The first Pooni book was published eight years ago. What prompted you to write a sequel, Pooni at the Taj Mahal, now?
The book on which Where’s That Cat? was based on was Visit to the City Market, published by the National Book Trust (NBT). It came out in the mid-Eighties and is still in print. I always wanted to draw a sequel to that book. But it takes a huge output of energy to draw a book. I couldn’t afford to set aside the time, because I have always needed to earn a living. I only began illustrating books again after winning the Onassis award in 1997 (for Harvest). After my first book for Tulika Publishers, I asked if they would be interested in a fresh version of Visit/Market — this time set in Madras, with a little girl and a cat — and they said ‘yes’. That came out almost 20 years after the NBT book!
Are there real-life inspirations for Pooni?
Pooni’s name belongs to my Madras cousin’s very sweet-natured black-and-white cat. The fictional cat is very naughty however, unlike her namesake, whose full name was Poonakshi. As your Tamil-speaking readers will know, there’s a pun involved, since ‘poonai’ means cat! Minnie is not modeled on either of my nieces — except that one of them has that name. The parents are definitely not based on anyone I know. I took a lot of photographs of visitors at the Taj, when I was researching the book, but the pictures are just impressions distilled out of the vast numbers of people I saw. The same is true of the monument — it’s not at all accurate. The real thing is so much more detailed and amazing, that very early, on I decided against precision. So, this is an ‘artist’s impression’, with lots of liberties taken with scale and perspective in order to convey the feeling of being there.
Could you go into how you began writing for children?
When I was a child, I was sometimes critical of the illustrations in the books that I read. My favourite example is about that fairytale (The Tinder Box) in which a princess is helped by a dog with eyes ‘the size of saucers’ — but the illustration did not reflect that description or of the subsequent dogs with eyes of increasing size! I had lots of beautiful books, however, and many of them had gorgeous illustrations. I expected to be an artist and writer when I grew up, though I didn’t think specifically of children’s books. I was more interested in cartooning.
When you’re making illustrated books for children, what comes first — the story or the illustrations?
It’s sort of simultaneous. I think in pictures all the time — not just when I’m writing, but all the time. Like a video film, with subtitles, audio and touch, smell and taste. So, if I’m thinking of a book, whether it’s in prose or in pictures, in my head, I can ‘see’ it in all these dimensions. But, obviously, I have to make choices about what gets translated to the two-dimensional medium of the printed page.
What does it take to be a successful writer of children’s books?
What is ‘success’? If you mean, financial success then I am a complete failure. I make very little money from any of my published books, neither for children nor for adults. If you mean popularity, then, in that sense too, I am not successful: my books reach only a minuscule audience of Indian children whose parents can afford to buy books in the Rs 150 range. For me, the book is the entire reward; not money, not ‘fame’. So, if being happy with my life is a sign of success then yes, in that sense, I am extremely successful.
Paro Anand recently wrote that two of her books are being pulled from libraries because they deal with ‘inappropriate’ subjects like violence and terrorism.
Indian mythology is extremely violent, yet children are exposed to it very early. There’s Sita’s abduction in the Ramayana and the war between the cousins in the Mahabharata and the side-stories in which the women ‘have children’ by the gods and heroes have romantic encounters with demon-ladies. Were they all consenting adults? Was Draupadi a willing ‘wife’ to five brothers? What about the many infidelities and betrayals of marital trust? What about Arjuna’s cross-dressing episode? What about caste intolerance — is it possible that children learn to be intolerant towards people of differing faiths and food habits because they read of it in the myths? The reason that Paro’s books come up for critique is that there’s a great deal of hypocrisy amongst the powers that be. They don’t mind complex and disturbing messages when they appear in the myths, but they can’t bear the stain of ‘alternative lifestyles’ in modern stories.
How would you describe the young readers that you meet?
They’re usually frighteningly smart.
Are you working on any more books about Pooni’s adventures?
Yes, there might be more adventures in the pipeline. But each one will take the same agonizing length of time (this one took two years, including a trip to the Taj). So a lot depends on… how long I stay alive, I suppose! I’m 64 now. Not much time left. I prefer to be light-hearted about death and to expect the worst! And, right now, I’m resting up from the second Pooni. Who knows when the third will appear?