Celebrating International Mother Language Day

United Nations says,

Languages, with their complex implications for identity, communication, social integration, education and development, are of strategic importance for people and planet. Yet, due to globalization processes, they are increasingly under threat, or disappearing altogether. When languages fade, so does the world’s rich tapestry of cultural diversity. Opportunities, traditions, memory, unique modes of thinking and expression — valuable resources for ensuring a better future — are also lost.

At least 43% of the estimated 6000 languages spoken in the world are endangered. Only a few hundred languages have genuinely been given a place in education systems and the public domain, and less than a hundred are used in the digital world.”

My mother language is Tamil and I never learnt it formally. I learnt Tamil at home – to speak, to read and to write. I read every magazine and book my parents were reading and of course Tamil Cinema had wonderful songs that was full of poetry.

Every year in January, during festivals and holidays, we listened to debates and poetry in Tamil and often went to see plays and movies in Tamil.

My first poem was in Tamil when I read a poem by Poet Suratha. Find out more about how Suratha inspired me here.

I continued to write in Tamil and one of the teachers, who was also our vice principal and was a scholar in Tamil helped me in the library outside school hours. I then wrote a puppet show about Economics in Tamil and wrote a long poem about India’s warrior poet Subramania Bharathi.

But we also learnt English right from kindergarten and slowly, by the time I left primary school I had started to think in English. I read both Tamil and English fiction relentlessly, but with more English than Tamil.

Then when I was in my first year at university I entered a state-wide competition on the state of education in our country and I wrote an article in Tamil for this. I was so worried because I had never written anything formal in Tamil and one of my friends, who knew her grammar and spellings, helped me edit it. I won the first prize in that competition. But sadly that was my last published work in Tamil.

Now I write in English and rarely write in my mother tongue and I agree with the statement from United Nations. Forgetting your language is much more than forgetting the language, we lose the culture, literature and even social norms, proverbs, adages and more.

In Nelson Mandela’s words,

If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. 
If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.

As an aunt of mixed race nephews, I’m constantly thinking about how I could show them the beauty of their mother language. They listen to music, and hear us talk but they live here. And they don’t often get to explore the language the same way as we did growing up in India.

And it is possible to forget your mother tongue if you don’t use it. This article at Babbel explains the research behind it.

Here is a beautiful poem Jesus Never Understood My Grandmother’s Prayers by Mikeas Sánchez, who writes in the Zoque language.

My grandmother never learned Spanish

was afraid of forgetting her gods

was afraid of waking up in the morning

without the prodigals of her offspring in her memory

My grandmother believed that you could only

talk to the wind in Zoque

but she kneeled before the saints

and prayed with more fervor than anyone

Jesus never heard her

my grandmother’s tongue

smelled like rose apples

and her eyes lit up when she sang

with the brightness of a star

Saint Michael Archangel never heard her

my grandmother’s prayers were sometimes blasphemies

jukis’tyt she said and the pain stopped

patsoke she yelled and time paused beneath her bed

In that same bed she birthed her seven sons

—Translated from the Zoque by David Shook

Check out my bi-lingual books that help many children read both in English and their mother-tongue.

Are you a young person whose mother language is different from the one you speak most of the time? Go and find out more about your language. Learn about poetry, proverbs and stories from your mother language and find ways to listen to it being spoken. You won’t regret it.

An Interview with Frané Lessac – Illustrator of Pattan’s Pumpkin

Frané Lessac with Janetta Otter-Barry at Edinburgh Book Festival just before she was commissioned.

Pattan’s Pumpkin was published in the UK, Australia and NZ on 1st September 2016. It was conceived as a book in 2013.

The book waited over two years for the perfect illustrator. It waited for Frané Lessac.

Frané is an award winning American artist who has exhibited her paintings in London, Paris, New York and Los Angeles. From film school in California she went on to live on the Caribbean island of Montserrat where she began her career as an author and painter. She loves to travel and create books based on her journeys. Frané has published more than forty children’s books and has won many international awards including the Muriel Barwell Award for Distinguished Service to Children’s Literature. She joined the National Year of Reading initiative as a State Ambassador in 2012 and a Room to Read Ambassador in 2014. She currently lives in Fremantle, Australia.

Janetta Otter-Barry, our publisher extraordinaire, was looking for the perfect illustrator who could bring the pumpkin to life. Click here if you haven’t read about how Pattan’s Pumpkin came to be. Unlike other picture books where the illustrator goes away for a few months and the comes back with a Ta-Da, Frané gave us a little peek at various stages and discussed key cultural aspects throughout the creation of the art. So I thought I should interview Frané Lessac for my blog (and hers) to find out more about her process and how Pattan’s Pumpkin came to be.

