07 December 2014

Atisa and his time machine (Adventures with Hieun Tsang) by Anu Kumar

History as fun-filled adventure

I read about this book on facebook and immediately ordered a copy. I very much liked the idea of  encountering Hieun Tsang as a real person, even if only an imaginary version. Reading and revelling in the author’s imagery and racy plot, marvelling at Priya Kurian’s very stylish illustrations, wishing I’d had books like this to read as a child, I realised that this was one of a series and it did not tell me how old Atisa was, how and when his time machine was created and a few other things I wanted to know. I sent Anu Kumar a set of questions. I have left her replies just as she wrote them, so that anyone who reads this will get a sense of her writing style. Meanwhile, as I eagerly await the next Atisa book, I've been reading the previous ones and bought copies for younger readers too.

Please tell us about your concept of writing history for children in story form.
I guess it began from a short story in comic form I wrote first. This was about a time traveller, actually called Pedro, who ended up in Akbar's palace in Fatehpur Sikri and impressed him with a telescope that was originally Galileo's. 
When I was introduced to then editor at Puffin, Vatsala Kaul-Banerjee, I redeveloped the idea in myriad ways, and thereon was born Atisa and the Seven Wonders.  
It was and remains a mix of fact and fiction and fantasy.  So in the first,  Atisa and the Seven Wonders, the "truths" about the seven ancient wonders are things essentially known about them and the story was built around these.  I used the story of Daedelus and Icarus, the old Greek story when Icarus flies too close to the sun, and the wax on his wings melts, and he drowns tragically.  But since I like happier endings like most people, in this story, Icarus doesn't actually die, his father Daedelus believes this and so he invents this wondrous flying machine.  The machine is stolen by the lonely keeper of the lighthouse at Alexandria (one of the seven ancient wonders) who lands up at Atisa's house somewhere close to us, i.e. Tawang in the northeast.   
It is on this machine that Atisa sets off on his adventure.  But in this book and in the second one, it is his archaeologist mother, Gaea (named after the Greek earth goddess) who usually spurs him to adventure. She is a historian, explorer and archaeologist all rolled up, and is always seeking to solve things left unresolved in the past.  Atisa's father, Gesar, named after a mythical Tibetan king, is on the other hand, an inventor and scientist. Some of the additions to the flying machine have been Gesar's contributions such as the sound catcher - a machine that picks up sounds even from the past; the weather lantern that changes color as an indicator, and then the decoder which is a kind of makeshift translator.  In every successive adventure, he comes up with intriguing inventions that add to the fun of the story. 
I got the idea for the second book, when Atisa goes in search of Hiuen Tsang or Xuanzang, from a book that the latter himself wrote or is believed to have written and of which there is an English translation as well (see on Gutenberg). The Chinese monk wrote about constant attempts on his life and how jealous rivals tried often to throw him off track.  Atisa of course makes sure that all is well with Hiuen Tsang and that he returns safely to China.  But there are several hair-raising adventures in the process - in places like yes, Bamiyan, Mathura, Prayag, Nalanda and even Badami. 
The third and latest one is of course set in the time of Chandragupta II of the Guptas. He did wage war against the Sakas in the west but the bit about the Nine Gems is more story than fact, but nevertheless its fascinating story.  And I did want to bring in Lilavati, the astronomer Varahamihira's amazingly brilliant daughter,  and it is with her help, that Atisa gets to the end of this mystery, reveal the evil intentions of all those who'd wish Kalidasa and by extension,  the Gupta empire, harm.  

Who is Atisa?
He is a 14 year old time travelling detective.  I think he will grow up a bit in the next adventures. He loves to travel, knows several languages and always retains a sense of context, despite the many pasts he goes back to :)  He's really fun. In this adventure,  In search of Kalidasa, he is in that phase when he wants to wear his hair a bit longer, like in the manner of the old warriors and is a bit sad when it is over and he knows Lilavati belongs to the past, his past too. But I guess that's all part of it.  
The name actually comes from Atisa Dipankara Srijnana.  My editor and I tossed up various names and she liked this one and its stayed. Atisa Dipankara was a revered Buddhist teacher, from the Pala kingdom (Bengal), of the 11th century CE. Born into royalty, he travelled to Tibet and is responsible in a sense for restoring Buddhism there after its repression. 

