Interview: Our Writing Should Stimulate or Instruct or Entertain, Have Purpose, says Shobha Tharoor

Children’s book author Shobha Tharoor Srinivasan with her new book It’s Time to Rhyme at Kunzum, Mega Mall, Gurgaon.

Author Shobha Tharoor Srinivasan speaks about her books for children, brother Dr Shashi Tharoor, her book on her mother – Good Innings – and how reading is important for children.

BSA: You write children’s books, do a lot of voiceovers, where did it all start?
Shobha Tharoor: It started with the love of words from my childhood. I grew up at a time when we didn’t have all the distracting devices that today’s children have. Books were our transport to other worlds, to new languages, to new ideas, to imaginative journeys. We three siblings loved books. We read a lot. We played word games like today’s Wordle. It all began with that.
I particularly loved the sound and music of words. Like I was saying earlier, when it comes to poetry, it doesn’t have to be a rhyming sentence. Poems don’t all have to rhyme, but they all do have music. Even with prose, when you write a story, if you read your sentences out loud, you can hear the cadence, the beauty, and the music of words. Very often, when writers read aloud, they make revisions based on that.
It all began with that. I did elocution in school. That led to voiceovers. So, there’s voiceovers in different ways. In many ways both writing and voiceovers tell a story. So as a voiceover talent you could be doing an ad or a commercial for a product but you’re telling a story about the product when you are telling a narrative or sharing an idea. They’re all related in different ways. It’s all about communicating and connecting. That’s what it’s all about. 

BSA: You and Dr Shashi Tharoor come from the same house, you’ve read the same books, yet both of you are writing very different kinds of books. 
Shobha: He was more interested in little war stories and adventures and all of that. Of course, we all write different books because we’re all different people and our responses to the world are different, isn’t it? We’ve had different life experiences, had different interests, read different things, so we have different responses to the world. But one thing is for sure, everybody in the family including my sister, my brother and I, we have shared a love of words. 

BSA: Does your sister also write?
Shobha: Not quite, but she’s telling stories in different ways. She’s a podcaster and she interviews people, and her podcasts are doing very well. Her particular speciality is unconscious bias. She’s a leadership trainer and a coach. She does that kind of work. I am sure she’ll write too someday. 

BSA: From children’s books you went on to write Good Innings, a book on your mother. How different was it writing that book? 
Shobha: It’s different because you’re dealing with a different audience. But as I say, even about my children’s books, and I really mean that, that the book is not something you read once and put away. All of the children’s books are books that can be read at every age, including the poetry book. I’ve had many teachers, adults come to me and say they’ve learned a lot from the book. And that’s why the book is called Poems For kids of All Ages. I say kids because the whimsy, the curiosity that children have, we don’t want to lose it when we’re adults. If you have a heart that’s open to new ideas, then you’re a kid even if you’re older. 
So how different was it to write both the other books? For my mother’s book, I tried to not ventriloquise her, but I have done a very interesting narrative structure where I have first person and third person and the first person is sort of done in my mother’s voice, just to break up the stories and the chapters to make it interesting. One is her reflection and her thoughts about her life and the other is the narrator. So that was a sort of clever way of framing the book. But even when I write children’s stories, I frame the book. How different was it? Well, you’re mindful you’re writing for adults. You deal with adult themes. But other than that, it’s all the same. Writing is a thoughtful exercise. 

BSA: In terms of writing and in terms of growing up, would you tell me a little bit about how your relationship with books was as a child and how it is now? 
Shobha: When I was a child, I read indiscriminately and I read a lot. As I grew older, I decided to focus on different parts of the world. I remember, I think it was Class 8 in the summer when we had long summer holidays, I did so many weeks of Russian literature. I went to the library, picked up different writers whose books appealed to me. But I also looked for the ones that I had heard about. So, Solzhenitsyn etc and we read Nabakov because it was interesting to read Lolita when I was that age. I read a few Yukio Mishima. I read some Haikus of Basho and things like that. I also read some Japanese literature. I did read our own classics too. I read a lot of poetry. I tried to focus a little bit more in a concerted way about the kind of literature I was exposing my mind to.
As a children’s right to read, we have a responsibility because what the children read today is how it informs their thinking when they’re adults. And we need to make sure that we write things that either stimulate or instruct or entertain. It’s got to have some purpose. 

