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Letter from an old student

A letter from an old student about three books she read recently.

Ma and I have been wanting to buy a book for the CFL library, and I was wondering if you might help me choose. I’ve short-listed three, of which two are actually by the same author so we thought we might buy both. The first one is Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. If school doesn’t have it already, I’d definitely love to gift this one. It’s a classic, written in 1953 and set in a future American society where all books are banned and “firemen” are hired to make fires (and burn books) instead of putting them out. I think you might have heard of it already.

The other two are by Neal Stephenson: Snow Crash and Quicksilver.

I read Snow Crash first so I’ll tell you about it first, though I think you might enjoy Quicksilver more. Published in 1992 (at a time when the internet was nothing like it is now) the book is set in a sort of sci-fi world and falls, among multiple other genres, into that of Cyberpunk. What fascinates me about Stephenson and this book in particular, is its’ total defiance of categorisation. It includes everything from computer technology to the history of the Sumerians and the Tower of Babel, from business monopolies and a pizza delivery ‘mob’ of Italian gangsters to a Katana wielding protagonist named Hiro Protagonist. It also includes this parallel virtual gaming universe which is mind-blowing when you think of the fact that he was writing before video games and avatars became what they are today. His writing is wonderfully crisp and if he wrote for textbooks, I would never have difficulty understanding any academic concept again.

The other book, Quicksilver, is part of the Baroque trilogy but since I haven’t yet read the others, I cannot say if they are as good. This one, is science fiction but set in the past. Actually it’s hard to tell how much of it is fiction, because it’s centred around the Royal Society of Britain and has Isaac Newton, Robert Hook, King Charles et cetera as main characters of the novel. Naturally, it is set in the 1600s and includes as much history as science. Science was called Natural Philosophy then, and chemistry was Alchemy. Personally, I really enjoyed the book because I’ve never really understood what people like Ishaan find so fascinating about science and experiments, and this book has completely changed that for me. By fitting science into the (for me more tangible) world of mystery, discovery and controversy, the novel sort of brought science out of that box of emotionless, mechanical processes that I think we so-called “humanities” people tend to put it in.

For that reason alone, and if not for the crispness of his writing that I mentioned before, I think you might enjoy this book a lot more than Snow Crash. But there’s another thing I thought I should mention. In terms of the reading itself, I found Snow Crash a lot easier and much less tedious, I think because of its’ racy plot, while Quicksilver required quite a bit of effort and took me an embarrassing amount of time to plough through.


The Hindu Young World-Goodbooks Awards 2016 announced

The Hindu Young World Goodbook awardees (from left) Sujatha Padmanabhan, Prabha Mallya, Venita Coelho and Vishakka Chanchani at the Lit For Life Festival. Photo: R. Ragu

The Hindu Young World-Goodbooks Awards 2016, the first Indian awards to promote excellence in Indian children’s books, were presented here on Friday.

Sujatha Padmanabhan received the best picture book- story award for ‘Bumboo…The Donkey who would not budge’, published by Eklavya, 2015.

In the citation, the jury comprising Usha Mukunda, Sujata Noronha, Amruta Patil, Aashti Mudnani said: “An endearing story of a little donkey, living with a loving family high in the mountains of Ladakh. The relationship between the young girl and the donkey is delineated with sensitivity. Bumboo has an engaging storyline that manages to keep the suspense alive. For the reader, there is a slow but sure connection with the characters and personalities.”

Prabha Mallya bagged the award for the best picture book-illustrations for ‘The alphabet of animals and birds’ published by Red Turtle, 2014. In the citation, the jury said: “In describing collective nouns, the premise of the alphabet of animals and birds, Prabha Mallya notes that they exist not for utilitarian reasons, but to bring nuance, metaphor and imagination to language. Such quirky delights find kindred spirit in Prabha Mallya.”

Venita Coelho received the award for the best book- fiction for ‘Dead as a Dodo,’ published by Hachette, 2015. “A smart, witty, fast-paced novel about saving the Earth and animals from the reckless greed of human beings,” said the jury comprising Manjula Padmanabhan, Jai Arjun Singh and Anil Menon in the citation.

