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Fantasy, Fables, and Folklore with Shobha Tharoor Srinivasan

A treasure trove of timeless tales, Shobha Tharoor Srinivasan talks about fables and folklore in the contemporary era and her journey from being featured in a National Milk Company, Amul to receiving a National Award for Voice-Over.
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Shobha Tharoor Srinivasan is the author of many award-winning children’s books. She is also a translator, poet, editor, voice-over talent, and former non-profit development professional who has spent over two decades as an advocate for people with disabilities. As a storyteller, she believes in using the “power” of words and endorses raising awareness about children’s literature.

Q 1. How did you decide to become a children’s author?

I was brought up in a literary family, surrounded by constant debate and dialogue. We didn’t have a television until I was a teenager. Our childhood games were make-believe stories, spontaneous recitations, and memorized soliloquies often delivered with a theatrical flourish. I played word games with my siblings and parents and wrote poems and stories during our “quiet time.” I read a great deal as a child as well. We all did. When I was about 11 or 12, my father sent one of my stories to the Sunday Hindu newspaper’s Junior section, and the newspaper published my story about mischievous rabbits. A byline in the newspaper at a young age is exciting and addictive. I published as a teenager as well in the Times of India “middle” page. My publishing journey had begun. I continued to write whenever opportunities presented themselves.

I wrote for a college magazine as an undergraduate in America. I wrote grants and technical proposals in my job as a development director for a community-based organization in California. When my children left home, I changed fields and pursued my long-time interests in creative writing and voiceover work. My interest in children’s books evolved out of it.

I am now a grandmother who is often called upon to tell stories. I recognize that what children read today informs their thinking tomorrow. Children will be our decision-makers in the future. They are the future stewards of the planet. Children’s authors have an opportunity to open, expand, and influence young minds. It’s a privileged task.

Q 2. Tell us about your latest book; how did you come up with the story or the inspiration?

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Fantasy, Fables, and Folklore with Shobha Tharoor Srinivasan 10

My most recent book is Treasure Trove of Timeless Tales. This book is a collection of short stories. The common thread unifying the stories is that they are all rooted in the past—mine, yours, and ours. These are memories from my childhood, retellings of folktales and parables that have been handed down for generations, and narratives prompted by recent recollections. The book includes tales from around the world, from Japanese folklore to the Puranas. I have retold a Native American folktale, a tribal tale inspired by oral storytelling traditions and stories in which animals do the talking. Together, they speak the message of “one world, many stories” and “one story, many worlds.” The stories are composed using different narrative styles as well. The “Doll in a Red Sari” is written in the first person, while the retelling of classical Jataka tales, Panchatantra stories, and Aesop’s Fables has been done using a modern conversational style. There’s also Kayamkullam Kochunni, which is a historical narrative that became a popular folk tale in Kerala, and the “Lockdown Stories,” which are short, 100-word imaginative tales that encourage readers to create their own. This makes the collection rather unique. I want children to understand that just as children all over the world have similar impulses and traits, the themes of stories from many parts of the world are also similar. The fairy tale from Japan, Issun Bōshi, or the one-inch boy, is similar to the stories of Tom Thumb in English folklore and Thumbelina in the Danish fairy tale. There are varying twists to the story depending on who does the telling, but the essence of the story—of a little boy (or girl) and his or her adventures and misadventures—remains the same. We are all connected by our humanity. The 100-word format of the “Lockdown Stories” forces the writer to question each word and use the most appropriate word or phrasing to advance the story. It supports Flaubert’s mot juste (the right word) and is a fun and challenging exercise. As I said, this is not merely a retelling of folk tales.

Q 3. Which is your favourite book written by you, and why is it special?

