I have the pleasure of sharing this most delightful exchange of questions and replies with one of India’s most recognisable and loved children’s authors, Ramendra Kumar (Ramen). He is a national award winning writer and the author of over 30 books for children and adults. Ramen’s writings have been published in 12 Indian and 10 foreign languages. His stories, poems and satires have found a place in text books, as well as national and international anthologies including the popular ‘Chicken Soup for the Soul Series’. Six of his books have been recommended by Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE), as Supplementary Readers. One of his Read Aloud books Paplu The Giant was selected to mark the International Literacy Day in September, 2013. He has held more than a thousand story telling sessions in 25 languages across the country as well as abroad. His latest book A Perfect Match has been picked up by Andhra Pradesh government for placement in 11,200 schools in all the districts of the State.
Ramen has been invited to different forums as an inspirational speaker and a storyteller both in India and abroad. To know more about the writer you can visit his website: www.ramendra.in or check out his page on Wikipedia. An Engineer and an MBA, Ramen is the Chief of Communications at Rourkela Steel Plant, Odisha.
Let me tell you, I was in splits going through his e-response to my questions! I am sure you will be, too.
RJ: Congratulations on the recent Sankalpa Samman honour, Ramendra! Tell us something about this award.
RK: I was awarded the Sankalpa Samman for my contribution to literature, on 27th September, 2016. The award was conferred by Sankalpa, a premier cultural organisation of the region, on the occasion of its silver jubilee.
RJ: When did you start writing for children?
RK: I started writing satire, poetry and fiction in my college days and continued my literary pursuits after I joined Rourkela Steel Plant. My creative endeavours received a modest degree of success.
When my daughter Ankita was four, my son Aniket happened. My wife Madhavi is working in the same Steel Plant as I am. Her hands were naturally full taking care of the new born.
“You write satire and poetry, don’t you?” Madhavi told me one day. “Then why can’t you tell Ankita stories and put her to sleep, while I concentrate on Aniket?” To her, shifting from satire/poetry to children’s fiction was as simple as moving from the universe of boiled eggs to that of poached eggs!
Anyway, I seriously took up her advice and started thinking up little tales to tell my precious one. I don’t know whether she liked the plot more or my antics, but she lapped up my stories and my confidence increased. Soon it became a tradition which continued even after Aniket grew up and doubled the size of my audience. The stories liked by my kids found their way to the laptop and from there to the publisher’s desk. The tales started getting published and thus began my journey into the idyllic world of children.
(with Ankita and Aniket when they were younger)
RJ: We’d love to know something about your first book.
RK: My first book was a collection of ten value based stories called Just a Second and other Stories.
There is an interesting incident associated with the eponymous story in this collection. When my daughter Ankita was five, I was invited to her school to address the students. I thought instead of giving a speech let me tell a story and wrote ‘Just a Second’. It was about seven brothers, the youngest named Second and the eldest Year. It stressed upon the value of time.
I told the story in the school assembly. The response from the kids was wonderful. They simply loved it. In fact, when my wife and I went to a teacher’s house six months later she told me something which left a deep impression on me.
“Mr. Kumar, the story you told that day had a great impact on the kids. Just the other day when I was telling my students how important hygiene was, one of them asked, ‘Is it as important as the Second, ma’am?’ I looked at him with a puzzled expression on my face, not comprehending.
‘That day an Uncle had come and talked about the importance of Second’, he explained and only then I understood. I had forgotten, but your story seems to have left an indelible impression on the young minds.”
Needless to say, I was thrilled!
(at the Chandigarh Children’s Literature Festival)
RJ: That is such a delightful story by itself, Ramendra! I am sure the children gain a lot from your sessions. Anything equally interesting, if not more, about your latest book?
RK: My latest book which will be released next month is titled A Naani called Tsunami. It is a tale of a 62 year old grandma who is loaded with infectious enthusiasm, unbridled energy and an unconventional take on life. The books are a tale of camaraderie and commitment, guts and gumption, laced with oodles of masti. What should make the book an endearing read, I feel, is the connect between the gen ex and gen next. The book is value driven but not preachy, its tone is sensitive but not maudlin; it takes up issues of concern without snapping the gossamer web of humour.
RJ: A Naani Called Tsunami sounds like a lot of fun, Ramendra! Looking forward to reading it. Which brings us to something that a number of readers and your fans would love to know: when and how do you create time for writing alongside full time employment and family and home?
RK: I firmly believe that time is a function of your PQ or Passion Quotient. If you have the passion for something, you’ll find the time for it.
I am really, really passionate about writing. I hardly socialise nor do I go for booze sessions with colleagues or friends. I go to the club only for swimming in summers. My tryst with the idiot box is limited to the news or the odd sports event. So, it is basically me, my family and my writing.