Here are my questions and Frané’s answers with show and tell of illustrations!

Pattan’s story is from southern India. Have you visited this part of India before? What kind of research did you have to do for the landscape and the animals?

I’ve travelled several times throughout India including the south coast of Kerala, but I’ve never visited the Western Ghats mountain ranges. It’s now at the top of my list. To research the flora, fauna and landscape, I looked at rare books and online resources.

Pattan is from a tribe indigenous to the Western Ghats mountain ranges. What kind of information did you need to know before you start drawing him and Kanni?

I researched the Irular people from southern India, who regard themselves as descendants of Pattan and Kanni. Their story that has been passed down from generation to generation and Chitra captured the complete essence of the story. Her retelling was a visual feast for my imagination. Creating a picture book is always a collaboration and with the “team”, editor, art director, Chitra and myself, we communicated throughout about our main characters. We needed to ensure we had overall cultural authenticity.

I like your little secret message of the ants and the two white birds in each spread. Do you decide on these little details early on or does it happen as you start drawing.animals-on-and-under-bed-copy

I add little details in my painting at the very end. When I was a child, I loved books with lots of details to explore and being able to discover new bits on each returned reading. I got a kick out of painting the bird and the frog asleep on Pattan and Kanni’s bed and all the other animals fast asleep under the bed. The portraits on the wall are funny too.


Can you show us a sample of your roughs and your step by step process?

The first step was to create thumbnails of every scene with sometimes 2-3 ideas for each one. The team decided which was their favourite. working-on-roughs-in-my-studio-copy

prelim-5-copyNext, I sketched up sloppy copies, also known as preliminary drawings, to size and made a dummy book. The team went over the drawings and we tweaked further. 



The palette to create the final art, was inspired by the many colours of India. I also used opposite colours side by side which made the art stand out. I then rendered each scene using gouache paint, taking up to 3 days to complete each one. 

Do you love pumpkins? Was it different for you to visualise pumpkins in a non-Halloween scenario?  

I love pumpkins and have the best pumpkin soup recipe and make a mean pumpkin pie! Growing up in the United States, the only pumpkins I knew were orange. We’d carve the biggest one we could find every Halloween. It wasn’t until I moved to the Caribbean that I discovered that orange ones weren’t readily found in the rest of the world.

When I wrote the story of Pattan’s Pumpkin, and learnt about how the region of Western Ghats is protected as a UNESCO heritage site, it got me thinking how Pattan’s message about conservation is an important one. What did you take away from Pattan’s Pumpkin? Did Pattan tell you a secret?

Frané dreaming about a crop of pumpkins…

Pattan’s secret message to me was to plant pumpkins. Lots of them. My garden will soon be taken over by hundreds of pumpkins. I want to grow one as BIG as the one in the story! Wish me luck.


Thank you Frané – we enjoyed seeing the work in progress, and amazed that each rendering took three days to complete. Wow! Pattan and Kanni would love the book for sure. You should share your pumpkin pie recipe with us sometime. Find out all about Pattan’s Pumpkin here.


Welcome to Pattan’s Pumpkin Blog Tour

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Today we are celebrating the publication day for Pattan’s Pumpkin! A journey that took three years and nine months. I’m proud to be an author in the stables of Otter-Barry Books and in partnership with the fabulous Frané Lessac.

Just like Pattan does in this story, I’m going to take you on a rollicking ride with me over the Internet to tell you more about Pattan and his amazing pumpkin. Over the next few weeks we will be talking about the Western Ghats – a UNESCO heritage site, conservation, ancient stories passed down from one generation to another and the history of surakka (the humble bottle gourd) and amazing pumpkins growing in this world.

Pumpkins Courge_encore_verte

I’ll be talking about the inspiration to this book, the importance of telling this story and the message I hope children will take away from reading this tale. We will have an interview with the illustrator Frané Lessac, a confession about my stationery habits and of course some pumpkin recipes straight from the land of Pattan.

And if that’s all not enough, you will be soon invited to the book launch in October and I’ll be telling Pattan’s story to you all. We will have colouring pages, craft stuff to do and even take away recipe cards. If you are interested in attending the book launch and want to be included in the invite, fill in the form below and I’ll drop you an invite by email.

Librarians, teachers and literacy coordinators – you can get your hands on posters, activity sheets, lesson plans and bookmarks too. So if you’d like to receive a pack please do fill in the form below and tell me if you want me to post them or if you would collect them at the launch.