BSA: Between you and Shashi Tharoor, do you read each other’s books and critique them? 
Shobha: He is a world unto himself. He is incredible. I am his biggest fan. I respect him, love him. Nobody has his kind of integrity to work, in terms of his commitment of giving all of himself to whatever he does. Do we critique each other’s books? No, but we encourage each other. I’ve read most of what he’s written. I think sometimes you can’t keep up with everything he’s written. He reads my work as well and encourages.
I remember when I was a child, I was talking about something and I said, “oh, that’s so nice”. And he said, “Can’t you think of a better word to use than ‘nice’ ”. There’s that kind of provocation or stimulation or encouragement that makes us become our best selves. And it’s the same thing about my mother’s book. When Penguin approached me to write the book, I wasn’t quite sure I wanted to do it. I said no. Telling my mother’s story because she’s Shashi Tharoor’s mother is not what I want to do. And he said, “Why do you want to turn down an opportunity? Go ahead and do it”. And I thought about it. And I framed the book in a very particular and unusual way. And I’m actually very proud of the book because it is now serving as an aid memoir for my mother, who is getting older and is beginning to forget. She looks back to the book and remembers parts of her life. 

BSA: How wonderful. 
Shobha: It is wonderful. It’s really a privilege to have been able to write a tribute to your mother while she’s still alive.

BSA: And in terms of your experiences on writing books for children and such meetings as you had today, how difficult does it get at times to get children to listen to you?
Shobha: I’ve had kids listen to me and it’s been great. Of course, the chaos is only because of their excitement and everybody wanting to participate. I love that. It’s great to be, in fact it’s a privilege for a children’s writer to be in a room full of children with their interest, and excitement and them showing an interest in your written word. You noticed quite a few children bought books, but there were those who didn’t, but wanted autographs.
I remember as a child, even in those days, the people you looked up to were the people you enjoyed, you wanted to get their signatures and keep it in your little autograph book. It’s wonderful. How difficult is it to get them to read? We have many competing distractions today and I tell parents to not force children to read the kind of books they want the children to read, instead let them read the kind of books they want to read. Once you understand how joyful it is to read, you will continue to be a reader. But if you are forced to read a particular kind of book, maybe you won’t be. So surround them with books, keep books in the house. Set an example of reading yourself, then children will all read. 

BSA: In this day and age of digital distractions, what do you think is the importance of books?
Shobha Tharoor: Digital excitement is all short form kind of excitement, right? It comes and it goes. Yes, there is a wonderful visual element to digital media and to stories and narratives that are animated and which stimulate all the senses. I’m not saying that that doesn’t have its place, but when you read, you use your own brain and your own imagination to imagine those scenes. And I think that’s a particular quality that we don’t want to take away from children. I believe everything has a place in today’s world. We can’t stand stagnant and say only read, never play a video game or don’t use your phone. It’s not going to work. So, the onus is also on children’s writers to write the kind of stuff that interests children.
In most of the books that I’ve written, I would say probably all of the children’s books I’ve written, there is a place for children to participate. So even in the short stories that I released last year, I had taken it to the school that came today. I have a section called 100-word stories in which I gave examples of stories that are 100 words long, not 99 words or 101 words. The children have been doing those exercises in school, in class with their teachers or at home with their parents. So, there’s always a little bit of a take away. Similarly, the picture books are meant to be for non-readers too. And yet that picture book Parvati: The Elephant’s Very Important Day has a glossary of new words of a new language, has information on art and music and culture of a particular state in India. That makes it all very exciting and something to go back to and learn more. When your curiosity is awakened, you will read more.

Pick up Shobha Tharoor’s It’s Time To Rhyme from any Kunzum store or WhatsApp +91.8800200280 to order. Buy the book(s) and the coffee’s on us.

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