Madhavi, my wife, has been a big support since she handles many of the daily chores leaving me to my obsession.
A writer, someone said, is never unemployed. Even when he/she is looking out of the window he/she is ‘on the job’. The same thing holds true for me. In meetings and at the social gatherings where I am forced to go, I simply switch off. I have cultivated the art of sporting the right expression on my face during dull conversations so that the speaker gets the impression that I am all ears, whereas actually I am miles away in my own sanctuary of plots, characters and milieus!
I haven’t tried this with Madhavi, when she extols the virtues of her mother, for fear of getting beaten up!
(RJ: Hahahahaha, you’d better not!)
Another aspect which helps me is my ability to ‘file’ stories in my head. Once an idea comes to my mind I keep nurturing and nourishing it till a complete story is formed. Many times the story stays with me for days, weeks, sometimes even months. This helps me a lot since I can plot when I am otherwise occupied and key-in the stuff when I have the time and access to my laptop.
(Bookaroo, New Delhi)
RJ: What are your sources of inspiration for children’s books?
RK: Like I have mentioned, my biggest sources of inspiration have been my own kids. A few of my most popular stories are based on the comments made by my children.
While spinning my yarns, the biggest challenge was matching their completely divergent tastes. While Ankita loved the ‘once upon a time…and they lived happily ever after’ tales of pretty princesses and handsome and daring princes, Aniket my in-house Rambo, whose guru was Bruce Lee, wanted unadulterated action – the gorier the better. The ‘sleight of mind’ I indulged on a ‘nightly’ basis to ensure the delight of my esteemed ‘customers’, I am sure, sharpened by literary skills and helped me become a more effective writer.
Then again, a large chunk of my work owes its existence to my imagination (brilliant to me and weird, wild and wacky to Madhavi!)
RJ: Ramendra, by now I am totally cracking up! So are the readers, I’m sure. And someday, I’d LOVE to interview Madhavi to hear her side of the story! Coming to our next question. By now, we kind of know the answer, but we want to hear it from the horse’s mouth: Who is your biggest critic?
RK: Ankita and Aniket have been my greatest fans and harshest critics. Aniket was the more ‘in your face’ of the two. He had only two words to critique my tale – Chaat or Mast! Chaat meant it had to be trashed and Mast indicated the tale was to be sent pronto to the publisher. Luckily the number of ‘Mast’ were far, far more than the number of ‘Chaat’ and hence I could notch up a healthy score of 30 books.
RJ: 30 is sooooper suberb; and you have all our wishes for a 130 more! How do you find the process of interacting with children during your author visits? What are some of the interesting things kids ask you?
RK: When I’m in the company of kids I feel much younger and far more vibrant. Even a few minutes with little hearts and souls are like an injection of elixir. Will it be too immodest to say that I look much younger than my age because I spend so much time in the pristine world of children?
(RJ: Not at all! We hope you continue to spend more and more time with the bachchas and look the way you do now all your life!)
The response of the young has been fantastic to my initiatives. In some of my workshops the strength has been nearly 400 while the ideal for this kind of an event is considered to be around 50. My sessions usually involve a lot of singing and dancing; I am terrible singer and a terrific dancer (RJ- sorry for butting in here, but we’re having a swell time discovering the Ramendra behind the books!) After the workshops the children have often mobbed me with their slam books, class copies and even pieces of paper, asking for autographs. I have felt like a rock star and prayed that time, for a change, wouldn’t play spoil sport.
In one school a ten year old child came up and told me, “Uncle, this was the happiest day of my life!” Another little girl unleashed an affectionate instruction, “Sir you have to come to our school once every month!” At Bookaroo, a boy told me, “Hello Sir, my dream was to be a story writer. You helped me a lot. Can we become email friends?”
I have been deluged with questions related to ideation, plots, locales, how I write, why I write, the place I write, which is my favourite story, my most endearing character et al.
RJ: So truly heartening to read this, Ramendra. May you keep inspiring children with your words and infectious enthusiasm forever and ever. On a slightly unrelated note, are your characters reflections of you or your children in one way or another?
RK: Yes, in a few stories the hero does have shades of my persona as a child. In couple of tales have I modeled the protagonists on my children.
RJ: Hmmm…that’ll have a lot of your readers guessing! What are you working on these days?
RK: I am working on two books. I have been commissioned to write a ‘graphic book’ on the Juvenile Justice Act, for children. I am also writing a novel for tweens in which the protagonist Ghatotkachha is banished from heaven. The book recounts the misadventures of Bhima’s son as a normal 12 year old in ‘Mera Bharat Mahan!
Wishing you the very best for everything, Ramendra, and we look forward to reading many many more fun books from you. A big thanks for taking time out for this.