So without further ado here is a leaflet about the book.Pattan event flyer (2)

The book is available from all good bookshops across the UK. If you are coming to an event, I’d be happy to sign your copy too.

So what are you waiting for? Sign up and climb aboard Pattan’s Pumpkin!










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What Good Books Do

Learning Indian history when growing up was like eating an Indian meal – the life you live now is the rice in the middle and you have these little cups on the side with lots of little offerings – never a lot, and never in depth.


There were two choices to learn about history – school books and comics by Amar Chitra Katha. I think ACK did a better job of telling us stories that happened in history right from the pre-Islamic reign until perhaps the Independence movement, the freedom from the British Raj.


In school you learnt them for exams, nothing big in particular. To be really candid, I remember a few things from then, not a lot. It is amazing how like in the US I suppose, history was more inward looking. So a lot about Indian history, but don’t think we focused on the World Wars as Europeans do (or perhaps the British did).


It is not embedded into the psyche of the people as much – we don’t commemorate the wars, we don’t have war museums (I’m sure they are under-funded, if they exist) and we don’t have fiction set in the wars as much. People are more preoccupied with what’s going on today – ie, history is always in the making. That does lead to a level of unhinged anchors – because many of us don’t realize the price our ancestors paid for this disruptive democracy we have.

The one thing I remember from studying Indian History in school was the Sepoy Mutiny – what we call the Indian Mutiny of 1857. The year stuck in my head and I have never forgotten the courage and the calamity.

The rest I read from story books – rather non-fiction told in comic strips by ACK. (they are still available, if you want your kids to find out more about Indian history).

Some people stuck in my mind and they became part of the moral fabric of what I was made of eventually. I still quote them and more importantly weigh my decisions in the light of their lives.

Jhansi Rani Lakshmi Bai Rani_of_jhansiShe was a story told over and over and to a young girl that’s a fiercely brilliant role model. My parents surely regretted it when I was a teenager fighting against all sorts of oppression – including staying late, refusing to do chores and getting arranged to be married. But Jhansi Rani taught me if you don’t believe in it, don’t do it. If you believe in it, fight for it. She was part of the Sepoy Mutiny too.

Swami_Vivekananda-1893-09-signedSwami Vivekananda – the disciple of Ramakrishna Paramhamsa, the educated socialist who can articulate his thoughts really well. He preached equality, he preached religious acceptance. His words stuck in mind and I still think about it when I am in a situation where I might be unfair to someone – I’m paraphrasing him – but he said – Tolerance is not good enough. Acceptance is what you are obliged to. Here is the speech he gave in Chicago in 1893. Is it relevant today still? Duh!

This is what I got out of it – living in a caste-based society as a teenager. I had to evaluate every day in the light of this teaching – because life in India is not really fair to everyone (just like anywhere in this world).

Tolerance smacks of supremacy. You have to accept it because every religion has a place in this world – because it is one person’s spiritual journey. So there’s no question of one tolerating the other – you have to accept it.

And I think that’s one of the basic principles that have made me a global citizen today and perhaps even a storyteller who loves stories from all over the world.


Poet Subramanya Bharathi – this is an interesting connection for me. I read his poetry as a child. He wrote about women’s education, women’s right to walk tall and conquer the world. He asked women not to walk with their eyes to the ground but stare at the world ahead of them. He lived in the same city as me (sadly a few decades earlier). He was a militant type of poet – up in arms about any type of oppression. One of the reasons I read poetry was because I was attracted to his. I won a poetry prize in school and the prize was a collection of his poems and I still have it and treasure it.

More so, I was inspired by someone who believed women can rise up and change the world. Imagine the head-banging my parents went through as I digested these teachings and put them into practice. I argued about restrictions on clothes, about going out, about whether I can have boys as friends. If the poet knew about me , he would have been chuckling in heaven.


netajiNetaji Subhash Chandra Bose – Bose in India does not mean the wonderful speaker system named after another Indian Bose. Bose in India is Netaji. He was the militant double of the non-violent leader Gandhi. He had a different attitude to the British Raj and his was fighting against them. Of course he made some opportunistic choices and did not succeed and did not see India get freedom – but he did make connections with the Atlee and the labour party before he died, asking for Complete Independence.

Until Bose repeatedly argued for it, the Indian National Congress was fighting only for a dominion government – we will be British, but let’s rule ourselves. But Bose argued for a complete severance with the British. Eventually the mainstream politicians including Gandhi and Nehru adopted it too. JAI HIND, which is the national slogan of most Indians and the Indian Army was coined by Bose.

