After working in television and films for over a decade, writer Venita Coehlo, who engages with “words, images and paint”, settled for a life of quiet in Goa. However, her books for children and young adults have established her as a writer to look out for. A storyteller since she was a child, her tales are maybe the stories she always wanted to listen to while growing up, she says. Her book, Tiger by the Tail, won a special jury mention at the Neev Awards last year, and Dead as a Dodo won The Hindu Goodbooks award for Best Children’s Fiction in 2016. While The Washer of the Dead is a collection of feminist ghost stories, in Soap: Writing and Surviving Television, she drew from her experience on shows such as Jassi Jaisi Koi Nahi, Na Bole Tum Na Maine Kuch Kaha, and Trikaal. Her eighth book, All of Me, released recently. Excerpts:
You said that a comment by former British Prime Minister David Cameron triggered the idea for All of Me.
David Cameron contributed to the book by making me hopping mad. I’ve always believed that inspiration never lasts, anger does. Each of my books has come out of outrage and anger over some injustice. Cameron was asked if England would be returning the Koh-i-noor, and he said: ‘I don’t believe in returnism’. His casual colonial arrogance made me so angry that it lasted a book.
Tell us the idea behind the story. Why are there five characters in the protagonist’s head?
Castor has been locked away in a basement for five dark years. For company, he has created multiple personalities. There is Mr Pickwick, the Bible-quoting father figure; Miss Trent, the germ-phobic governess; Skinner, the smart street urchin, and the brilliant Infant Prodigy. Together they become the detective, each bringing his/her own unique skill to the game. At a deeper level, they represent Castor’s fragmented self, which he has to learn to heal and make whole. I was hooked on the idea of a detective using his multiple personalities to solve cases.
Your stories have young urchins, mischievous boys as protagonists. What do you like about them?
I love the underdog. The one who no one will bet on, but who is resilient, smart and innovative. Indian jugaad comes out of generations of people turning desperate and wanting creative solutions. But I do think it’s time I did some girl protagonists as well.
What does it take to write for children?
It kept me sane through the madness of television. TV ran my kitchen; writing for kids saved my soul. Children have small attention spans, are easily distracted, and go in search of the new and intriguing. Our secret weapon is that we construct only half of the story. The other half plays out in the child’s head. That makes the story uniquely theirs, and that is the reason I think books will always survive.
The fun part is that I get to do stuff that you wouldn’t ever get to do on a big screen. Tiger by the Tail has a climax where 250 tigers stroll through Tiananmen Square. Dead as A Dodo has billionaires dining in an ice palace at the North Pole. And, of course, All of Me has multiple personalities, and a Mountain of Light.
What’s your next book about?
The next book for kids is the sequel to Dungeon Tales. For adults, I have Whisper in the Wind that tells the eerie tale of a murder set in Portuguese Goa. And I am working on a non-fiction book based on the years I spent in an ashram, trying to find a path to spirituality.