Shruthi Rao’s new book Manya Learns to Roar will be published in August 2017. It was one of the winners of the Children First writing contest, for books about kids with special needs.
She is interviewed by Sandhya Renukamba, a lifelong bibliophile, and the editor and community manager at Women’s Web–and an old friend of Shruthi’s.
Sandhya: How much of Manya is you?
Shruthi: Very little. The only thing we have in common is our stammer. Some of Manya’s emotions, especially when faced with teasing and doubt about her abilities – are based on my experiences. The rest is fiction. (Except the *cough-cough* Oscar speech part.)
Sandhya: Why did you choose The Jungle Book [as the play the kids perform in the book]?
Shruthi: Practical considerations! By selecting a well-known work, I avoided lengthy explanations of plot/characters. Besides, the work was in the public domain (first thing I checked). That way, the book wouldn’t run into copyright issues.
Sandhya: From the narrative, it seems as if you have some experience in theatre–how it works, from casting to the tryouts, to the way things shake down at one point after which specifics become more important. Or is it research? Have you spoken to people who work in this space? Could you tell us something about this?
Shruthi: I don’t have any experience in theatre, much to my sorrow. I enjoy going to the theatre though. I would have loved to be a stage actor, but was so sure I would be turned down (because of my stammer) that I never even tried. What a terrible role model I am! That’s why I made Manya the opposite of me.
I’m so glad you think it sounds authentic. I didn’t do any research, so I don’t know how I made that happen. There’s one possibility. Back when I was a student of Hindustani classical music, my music teacher organised several classical music choral performances, which I was a part of. The rehearsals were fun and rigorous, and I revelled in going onto stage for the final performance. Perhaps I unconsciously drew parallels from those experiences.
Sandhya: I noticed that the code language script that Manya and her friend use is very pictorial. Is there a reason for this? It made me think of how even in the evolution of writing, scripts have evolved from being pictorial to alphabetical. Also, my teenager has her own ‘script’ that she uses as a code language with her best friend at school, which they developed at an age similar to Manya. Any thoughts on this? Do you know children who have created such a script?
Shruthi: I studied Akkadian cuneiform script and Egyptian hieroglyphs as part of my interest in archaeology and history, and that’s where I got the idea from … Just kidding! Was that pretentious enough?
In truth, it was a completely random idea.
Sandhya: Ms Sridhar-Ali is an intriguing character, and made my daughter comment that it would be so wonderful if in reality most teachers were like her. She believes in Manya’s ability to do what she is passionate about, but she has to break a few school rules to talk to Manya and find out what was really bothering her. Any comments on this? Shouldn’t it by default that such issues are handled by the school? Also, is she based on any real person?
Shruthi: I did not consciously model Ms Sridhar-Ali on any one person. Rather, she is a combination of a number of separate qualities that I’ve encountered in many different people – qualities that have made me feel accepted and understood and motivated.
To answer your question, ideally, schools should handle these issues, but it is not practical to expect it of them. The onus is on the teachers who actually interact with students on a daily basis, to take note and work with specific needs of children, which is why good teachers are so important.
Sandhya: Ankita, the best friend. Your thoughts?
Shruthi: Everybody needs a friend like her, someone who stands up for you, and is there for you at your lowest moments. Once again, she’s an amalgamation of many different people.
Sandhya: The bullying that happens – I wonder if the solution is as easy as you have shown it to be. What if the bully is not really invested in the outcome of refraining from bullying? I would like to know your thoughts on this.
Shruthi: We place very little value on simple, direct communication. When there is a misunderstanding/disagreement with someone, instead of whining and fighting and arguing and complaining, sometimes, putting across your thoughts honestly and frankly is all that you need to solve things. Too idealistic? Perhaps. But you’ll never know unless you try! Perhaps that worked with the bully!
But in this case, you might be right. If the bully wasn’t invested in the outcome, he probably wouldn’t have backed down that easily.
Sandhya: I am impressed by the way Manya’s mother handles the situation. What about Dad? He’s nowhere in the picture.
Shruthi: Thank you! I just made Manya’s mother react the way I would have reacted to my daughter. Your compliment is a validation of my parenting skills, haha!
As for Dad – again, practical considerations. I like keeping things simple. The book is too small to bring Dad into the picture without cluttering up the storyline. There’s nothing significant about the lack of Dad’s involvement.
Sandhya: Could you tell us more about Children First and how this book came about?
Shruthi: Children First is an initiative of Parag Foundation (a Tata Trust Initiative), Vidyasagar School Chennai, and Duckbill publishers, who felt the need for more stories with children who face challenges growing up, children with different needs, but who are children first. They organised a contest looking for such stories, and I entered this story. It was one of the four winners. I’ve spoken before about how the story came to me (Shruthi Rao: Don’t Cross a Writer).
Seeing this book take shape was like a dream. Duckbill was wonderful to work with–both personal and professional at the same time, and that’s such a stalwart combination. I couldn’t have asked for more. Priya Kuriyan’s illustrations elevated the text, and the final version looks so good!
Sandhya: The illustrations. Such fabulous ones! Did you and Priya Kuriyan collaborate on any of these–I know that usually there is no collaboration, but her illustrations are absolutely pitch perfect and highlight exactly those places that a child might find interesting!
Shruthi: I’ve been an admirer of Priya Kuriyan’s fluid, eye-popping illustrations for years now. Even before I started writing for children, I found myself imagining how it would be if I wrote a book for children that was illustrated by her. Imagine my delight when it actually came true!
No, there was no collaboration. She came up with these illustrations just by reading the text – and yes, they are perfect. I made a couple of teeny-tiny suggestions, which she incorporated immediately, but apart from that – everything is just her genius.
Sandhya: Some thoughts on overcoming the speech impediment–what, in your experience, works best?
Shruthi: Different things work for different people, so I would be wary of saying anything definite.
But what worked for me is accepting that I stammer, and learning that it is not anything to be ashamed of. Also, I don’t know about overcoming it, but I have worked to manage it. Managing it means that I know it is a part of me, and even when I’m being fluent and comfortable, I know that it is always lurking somewhere around the corner, and that’s okay! But over the years, I’ve developed techniques to ensure that I speak fairly fluently, and more than anything, I try not to think of my stammer. When I don’t, I speak more fluently.
For children who stammer, if you are reading this – I would say this. If your stammer seems like a gigantic mountain of a problem now, you can be sure that as you grow older, it stops being so important. (What??) You even stop thinking about it after some point. (No way!) And you don’t have to let your stammer stop you from doing whatever you want to. (Yeah right!)
You might not believe me right now, but it is true.
Sandhya: “No special treatment … She was one of them.” An insightful observation. Thoughts?
Shruthi: That was what I always wanted – not to be treated differently. Some teachers would skip me entirely when they were giving everybody turns to read aloud in class. Even though I would be dreading my turn, I’d get upset and angry when I wasn’t given a chance. Strange huh? But I didn’t want to be singled out for the way I speak. I wanted people to look at it like a quality of my speech – like some people speak slow, some fast, some with a high-pitched voice, and I speak with a stammer. That was what I wanted.
This feeling is what was behind that statement.