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Saturday, September 18, 2021

‘Ninja Nani is about back-flipping grandmas and clueless parents’

"We do often tend to forget that our seniors were once pesky children, unruly teenagers, and conflicted young adults too."

Written by Anuradha Varma |
Updated: September 24, 2018 4:00:27 pm
childrens books, graphic novels “Ninja Nani is a playful book filled with irreverent ideas.”

Deepu and Nani (his maternal grandmother) live in the same house, yet are almost strangers to each other, till a freak accident with the television set leads to Nani getting superhero powers, with the grandson playing moral guardian as they team up to fight crime. Author Lavanya Karthik tells us about the Ninja Nani series, published by Duckbill Books, and how it came about.

What prompted Ninja Nani? There are not too many Indian series of chidren’s books.

I wanted to write a wacky story starring an unconventional superhero set in an Indian town. Once I had written the first draft of Ninja Nani and the Bumbling Burglars, I realised that the story was far from over, and I really wanted to explore the characters and the town of Gadbadnagar in more detail. Books 2 and 3 followed soon after, and there are still lots more stories left to tell!

There are also not too many comic books in the current context. What made you combine graphics with the chapter-style storytelling?

I love reading comics, and I love making them. The Ninja Nani books are full of silly action sequences, dream sequences, even the odd gag, that lent themselves perfectly to a graphic format. It’s a playful book filled with irreverent ideas—back-flipping grannies, clueless parents, draconian teachers possessed by evil sprites…so it made sense for the book’s layout to get playful and irreverent too. The comics were also a great way for explore different ways of telling a story; sometimes, a single panel or facial expression can convey more than a page full of text. Kids—and adults—I’ve met at litfests and schools across the country have enjoyed the book and its format. I’ve had children writing in to tell me the comics are the best part of the books, I’ve met grannies who said they loved the visuals of squabbling, back-flipping seniors and I’ve had reviewers complaining that the books needed more pages of comics!

How did you decide to make the Nani a crime-fighting ninja? Is there a feminist or anti-ageist message?

I wanted my protagonist to be someone hiding in plain sight. Our culture tends to venerate seniors and coddle juniors, while giving neither a voice. Where better to hide a crime fighter and her feisty sidekick than in this vast overlooked and ignored segment of our population? While the books do not have a deliberate message, as a feminist and a woman, I hope everything I write endorses inclusivity and diversity.

childrens books, grandma Author Lavanya Karthik

They also make a strange duo, with Deepu, the young protagonist, acting as the conscience, keeping her on the straight and narrow, while Nani tends to be impulsive and show off her powers a bit. Was that deliberate?

Absolutely. Deepu is inspired by a lot  of wonderful children I’ve met over the years—kids with a strong moral core, a natural empathy for people weaker or different from them, the strength to face  their fears and step in to help a friend. As for Nani, well, I happen to be an impulsive and flighty show-off myself, with a sensible teenaged daughter who constantly has to reel me in, so the books are just a tad bit autobiographical in that aspect.

Also Read: Children’s book Miss Laya’s Fantastic Motorbike started as a phone story

It’s also a story about bonding with grandparents. Deepu is unaware of the things his grandmother was up to—gymnastics, trekking, etc—as a young woman. Is there a message here?

We do often tend to forget that our seniors were once pesky children, unruly teenagers, and conflicted young adults too. Our grandparents are often relegated to the backgrounds of our stories as genial, elderly two-dimensional characters, with very little agency or stories of their own. Deepu and Nani live in the same house, yet are almost strangers to each other, thanks to the busy, gadget-intensive lives they lead. It isn’t until a freak accident (ironically, involving a gadget) that they begin to develop a bond and discover aspects to each other’s lives and characters they had never known before.

I was utterly clueless about my maternal grandparents’ rich, eventful life until an old box was unearthed and I discovered, among other gems, a crystal ball my grandfather once used to tell fortunes and photographs of my grandmother’s tennis playing days.

The fight for the remote is common and yet, with most bedrooms coming with their own TV, viewing time is often not shared. What is your experience?

I grew up in a single TV household in the golden pre-cable era of Doordarshan, so everybody sat together and watched everything. Which didn’t boil down to much, really—a Sunday evening movie, Chitrahaar once a week, that phenomenon called Hum Log, a smattering of animation shows. I don’t think our TV even had a remote control, or needed one…there were only two channels with distinct programming schedules! Looking back, I’m hugely grateful for this spartan rationing; it ensured we played outdoors, made actual friends (who weren’t categorised into F.R.I.E.N.D.S), fought (and then made up) with those friends, read books and comics, and developed interests that did not involve binge-watching or channel-surfing.

childrens books, grandma

What is special about the relationship between kids and grandparents that you’ve tried to explore through the books?

One thing I’ve noticed in a lot of kid-grandparent interactions is how they instinctively gang up against the hapless grownups in the generation between. While our parents often seem to forget how it felt to be a child, our grandparents are amused to see their children going through a lot of the travails of parenting they themselves once endured. The middle generation becomes the authoritarian foe that the other two unite against!

Deepu and Nani share a house with Deepu’s clueless, if well-meaning, parents. They are typical of most helicopter parents today, obsessive about schedules and rules, yet so distracted as to be oblivious to things right under their nose. Small wonder then that Deepu and Nani can hide in plain sight, even borrow Mummy’s clothing, and still remain undiscovered!

Your favourite children’s books and any featuring grannies as protagonists?

The Nonsense Verse of Sukumar Ray

Bringing Back Grandfather, by Anjali Banerjee

The Johnny Maxwell trilogy, by Terry Pratchett.

‘Which Witch?, and The Island of the Aunts, both by Eva Ibbotson , are filled with fantastic ladies of a certain vintage. I am also a fan of Granny Weatherwax, from Pratchett’s Discworld novels. Closer home, I love Paati from Asha Nehemiah’s delightful The Mystery of the Secret Hair Oil Formula and the eponymous senior from Rajiv Eipe’s Ammachi’s Amazing Machines.

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