It’s not easy for a writer to name their favourite book. I’ve enjoyed writing and sharing all my books with readers. And, I’ve worked to make each of them different so that there’s a new joy and learning from each book in my author list. My poetry book, It’s Time to Rhyme, is a book that was a little more challenging to write and is therefore special. It continues to resonate with young and old readers, and teachers have shared with me that the book is a unique resource for the classroom. This is a collection of poems for anyone who wants to enjoy the heart and music of poetry. I introduce readers to poetic forms like sonnets, nonets, limericks, poetic stanzas of various lengths, and metered lines that demonstrate the beat and rhythm of rhymed and unrhymed poetry. Each poem is first introduced in its form, and the description in the poem reveals the structure. So, for instance, the description of the sonnet is in 14 lines of iambic pentameter with an octave and a sestet, and an ending couplet. I then offer an example poem that uses the poetic form to speak of fun subjects appealing to children. The book has captured wide interest. The creative examples and wordplay draw readers of all ages to the vast variety of poetry and invite children to use their inventive artistry to write as well.

Q 4.  What are your thoughts on children’s literature in India right now?

At every school event, I’ve spoken at I see and hear enthusiastic children. They have been curious and thoughtful about their questions. This is reassuring and shows me that the world of literature and books is still exciting to young children. I’ve also been on the festival tour and have met so many wonderful writers who write children’s books. Of course, children’s books are competing with video games and other digital devices that can be compelling and distracting. Children are used to various stimuli, so it’s important that children’s literature grows and adapts to the changes as well. We need to add visual and audio components, vary the structure, include takeaways, and call on readers to take part in the narrative. I’ve tried to include all these elements in my books, and I believe children’s literature in India is evolving in these directions.

Q 5.  You were the first ever Amul baby! That must have been an exciting time for your family. How did this happen? What’s the story behind it? 

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Shashi Tharoor Srinivasan – The first ever Amul baby

A long time ago, when I was less than a year old, Amul’s advertising agency, ASP (Advertising & Sales Promotion Ltd.), was looking for a baby to represent their milk powder in a first-of-its-kind ad campaign. They went through hundreds of pictures of babies—712 to be exact—until ASP’s creative head, Sylvester da Cunha, asked my father, his friend at (and secretary at) the Advertising Club of Bombay, about his own baby. When he saw me, he decided he had what he wanted for the campaign. I was the first ever Amul baby, and the image was in black and white. My sister, 21 months younger, followed as the first Amul baby in colour.

Q 6.  Did the fame or the fact that you were an Amul baby ever influence your decisions, who you are today, or your job?

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Shashi Tharoor Srinivasan received the National Award for Voice-Over from the Droupadi Murmu President of India at the 68th National Film Awards

I was 10 months old when I was photographed by Shyam Benegal as the first Amul Baby for an ad campaign. That’s an old story. I’ve had many other brushes with “celebrity” over the years. You may have known that I won the National Award for Voice-Over from the President of India at the 68th National Film Awards last year. I suppose recognition and attention as a child and young adult influence our perception of who we are, but ultimately my influences are a strong work ethic, a sense of responsibility, and doing everything I do as well as I am able and in a timely fashion.

Q 7. Tell us about your children and the relationship you share.

This is the sort of question that prompts a lengthy response and is the subject of memoirs. I have two children. My daughter is an academic and a professor of English, and my son is a lawyer. They are both married to wonderful partners. We have a close relationship and have open communication about all subjects. When my children were young, I thought of myself as their “talent manager.” They were very talented, and I believed it was my responsibility to support and hone those talents.

Q 8. Are your books ever written keeping experiences you’ve had with your kids when they were younger?

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Fantasy, Fables, and Folklore with Shobha Tharoor Srinivasan 11

Writers often generate ideas for their writing from their life experiences, travels, communications with others, and interactions with the world around them. They influence my writing in similar ways. My picture book, Parvati the Elephant’s Very Important Day, anthropomorphizes the elephant rather than some other animal as the protagonist in the book. Like other children everywhere in the world, my children loved this large, gentle animal. I have just completed a manuscript in haikus that reflects the wonders of a child’s day. It was inspired by time spent with my granddaughter, and the descriptions spring from her observations. The 17-syllable short structure allows me to capture the delights of what a child sees, touches, feels and smells over the day and into the night. The simple poetic verse gently describes the child’s discovery and joy ‌together and shares the love between a grandparent and a grandchild.

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