Flying rhinos live in a house in Sarvodaya Enclave in south Delhi, along with acrobatic elephants, musical mynahs and parrots with egos. The humans are just as strange — a little boy who air travels in a balloon, and the tykes Cheeky and Meeky whose motto is mischief. As they eat and play, jump in and out of trouble, hug and kick, there hasn’t been a silent day for writer Manorama Jafa in more than 40 years. The characters she has created fill more than a 100 books in several languages and, in her early 80s, Manorama still wakes up early to write a story every day. “The ideas just keep coming, so I write for one hour in the mornings,” she says. On April 26, Manorama’s contribution to children’s literature was recognised with a Padma Shri.
Up close, she looks more like a professor in pearls and spectacles than a writer of books that spill with colour and excitement. It is unclear what the stereotype of a children’s storyteller is — jokey? scatty? plump? — but the word crazy must feature somewhere. And it would never apply to Manorama, with her lilting voice and academic dignity.
She responds to the award with a “it feels good” and says, “The secret of a child’s book lies not merely in its being less dry or less difficult, it must also be rich in interest, either true to nature or fantasy, more exquisite in art and more abundant in every quality that responds to children’s keener and fresher perceptions.” Manorama didn’t always know this. A post-graduate in Geography from the University of Allahabad, she began writing when her husband, Virender Singh Jafa, was posted in Patna in the late ’60s. “I would do three columns in the local newspaper and found that, when there is a challenge, story ideas come quite easily,” she says.
As a mother of a two-year-old boy — her daughter, city-based kathak dancer Navina Jafa was born later — Manorama had understood what would captivate children. “It is important to know what kind of books appeal to different ages. I couldn’t keep my son down with a realistic story, so I made up animal characters and he would listen wide-eyed. I would create small stories from incidents and quickly write these down,” she says.
One of these was about a donkey who was so hungry that he stood sulking on a bridge and wouldn’t let other animals pass. How a smart rabbit with a stock of carrots resolves the situation is the subject of her first book, Donkey on the Bridge. “I told the story to Shankar Pillai of Children’s Book Trust (CBT) and he said, ‘Write it down, I want this story’ and immediately paid me Rs 1,000. It was early ’70s and I thought this was too much,” she adds. She bought a ring — the jeweller called it the ‘Eternal’ ring — with the money. It is a gold band studded with diamonds, which Manorama wore to the Padma ceremony. Beginnings have always been important to writers.
When Manorama’s husband was posted with the United Nations in the US, she took a course in writing for children at the Massachusettes Institute of Technology. The present boom in children’s literature — today, there are a number of writers and festivals in the country — owes much to the workshops and programmes that Manorama conducted or promoted as well as a home library movement she initiated, among others. She is, at present, Secretary General of the Association of Writers and Illustrators for Children as well as the Secretary General of the Indian National Section of the International Board on Books for Young People.
Apart from the rainbow-coloured picture books, Manorama’s library holds several old diaries that are plastered with newspaper cuttings.
Many stories were born in these pages. A black-and-white photograph of an elephant twisting its trunk to drink water from a tubewell inspired Mithai Chor, a book about an elephant with a sweet tooth. Flipping through the titles, The Parrot and the Mynah, Laughing Parrot, and The Ladybird and the Butterfly, it becomes clear that Manorama sticks to earthy values, especially unity in diversity. Teacher characters are like Madame Billo — from Manorama’s Billo series that includes Grandma Billo whose best friend is a book — who tell students, “Your drawings are beautiful” and give them gifts.
Manorama keeps her political views away from the children’s pages. These occupy her books for adults, especially Hindi works such as Devika, that have a strong feminist accent. “With children, one should not be didactic. I never use the word ‘don’t’ in my children’s writing,” she says.
As she talks, she often turns the ‘Eternal’ ring in her finger. “Do you know why I chose this design?” she asks, “Because it sparkles whichever side you look at.” The shelf of her children’s books does the same.