Vishakha Chanchani emerged the winner in the best book-non-fiction category for ‘The house that Sonabai built,’ published by Tulika, 2014. The book is about a remarkable woman who began experimenting with clay to create toys for her little son. “A heart warming and significant book about life, art and above all hope,” the citation read.

Goodbooks, a website for Indian children’s books, is supported by Wipro Applying Thought in Schools, Wipro’s social initiative in education.

Catering to the young – Anil Menon, Sujata Noronha, Shailaja Menon and Vidya Mani on children’s literature in India

When Vidya Mani was a child, Enid Blyton opened up a world where tin cans often held sardines to feast on. Only, the cans she opened at home hardly ever held this delicacy, a staple in Blyton’s larder.

It took Vidya a while to realise that sardines were a type of fish, and even longer to figure out that they were not served out of cans in this part of the world. It was for reasons like this that the panellists at ‘A Good Book: Literature for Children in India’ — author Anil Menon, teacher/library educator Sujata Noronha and researcher Shailaja Menon, in conversation with writer and editor Vidya — agreed that Indian children need to read Indian books.

“Books serve as both mirrors and windows — they should reflect your own realities and give you an opportunity to see the realities of others. Growing up, we didn’t see our lives mirrored in the books we read — the lives they lived, the food they ate and the language they spoke were all different,” said Shailaja. Now, there is a boom in the number of Indian authors writing in English, and a steady growth among those writing, illustrating and publishing for children.

“We can actually reject books at the library now {her organisation, Bookworm, works with children and communities through a library programme}; that alone shows we have come a long way from a time when we were glad for any book that came our way,” said Sujata.

The panellists agreed that a distinct Indian voice is emerging, one which celebrates the factors that make us who we are, without being apologetic about it. However, Anil pointed out that children still need stories that have them addicted to reading, something with about 20 volumes to satisfy their hunger.

“We don’t have a Chetan Bhagat for children and, perhaps, we need one,” said Anil. While Vidya commented that children don’t always respond to what adults determine as quality literature, Sujata responded, “No child would read a good book if we left it up to displays, given the current bookshop scenario. Nurturing and urging is a professional responsibility.”

The panellists critiqued and commented on many aspects of writing, publishing and reviewing, and agreed that Indian literature for children still has a long way to go.

“We’ve made great strides and this is not to critique those strides, but to celebrate them and hold the bar higher,” said Shailaja.

No hiccups here!

Book: Hic!copotamus.










Author: Geeta Dharmarajan.

Artist: Atanu Roy.

Publisher: Katha.

Price: Rs. 140.00

The inimitable pair of Geeta and Atanu have turned their talents to bring out a book to laugh with.

The usual sounds of the Gulmohar Jungle are rudely disturbed one morning by something gigantic sploshing into the Lily Pond. What in heaven could it be? The rest of the story is pure fun and can be enjoyed by children as they listen, take roles and enact the hilarious scenes.

Atanu Roy shows his versatility in creating absurd and comical representations of the animals in the forest. Geeta Dharmarajan’s story line keeps the guessing game alive, and the participation of the animals and readers going at a good pace. The conversational style draws both younger and older readers alike.

“Soon they were all busy thinking. ‘Water’, said Forest Fox suddenly. That’s what we foxes drink when we hiccup. It works every time!”

” ‘Thanks!’ said Hawasi, ‘Water I love!'”

One trend that can be noticed in fiction for children these days is the inclusion of facts either at the end of the story or interspersed within the text. This does not always match the age group the story is intended for. But here it blends in well, probably because children are insatiably curious about animals.

Altogether a book which children will relate to both in terms of animals they love and hiccups which are a source of delight to everyone except the sufferer!

Usha Mukunda.         Oct. 29th 2014.

Who has seen the wind?

Book: The Dust Storm.










Author: Geeta Dharamarajan.

Artist: Atanu Roy.

