Interview with the author

Padma T. Venkatraman.
Padma T. Venkatraman is the author of several books and articles for children and adults. After completing her post-doctoral research at Johns Hopkins University's Department of Environmental Engineering (USA), she began to devote most of her time to writing fiction, poetry and science. Her fiction, non-fiction and poetry for adults as well as children have been published in India, the USA (most notably by Highlights and the Cricket group) and Europe. She is a regular contributor to leading Indian newspapers and magazines. She currently teaches courses in chemistry at the University of Rhode Island on a part-time basis. Her other interests comprise a long list that includes yoga, art, music, hiking, canoeing, horse riding and scuba diving.

Since she's an NRI herself, we interviewed her about her books and writing, especially in regard to Indians living abroad.

What target age group do you write for?

I write for the age group 5- 15, and am now writing a novel for the parental generation!

Why did you choose to write kids books?

I am working on my first novel for adults and have completed two novels for young adults, so I write for all age groups, not exclusively for kids. Most of my work is for the juvenile market, though - probably because I love writing and reading ... kid's books!

What do you write about, and do you have a defined purpose in mind when you write a book?(eg educate/entertain/develop reading skills)

I have a purpose sometimes, but not always. My unpublished novels are on topics that are dear to my heart, but they aren't written with any message in mind.

With The Forbidden Temple, the idea wasn't to educate, necessarily, but rather to explore a subject that I loved, in a creative manner. Then again, this turned out to be the most successful book of all. The second edition is being printed currently, and I've been approached for translation rights. Many adults say they have read it and said they learned a lot from it. A chapter is being incorporated into a text book which will be published by Ratna Sagar. It is also being used in schools as supplemental reading and I've written a teacher's guide to help use the book in English and/or History classes. I never really expected to, though. When I wrote it, I was just passionately involved with incorporating historically accurate details. It was fun. With my 2 animal series, and with my regular columns in the Hindu and Sanctuary, the idea is to educate and entertain at the same time.

What do you like most about writing children's books?

The rigor. In a book for adults, you can ramble on for a bit, but in a children's book you can't - kids won't put up with what they don't like reading, unlike adults, who will stay a while longer, to try and figure out if the book gets better. Also, writing children's book helps me stay positive. Although I've explored some serious and sad subjects, on the whole, when I write for children, I feel optimistic. When I write for adults, I allow myself to get pessimistic at times, to see cruelty more clearly, to be harsh.

What do you think Indian kids are missing, as far as contemporary (kids) books go?

They are missing a few things, but I think this will change in the next decade.

What would I like to see more of?

Indian authors writing just for fun. Indian booksellers displaying Indian authors prominently - some do, some don't. Indian parents buying Indian authors and reading them out to their children, Indian parents promoting books they like - many do, but I wish there were many more! Indian publishers who take risks - some do, most don't.

Unfortunately, there's a myth that poetry, fantasy and pure fiction written by Indian authors doesn't sell - one that prevents children from having easy access to purely imaginative material written by Indians. Harry Potter is great, but unfortunately even he hasn't been able to make this myth vanish.

And another really important development that needs to happen: Indian authors need to be recognized internationally. Unfortunately, despite all that's written about the desire to have more multicultural literature about, book publishers in the West are still publishing inaccurate, unauthentic books about other cultures written by western authors and aren't doing enough to seek out and show case true ethnic diversity.

Adequate compensation for Indian authors!!! Publishers need to pay authors better rates and a good percentage of royalties.

What's the best response you've had from a kid who's read a book of yours?

I've had so positive responses, and every single one is the sweetest and the best! Many have said The Forbidden Temple made them like history, which is, of course, thrilling. A few have said they wanted to be like me (writers or chemists or oceanographers or scientists) after reading one of my books. A few have spoken about questions that popped into their minds after reading or said they had a better understanding of emotions or problems, which is touching. The best published response from a child: "Super, Ma!" (Daughter of Uma Girish, Indian Review of Books).

How do you think Indian kids abroad will benefit?

Some Indian American children tell me that my books make them feel connected with India in a way that nothing else did before. Indian kids abroad don't have many books about Indian history, and it seems to be a wonderful thing for them to discover what a rich, ancient, accepting, and advanced cultural heritage they are heir to. Some like just having protagonists with Indian names! Many of them have also said they are thrilled when they readan Indian children's author who is "just as good as anyone else" - a wonderful affirmation for any author.

What's the best response from a parent?

Again, there have been so many responses that warmed my heart - from grandparents, parents and teachers. It's really hard to pick. I love it when a parent tells me that their child's favourite book is mine. I love it when someone I don't know writes to let me know how much they (or their kids or students) enjoyed a book. I love it when friends and members of family feel proud and happy on my behalf and tell me how they feel and do what they can to promote my books. Here are some eloquent parental reviews:

Chetan Dhruve:

"I enjoyed the book so much that I ended up feeling sorry for myself - that no one had taught me history the way Padma did through her book. History for most of us is just that: history. Yet, we forget that people who lived in the long forgotten past were living, breathing human beings with joys, sorrows and anxieties of their own. Padma does an absolutely fantastic job of bringing these people alive, so despite the huge "age gap", we can relate to them as contemporary human beings. It's no longer history but stories of us. This should be made into a compulsory "text book" and all history books should be written this way. Preferably by Padma." Tell us something about your journey as a child, and how that influences what you write. That's a tough question. I've had an interesting life, so far. My childhood was unusual.and I don't want to go into it too much, except to say that I was lucky to have the amazing love of two wonderful people: my mother and my gardener, whose faith in my abilities helped me and still does help me. My childhood taught me not to idolize, not to stereotype. I learned quite early that age and experience don't necessarily bring wisdom, just as childhood isn't necessarily an innocent period when one's heart is filled with kindness. I was quite a serious child, and I was always appreciative of the beauty of the world and of living in it. Most important of all, I learned the importance of laughter, and that it is good to have the ability to step back from things, not to take yourself too seriously and to always try and see the funny side of things.

Other influences.

My dearest and most wonderful life partner - he is a constant source of support. The dear friends I have, their faith in my writing and their sincere encouragement. The many wonderful people I have been privileged to meet. The many countries I have had the wonderful opportunity to live in. My schizophrenic interests: the world of mathematical sciences and the world of art. The human ability to conquer cruelty, to survive hardship, to be compassionate. The beauty of this world, the joy of life. Last, but not least, the many fabulous authors I have read, including Shelly, with whom I disagree - our sweetest songs are NOT always those that tell of saddest thought; our sincerest laughter is NOT always fraught with some pain!

What book are you currently writing?

A tough question. I work on multiple projects at the same time. I am working on: a chapter book, a novel for adults, a novel for young adults, a fact-fiction book, and a non-fiction picture book manuscript. I move from one to the other, depending on what I feel most inspired to do!

What are your plans for the future?

To write as much as I can. To write about issues that mean a lot to me, in the hope that I can do my bit to increase (both within myself and in those around me), cultural sensitivity, mutual understanding, kindness, charity, peace, freedom. To give my readers joy. To awaken my own self through my writing. To help make science accessible to managers and decision makers, to underprivileged people, to privileged lay adults who don't have a science background. To educate people about important issues, such as the contribution of ancient Indians to science and mathematics. To encourage women, international students, racial and economic minorities in the sciences, through my writing. To reach out to children all over the world, from every sphere of life, of every ethnicity, of every nationality. To speak to adults I have never seen. To leave behind books that will survive me, so that I can bring a smile to the lips of someone who is born long after I have died.

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The views of this column are the author's own, and do not necessarily represent the views of NRI Online.

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