Please tell us something about the names you use (Atisa, Bojax, Dos Tum, any others …) and your process of choosing them.
Actually its quite random and initially tough.  For some days before I fix upon a name that is ideal to the character in the story, I experiment with how they sound, how the name would look on a person, hoping for the right mix. With names for the different books set in different pasts, I try to make them fun and sort of local too.  In the Hiuen Tsang book, Bojax, and Dos Tum are essentially Central Asian names, people Hiuen Tsang may have encountered. There were more complex names too but I didn't want to make the reading cumbersome. A name can't be so hard that you can't unroll your tongue from around it. 

How did you get this idea, and what are the main historical themes in the three books you’ve written so far?
I didn't begin with the dream of a series, quite honestly.  With the first book, as I researched about the Seven Wonders, it was real fun, and having an adventure around it was doubly so. It came to me, with all modesty, that it's something that really hasn't been tried before, and even that thought was hard to accept.  
But once Atisa and the Seven Wonders got a few good reviews (in an age when Facebook wasn't the entity it is today) and I had the confidence that I could write, that I was indeed a writer, I realized it could go on, that Atisa could have more adventures. And indeed, for Atisa, its only just begun. 

What are we going to get next?
In the next one, I use an old story related to Marco Polo, the Venetian in Kublai Khan's court.  The Great Khan's daughter is betrothed to the Persian king and it is Marco who is chosen to escort her across the seas - all the way from the South China Sea, down the Sumatra Strait, the Bay of Bengal, the Arabian Sea to Persia. But it is in Malabar, where the pearl thieves are a menace that something happens.  You must read to find that out.  

How do you balance fact with fiction in these stories?
I think that varies. In the first two, I did bring in a lot of facts that you find in history books - the Seven Wonders, Hiuen Tsang's travels and the places he visited. In the Kalidasa one, you could say there's more of the fiction element but its true to facts relating to the menace of the Sakas, I also use the story narrated in the 'Devichandragupta', but the rare eclipse, Varahamihira's lost scrolls and Lilavati's telescope - yes, that's all fiction and it was really fun.

03 December 2014

A strange kind of paradise: India through foreign eyes by Sam Miller

Planet India, perhaps

I read this book aloud to my friend Gladys, a little at a time, once a week every Tuesday. We both enjoyed it immensely. It had so much information that it made us feel terribly ignorant, but we forgave Sam Miller because he has a friendly writing style and also made us laugh frequently. 
A strange kind of paradise: India through foreign eyes tells us about India as described by visitors from other countries. Starting with the ancient Greeks, it goes on to St Thomas, Tripitaka (Hiuen Tsang in Indian school textbooks), Alberuni, Ibn Battuta, Babur, John Dryden, William Jones, Hegel, Rudyard Kipling, Madame Blavatsky, Mark Twain, Katherine Mayo, VS Naipaul, Allen Ginsberg, the Beatles, and more. In between are interpretations of India from a very large number of lesser-known writers on India, many considered authorities in their time and responsible for creating images in their readers’ minds that would go to consolidate Brand India. Sam Miller quotes many interesting books and offers his own balanced, contemporary interpretations. 
Each chapter is alternated by an ‘intermission’ in which Sam Miller offers his own colourful experiences and observations. Starting out as someone who was not particularly interested in India, Sam Miller marries an Indian, works in India, makes India his home, unexpectedly finds old family ties to India and even hopes to eventually die in India.
Smudgy and often droll images illustrate the book. Another unorthodox feature is the excessive footnotes. They are so many, so detailed and so interesting, that this could be considered two separate books – or at least one book which needs two readings, one for the narrative and another for the footnotes.
I found this book layered with meaning, and strewn with insights: insights into historical events based on the enormous range of sources the author consulted, as well as insights derived from his own personal experiences, mundane to exotic, in India. I learnt here a lot that my school history books never even hinted at, doubtless did not even know. Also, since Sam Miller’s descriptions of others’ descriptions of India alternate with his own personal experiences in India, we learn a lot about him too. 
There were many things I liked about this book: the new things I learnt, the author’s self-deprecating style, his commitment to rejecting any sort of stereotyping about India, and more. What I found most endearing, however, was Sam Miller’s unquestioning patriotic love for India.