Publisher: Katha.

Price: Rs. 140.00

Children from almost all backgrounds are being sent earlier and earlier to play schools, many of which do not deserve that nomenclature. Most of them “preoccupy” their wards leaving them with hardly any space to day dream.The creative and formative years of a child’s life is taken up with planned ‘activities.’ Where is the place for imagination? Against this reality, this book comes as a refreshing breath of air.

The story opens with a young girl who steps out of her ordinary home and is carried along by a dust storm. The remaining pages are pure joy as the young girl encounters magical situations that every child could and should envision. Atanu Roy wafts both adults and children into meadows of flowers, clouds of balloons and a myriad rainbow. There is a sense of free flow in his use of colours and movement. An artist who lives his dream!

Geeta Dharmarajan is a master story teller but of late I had missed the spark in her writing. She is back in full force in this tale with rhyming couplets and soaring images.

“I feel so good,

I want to fly.

Rainbow says.

‘Go on, just try.’”

And again, “I slide on balloons.

           Blue and green.

         I ride a cloud horse,

           Like a queen.”

I was reminded of the poem “Who has seen the wind?”by Christina Rossetti.

Who has seen the wind?

Neither I nor you:

But when the leaves hang trembling,

The wind is passing through.

The production, as always is excellent.

Usha Mukunda.     October 29th 2014.

An old captivity

Recently I read an absorbing account of a friend’s reading journey and that started me off on my own recollections. I was living with my grandparents in a little township called Kolar Gold Fields in Karnataka. Every morning the call of the sirens woke me up and sent the faithful miners scurrying underground. There were also the urgent wails of the sirens which portended doom for the miners and their families, but at age eight, I was unaware of the tragedies unfolding under the earth.

 My reality was the book collection that my young aunts had left behind when they went to the big city to study. The day’s chores kept my grandmother busy late into the night while my grandfather was a distant figure who mounted his motorbike with the sidebar seats and drove off each morning. The school I had attended the previous year was a heap of rubble, devastated by a rock burst early one morning and now mourned by the figure of Jesus as he looked down in perpetual sorrow. My parents in far-off Calcutta were busy rearing a delicate younger brother and had not taken in the implications of my solitary state. But personally I was in heaven. A tiny hot room with a tin roof to bake in, cupboards full of delectable books, the whole day stretching out and no one to check what I was reading! The first book I browsed through seemed intriguing. Chinese names and outlandish customs. So at age 8, there I was plunging into “The Good Earth” by Pearl Buck. I can’t say I understood it all but the desolation of the famine did stay with me. As for the parts about the concubines, it was a word to reckon with, nothing more!

The next lot I went through was the whole set of Dickens novels. I was a year older then and relished with great delight his deft handling of the English language.“She had a trenchant way of cutting bread and butter,” is a sentence that has never left me! The complexity of the language was a wee bit beyond my total comprehension but flashes of understanding brought to light the promise of what was to come. Pip, Estella, Oliver, Fagin, Mr. Micawber, Sidney Carton….. Oh! what wondrous and real people they were to me. Then it was the turn of the Russians. Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Chekov evoked people and places that I could never have dreamed of. Somewhere in the distance I could hear my grandmother call out to me but she was not real to me then. She had her own special place in my tryst with books. When night fell, I would hover around her and wait for her last chore to be done. The bright blue covered books would be taken out of her little cupboard and as I gazed entranced at the pictures, she would begin her narration of the Ramayana. These were not just the highlights but the stories behind the stories and they always came with a little lesson. “Do you know why Laxmana’s wife, Urmile got left behind when they left for the forest? She was having a bath and took so long that when she came out they were gone. So it is not a good thing to spend too long over a bath!” I could hardly keep my eyes open but there was no question of falling asleep. Curled up in her lap, I listened with deep contentment.

