We are delighted to welcome author Chitra Soundar to Story Snug. Chitra was born and grew up in India and has written a fascinating post about the books and stories that shaped her childhood. Chitra’s two newest books ‘A Jar of Pickles and a Pinch of Justice’ and ‘Pattan’s Pumpkin’ will be published this month and she is very generously giving away a copy of A Jar of Pickles and a Pinch of Justice to one of Story Snug’s readers.
‘Stories from India’
The first picture book I ever owned was when I was eight. I had just won a storytelling competition at school and I got this book as first prize.
Picture books (or for that matter children’s books) were not abundantly or readily available in our school libraries as most of them were imported. And don’t even ask me about public libraries – we didn’t have any then and we hardly have child-friendly library spaces now.
The books that gave me stories I related to, stories I could discuss with my parents and grandparents and stories that were connected to the innumerable photos and sculptures of gods in our house were the Amar Chitra Katha comics. They told me stories from our history, culture and our epics. I probably read thousands of those – about 30 or so every fortnight when we took the bus for an hour to the private lending library that rented out bound copies of comics. I also read imported comics from the lending library. Archie, Tintin, Asterix were all part of my life as much as Tenali Rama, Birbal, Krishna or Arjuna.
The one thing that we had every morning at home was the broadsheet newspaper The Hindu. I loved reading the front-page news and then the editorial. The newspaper also carried (and still does) a Young World section in for young people.
Children’s books were not part of a “defined” genre in those days. I regret now that I never heard of Judy Blume or even Roald Dahl during my growing up years. Kids like me who read voraciously migrated from comics to novels written for adults during middle school.
In spite of the lack of abundance, we read some classic Indian books that both grownups and children enjoyed. I read in English, Tamil and Hindi and I wanted to mention a few that are etched in my memory and inspired me to imagine my own stories.
Here are two that are only available in Tamil and perhaps have in-jokes that only native speakers with knowledge of local culture can get. But it is hilariously funny and has universal appeal in its themes.
1. Appusamy stories – these were funny stories set in an ordinary household featuring Appusamy and his wife Seetha patti.
2. Washington-il Thirumanam – this was one of the early stories where expat life was fictionalised. This was the early period when the generation before us moved to the US in droves to take up technology, science and medical jobs. The story fictionalises a real Indian wedding set in Washington sponsored by a wealthy family. Today when we celebrate Indian festivities in London, I often think about this book – how many of the “misconceptions” by westerners were articulated decades ago and sadly many of those haven’t changed.
In Hindi, the two writers most I loved to read were Premchand and Jaishankar Prasad. While Premchand wrote gritty social drama, Jaishankar Prasad wrote historical fiction. Prasad’s plays brought to life the life of early history of India especially when Alexander the Great tried to invade India. Even now I remember history through these stories.
India is one of the leading English language publishers in the world. Then and now, India has a huge body of literature written in English. I wanted to share special ones with you here.
One of my absolute favourite is Kaziranga Trails by Arup Kumar Dutta. An amazing book of adventure set in the Kaziranga national park. I recently tracked down a copy and re-read it and the magic did hold up still.
The second one that formed a part of my generation is Swami and Friends by R K Narayan. An eminent literary novelist, R K Narayan wrote stories set in a fictional town called Malgudi. Though Swami and Friends was written in the late 1930s when we were growing up in the 70s and 80s it was still funny and mischievous and the TV series became a Sunday staple.
But the most important writer I want to mention is Ruskin Bond. Ruskin Bond wrote when I was a kid and is still writing and is a national treasure in India. He writes poetry, adventure stories and my most favourite – ghost stories. There are so many of his books to list. But if you had to read one, I would recommend Room on the Roof, an attempt at showing India through the lens of a mixed-race Anglo-Indian boy Rusty (who often is the hero of Bond’s books). Bond’s books are available here in the UK. So don’t miss the opportunity to get to know the real India through his eyes.
As I evolved as a writer, I write what I’m familiar with, what I want to read, what my nephews would love to read as they grow up. My interest in slice of life stories, humour, ‘fictional’ villages, family settings and Indian history can be traced back to these books and writers who made a huge impact on me.
Thank you so much for this fascinating insight into the stories that you read as a child Chitra. It is interesting to hear which childhood stories inspired your own writing.
You can take the girl out of India, but not India out of the girl. Chitra Soundar lives and works from London, UK. But she is from the south of India, where story is another spice in the larder. She grew up listening and reading to stories from across the world and today she writes her own stories, usually set in India.
Her two latest releases are Pattan’s Pumpkin (illustrated by Frané Lessac), published by Otter-Barry Books and A Jar of Pickles and a Pinch of Justice (illustrated by Uma Krishnaswamy) and published by Walker Books.