A lot of what I’m writing is from memory. I looked up a few things to see if I was making it up or remembering it wrong. But otherwise the impressions of those leaders are purely from my emotional fabric.

Here is a timeline showing how their paths might have crossed or not.


So why am I writing about this now? What brought on a flashback into India’s history. Well, what else? I read a book. Yeah, I do that a lot.

Anyway, I read this book that I bought a year or so ago, on the recommendation of a colleague at work. She loved it and she said I would like it too and it is called Elephant Moon.


I read a lot of fiction set in India, especially the wonderful Kiran Desai (The Inheritance of Loss, a Man-Booker prize winner), Arvind Adiga who won for The White Tiger and books written by my writer friends in India. I’ve read V S Naipaul, Ruskin Bond and so many more.

To be honest, I don’t read lots of Indian books written by non-Indians simply because I might not agree with the perspectives. It is a completely different lens. Of course that is not to say they are not great writers or their viewpoint is wrong – but for me, it is their version of India and perhaps being born in India, I prefer an Indian lens – you don’t see things I would see or vice versa.

Does that make me less open? Am I not seeing the world from another perspective? No, I have always seen the world from a British or American perspective because we grew up with foreign books mostly. If not for ACK, I wouldn’t have known much about India and would have learnt a lot more about English villages and cream tea.

As an adult, as someone living outside India for the last 16 years, I understand the different viewpoints and I can see the layer of colonial dust in the language even today when a British person would write about an Indian theme.

However I need to add quickly I understand the right / need for British view on India – they too lived in India. Many left behind legacies, families and more. Many stayed back. They had a different lifestyle I’m sure, a different viewing platform – we have a shared history for the duration of the Raj and a bit before and a bit after. It is good to hear the stories British want to tell about their time in India.

And now I live here and I’m technically British-Asian and understand the lens of the British better. As a child when I read a book about India, I did not check if the author was Indian or British. Now I do. But when I read them, I didn’t understand perhaps the tone or the pre-existing position of their elevated view. Now I do.

Anyway, I digress. I read this book about a British schoolteacher braving the jungles of Burma to enter India during the last few years of the colonial rule and of course when Japan attacked Burma.

A beautifully written book. The language was exquisite and evocative. There is a lot of voluntary admission that the British left too early and their mistakes during this time. (Tongue in cheek, I’m sure that’s all true).

But the axis to the plot was Netaji Bose. Although a lot of ifs and buts were added, to me the book seemed to call Bose a Fascist. It retracts and backtracks and repeats it – perhaps I have to read it again to see if it was as strong as I felt. Or did it touch an Indian nerve, a nerve I didn’t realise was sensitive?

what is this

As a child who grew up revering Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose, not remembering his association with the Japanese and the Germans at that time, it came as a shock to me. As far as I was concerned Bose fought against the British, anyway he can. His #1 target was British and anything else was fair game.

This led me to search for answers. See this is what good books must do. This book first made me vehemently refute what the author was saying. Then I wanted to find out more. I read more and I have a movie I want to watch about Bose.


From what I found out over the last two days, of course Bose associated with the Japs and the Germans – but he also met with the Labour leaders like Clement Atlee. (the conservatives refused to meet with him.) He wanted the British out of India – pure and simple. So he met with whoever would help him – and in that adventure ended up getting help from the wrong side of the fence. History also says he realized his mistake and tried to come back – but again with the help of the wrong side.

Perhaps it is the Karma we all Hindus believe in or the ill-will that was sent his way, his plane crashed and he was killed. (Or so we think… the conspiracy theories abound and only this week some 70 year old documents have been released and it opens the debate about Bose and his presumed death).

Here is a documentary about his life.


Bose like me believed in the Gita – the Hindu holy scripture. I believe in many of the tenets in it – the more spiritual ones. One says – Do your duty, be detached from the outcome.

Karmanye Vadhikaraste, Ma phaleshou kada chana,

Ma Karma Phala Hetur Bhurmatey Sangostva Akarmani

कर्मण्येवाधिकारस्ते मा फलेषु कदाचन
मा कर्मफलहेतुर्भूर्मा ते सङ्गोऽस्त्वकर्मणि

Perhaps that’s what Bose did – he saw his duty as liberating India from the British – he did not expect any rewards in return. Whether everyone approved of his methods – perhaps not. But there is no one way to peel an onion or drive out colonial masters, I suppose. Sometimes the price you pay is bigger than what you had imagined or perhaps the not the price you wanted to pay. But it is easy to point fingers in retrospect and I am proud that he had the courage to step out of line with Gandhi and do it his own way.