 Cut to more than 60 years later and the inexorable march of the kindle. “You are such a great reader,” people say, “the kindle is perfect for you. Don’t resist. You can read as many books as you wish.” How can I begin to explain my old captivity? For me, reading comes with a host of memories. Every time I pick up a book to read I see a solemn girl, baking in that little room oblivious to everything but her world. Even now, what entices me is the smell of the books, the feel and weight of the book in my hands, the anticipation as I open the first page and the vision of cupboards with their promise of delights to come.

 Kindle, baby, you’ve come a long way but you can’t do it for me!

Usha Mukunda.  August 21st  2014.

The great book chase

Lurking deep in the heart of every librarian is a set of amazing stories which are not a part of the library collection. These tales are about sleuthing worthy of note by the greatest detectives in literature, relentless and dogged pursuit which would make even “Les Miserables” pale in comparison, and shades of serendipity which would make the reader gasp with wonder.

I exaggerate, you think? Draw a little closer and listen because I speak from the horse’s mouth. Since I have never believed in imposing fines for late return of books, there is a certain ‘lackadaisiness ‘on the part of young users in our library. But they can’t so easily ignore a presence which suggests that they pull their beds from the wall, lift a pillow and check the kitchen cupboard for the missing book especially when more often than not, it is found in one of these spaces. But with one teenager, I hit a wall. He was adamant that the book was not with him and only after we agreed on a wager did he actually let me into his sanctorum to search for the book. Minutes later, I was triumphantly holding aloft the huge book which was ensconced amidst his text books of the same size. With no loss of face, he admitted he had hardly touched his text books for weeks! Now a noted surgeon in the U.K., I hope he is applying the adage, “When you have gone through all the possibilities, try the impossible.”

Another young person was a voracious reader and no one was more distressed than she when three of her borrowed books were unaccounted for.  Tearfully she averred having checked all the unusual places as well, and I let it go, respecting her feelings. Some years later after she completed her courses, she moved to Holland. The first time she came back to India and visited the school, she marched into the library, joyfully carrying the missing books. They had come home after a Dutch treat 10 years later. She was ecstatic and so was I.

Once I was browsing at a used book store when I came upon a precious library book from a school I had worked at. I recognised it instantly and then began a most unusual conversation with the owner. He naturally wanted the price he had listed while I kept appealing to his sense of fair play. How could he have bought a book which was obviously lifted from a library? I wanted him to give it to me gratis, to be returned to the library. Believe it or not, he finally agreed and that book happily went back home.

Guy de Maupassant is a master teller of short stories with surprise endings, but even he may not be able to top this one. An aunt whose husband was gravely ill mentioned that he had expressed a wish to listen to a story by the French writer. I knew our library had a copy so the book made its way to my aunt’s house. Sadly, in a few months her husband passed away but not before listening to the story. A few more months went by before I ventured to ask for the book back. My aunt was out of the country by then, but gave me detailed instructions to get into the house past all the locked doors. Stealthily, I tiptoed through all her book shelves, with no luck. I then tried to do a Holmes exercise by going over all the relatives who might have visited the house and picked up the book to read. But none of them had it. Meanwhile my aunt wanted to replace the book but something made me hold her back. Last week I got a call from her. “The book is back,” she said joyfully. “How….what…when…?”  I stuttered. “It was the Doctor,” she explained. He had been sitting next to the patient, monitoring his condition. The book caught his eye and he started reading it. When he rose to leave, he absent-mindedly took it home along with his stethoscope!  Alas, if only the heroine in Maupassant’s story, “The Necklace” could have had such a happy ending!

Usha Mukunda.

August 21st 2014

“Serena”. 103. 6th Main Road. Malleswaram. Bangalore 560003.

Tel. No: 23348657.

Changes After the librarians’ workshop!

Our reading corner…..

They can take reading cushion where ever they like in the library……

This month children are going to help us in decorating their reading corner….

One girl artist from class VIII has some nice ideas and she wants to paint the walls with fabric colours…!

We discussed with our children and they came up with lots of interesting ideas.

I’ll do the same with every class this week and decide……..

We also have a shelve where anyone can recommend books they have read and liked. These books will be displayed there….

Usha Mukunda