Lesley D. Biswas and Anupama Ajinkya Apte: Interviewed by Shabnam Minwalla

Chumki is unlucky.

That’s what the villagers of Bagmundi believe. Naturally then, the adults are wary of nine-year-old Chumki, while the children keep away from her. Nobody wants to be turned into a pumpkin or a papaya. Nobody wants to be infected by the bad luck of others.

How does little Chumki deal with the label that she’s been stuck with since her birth? That’s the question at the heart of Unlucky Chumki, an engaging new hOle book published by Duckbill.

Set in a small village in West Bengal, Unlucky Chumkitells an enjoyable story. At the same time it subtly highlights the realities of growing up in a world filled with superstition and gender inequality.

Writer Lesley D. Biswas and illustrator Anupama Ajinkya Apte talk about all that has gone into creating Chumki and her world with Shabnam Minwalla. Shabnam is the author of several books for children and teenagers.

SB to LDB: Tell us a little about your childhood in a small town in Jharkhand.

LDB: Mccluskiegunj, the quaint Anglo Indian settlement where I spent my childhood, is replete with nature. Growing up there  was like living in a fairy tale. Unlike today’s generation, with every minute of their day accounted for, I had the liberty to daydream. I  would  fantasise  about  secret  cottages  hidden  deep  in  the  forest and treasures   tucked  away  in  their  alcoves.  In  a  way,  I  owe  my  creativity to those moments of complete  abandon  and  life  in  the  wilderness.

SB to LDB: Were you a voracious reader as a child? Which books did you most enjoy?

LDB: Watching  television  wasn’t  the  most  popular  pastime  when  I  was  a  child.  It also helped that (although it was frustrating then) in my hometown electric supply was erratic. So when I wasn’t building a tree house, I had my nose stuck in an Enid Blyton Famous Five or Secret Seven book.

I also  loved  Asterix  and  Obelix comics and Jim Corbett’s stories.

SB to LDB: What did you want to become when you grew up?

LBD: As a teen I was obsessed with cricket. But in those days playing cricket wasn’t considered a career option  for boys, let aside girls. So I went with my second choice. To be a writer.

SB to LDB: How did you come to write a book for children?

LBD: I  began  my  career  with  articles  on  cricket.  When  I  moved  to  Kolkata  post  marriage,  and  after  I  had  my  daughter,  parenting  and  children’s  issues dominated  my  work.  Like  me,  my  daughter  too  got  into  the  bedtime  story  habit.  I’d  read  to  her  and  after  we  were  done  with  the  regular  classics,  she often asked me to make up a story about a dragon or a dog. She’d  often  ask  me  to  repeat  one  she’d  enjoyed,  but  by  then,  I’d  have forgotten. ‘Why  don’t  you  write  them  down?’  she’d  grumble,  and  although  I  started making notes of the ideas I didn’t get very far. Then a few years back, I longed to do something creative. The prospect of writing for children excited me.

SB to LDB: Why did you decide to set the story in a small village in West Bengal? 

LBD: Whenever  I   travel  from  Kolkata  to  Jharkhand,  whether  by  car  or  train,  the rural  landscape  fascinates  me.  From  the  window  I  enjoy  watching  the village  folk  go  about  their  daily  routine,  and  especially notice the children. The girls are usually helping their mothers. The small boys are usually playing. I wondered  about  their  stories.   So  I  decided  to  set  my  story  in a similar village.

SB to LDB: Tell me about Chumki. Did anyone or anything inspire her character?

LBD: You’ll  find  a  character  like  Chumki  everywhere.  We  had  one  like  her  in  our  hometown. A  person  who  is  considered  unlucky,  and  blamed  for things  that  go  wrong.  It  bothers me how liberally we blame others for our misfortunes. But  more  than  that,  I  wanted  to  to  tell  the  story  from  a  child’s  perspective.  How would a child react to such hurt. I  think  it’s  the  worst  kind  of  bulliyng  a  child  can  be  subjected  to.

SB to LDB: Does the story connect with memories of your own childhood?

LBD: There  are  some  subtle  impressions  that  are  reflections  of  my  own  growing  up  years.  Like  the  absence  of  friends.  I  was  a  very  timid  child.  Plus,  being  an  Anglo Indian meant that language was a barrier. Also,  the  sibling  rivalry  was  easy  to  recreate  from  personal  experience.

SB to AAA: Please describe your journey from software engineer to illustrator of books for children. Was it one that you ever imagined that you would make?

AAA: I remember drawing a lot as a child, but never imagined myself as an illustrator. I actually totally stopped drawing as I got busy with my studies, work and family.  I continued to buy paints and art supplies, but never actually used them.

It suddenly all came flooding back to me and I found myself spending a lot of time browsing through picture book art. I was totally awestruck. There was so much to learn … and I knew nothing.

I wrote  my first picture book Gulli’s Box of Things with Pratham Books. They were kind enough to let me illustrate it as well. My journey as an illustrator was surprisingly smooth after that. I got to illustrate more than a dozen books with some of the best people in the industry.

SB to AAA:As a child, were there certain books that you enjoyed for their illustrations?

AAA: As a child, I remember reading a lot of translated Russian picture books. I used to spend hours admiring the colorful and pretty illustrations those books had. I also loved Astérix comics illustrations a lot.

SB to AAA: Are there any illustrators that you really love today? Why?

AAA: There are so many illustrators in the world who are doing really beautiful work. I spend a lot of time browsing through their work on the Internet. However, Quentin Blake will always top my list. His illustrations are simple yet so expressive and super quirky. I also love the illustrations of Albert Uderzo (Astérix) and Bill Watterson. You can get entertained just by looking at the pictures.

I also admire Shilpa Ranade’s work a lot.

SB to AAA: When you were drawing Chumki, how did you imagine her?

AAA: When I read a story, a parallel visual world gets instantly created in my mind based on my own experiences, imagination and knowledge. (I am sure that happens to everybody ). I usually stick to the very first visuals that flash in my mind.

I saw Chumki as an innocent, clumsy village child who has grown up battling this awful ‘unlucky’ tag all her life. I added a pair of peeping knickerbockers to give a  little quirk to her character.

SB to AAA: Was there any single character in the book that you really enjoyed creating?

AAA: I really loved creating Chumki’s grandmother, who keeps terrorizing her with a stick. I wish there was more of her in the book for me to draw:-)




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