding and other takeaways of the skate park for the children of this small village. I had already decided that Kittu had to be here and speaking to her just made me so happy I had done it. Of course, that the story got selected and has finally been published is sheer euphoria!

AV: Apart from being really funny and featuring a character on crutches, the book deals with gender and class differences (almost imperceptibly). Did it happen organically as the plot developed?

HU: I have been very fortunate to have the best editors to guide me through. I have to thank Sayoni for gently nudging me into looking at some of the finer things – class difference for one! For example, I made some changes to Chinmee’s character in the final draft. Mad was always the same and she is capable of saying all that is going on in my head.

AV: I love the illustration style; not what I’d expected but a hundred times better and just right for the book. The pictures depict movement and capture the mood beautifully. What was your reaction on seeing the drawings?

HU: I was over the moon! I felt that Lavanya Naidu has done a brilliant, beyond brilliant, job and the best thing is, even though we haven’t ever met, she and I were on the same page form Day One. She has brought my story to life. I only wish I had a hand half as good as hers. My drawing of the platypus doesn’t look as good as the one she has made. Hmpf to that.

AV: The humour is spot on. There isn’t a word that can be edited out. You’ve churned out many, many delightful characters with distinct voices and quirks. I can’t wait to see what you’ll come up with next. Anything you can talk about?

HU: Glad you liked it! Thank you, it really means a lot. Humour is my forte, don’t get misled by the Udasi in my surname which means sadness. My first name means laughter. See, perfect oxymoron! To answer the question, next up I am editing and curating a special edition book for teachers, while itching to begin my next manuscript. I also have a play brewing in the recesses of my brain but it often goes off on a lunch break. See what I just did – recess – lunch break? Got it? Super bad. Did I just say humour is my forte? (Eats words.)

AV: Anything else about Kittu and co., the book or yourself that you would like to tell readers about?

HU: At the cost of sounding like one of those emotional Bollywood promotions, I would like to say, come fall in love with Kittu. After all, it is about loving your family!

Jokes apart, I feel Kittu and Mad could be any child. Maybe as children you may have or haven’t interacted with a disabled child but you’ve surely met children who do not blend into the crowd, who do not meet your idea of what’s normal. What’s the natural reaction –to take notice and treat them as equals or to keep them out of the ‘group’? What if you would make friends with everyone? What if it didn’t matter what sort of house she stays in or where his parents work or whether she has some disability? I’d be happy if Kittu and Mad succeed in their effort to change this concept of what is acceptable and what is not. In the book, as you will read, there are kids who bully Kittu and kids who ignore him because of his handicap, and then there is Mad who treats him like any other kid she knows. Children are children first which is the basic idea of the Children First initiative under which this book has been written.

AV: And finally, everything about yourself that you do not want others to know!

HU: Oh yes! This is something I am waiting to share!! Right here in my house I have a …wait a second, I don’t think you’d want to know about that. But I can tell you this, I am crazy about…forget it, you won’t be able to like it as much. So here’s another thing. Maybe through this interview you know me a little, but you won’t ever be able to guess how much I dislike…now hold on, what if one among the readers likes it and doesn’t like the fact that I dislike it? I don’t want to lose any potential buyers for my book! But to wrap it up, and this I can surely say, the best part about me is …on second thoughts, I can’t possibly brag about myself, can I?



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