So I thank this book for bringing me closer to the truths in my heart, to making me search for things I had forgotten and of course now rekindled my love for Indian history – without intending to.

Good books can do that to you. Keep reading.

*I'm still reading and researching this background of Bose. These videos I've quoted here are widely watched - but I cannot claim anything about their authenticity or accuracy of their research. 

Children’s Books from India – A Picture-Book Publisher’s View

14cm_Shobha_Viswan_2201570gShobha Viswanath is my publisher at Karadi Tales in India. She is also my senior editor and a writer herself. Shobha is also Farmer Falgu’s big fan.

As a writer it is a great thing if your publisher loves your character as much as you do. She is the main reason why Farmer Falgu has packed his bags and prepared his bullock cart and is now off to Japan and France to meet the children there.

Here she is enjoying the story along with the audience…

I met Shobha 2-3 years ago when I visited Chennai before Farmer Falgu when came out. Then I met her again when we were preparing for the launch of Farmer Falgu Goes on a Trip. She is everything you’d want your editor and publisher to be – funny, encouraging, determined and absolutely positive. I’m proud and ever so grateful that Farmer Falgu and I found a great home at Karadi Tales, which is an independent publisher in India, making forays into the world market.

Karadi Tales is primarily a picture-book and audio-book publisher – I love their songs and readings – my nephew has a stack of them and we listen to some so often that we know the words by-heart. Having said that, KT has just published a Middle-grade book too.

Shobha is passionate about contemporary books for children, that are not just traditional tales and also stories for the pleasure of reading – not just textbooks, assessment books and books with morals – which does confuse many parents in India. Read one of her candid interviews with the national daily in India.

As the final instalment of the discussion on children’s book for this week’s twitter chat, I asked Shobha the same questions I asked Sayoni Basu. And this is what she said.

1) What are the major challenges for an Indian children’s book publisher on the world stage and within India?

– India lacks crossover books – books that can travel. Most of the books that are published by Indian publishers are too contextual to India. If the books have to travel, they have to have a universal appeal.

For example, Farmer Falgu may be a farmer from India but the central crux of each story in the series reveals his resourcefulness which in turn is universal.

 The language too is quite important. Colloquial words and phrases may limit potential readership.  

– Indian publishers lag behind the international publishers in terms of sourcing high-quality and diverse illustrators who have a repertoire of varied styles.

– Distribution in the foreign markets has been a challenge. Several things are required of a publisher, including a strong backlist of books.  

2) When you go to Bologna, what are your impressions of the market compared to Indian books? 

The books that are produced abroad are higher in quality – production and illustrations.

Do we have more variety?

– No. India does not have that kind of variety.

Are Indian books lacking in any aspect?

– Indian books lack in several aspects. The Indian market is heterogeneous –  books are produced to cater to people from all walks of life. In terms of quality, unfortunately, it leaves us neither here nor there.

Until about 15 years ago, folktales and mythology based stories were regurgitated, but things are turning around now.

3) What is your experience in selling rights to world markets? Does the west want to buy very traditional content? Do they want to fit inside the multicultural box or are they willing to look at contemporary stuff too?

If a book is well produced, well illustrated and the story is well told then there are takers for the book in the market.  They do not want to buy only traditional content. They are willing to look at contemporary stuff as well.

4) Do you get support from international and Indian bodies to help with the costs of attending world book fairs? Is your presence imperative?

Yes, we do. Bologna supports publishers and helps them attend the fair, as does Frankfurt through their fellowships and invitational programmes.  However, this support is not meant to be continuous – it is only meant to give the publisher a platform. In India, Capexil provides the publisher with the necessary support.  

If the goal of a publisher is to make the book travel then their presence is imperative. Agents may not know the books as thoroughly as the publisher does.

5) Should India carve its own space in the book market and not worry about whether US and UK buy rights? What other markets are more welcoming to Indian books?  

Of course, we should carve our own space in the market and not worry about the UK or the US – as long as we do not compromise on the quality of the story, illustrations or production standards.  

6) Can you recommend three Indian books that any child in any part of the world should read?

rumourThe Rumour | Written by Anushka Ravishankar and Illustrated by Kanyika Kini

image descriptionFalgu_2 Cover

Farmer Falgu Goes on a Trip / Farmer Falgu Goes to the Market | Written by Chitra Soundar and Illustrated by Kanika Nair

monkeyMonkeys on a Fast – Audiobook | Written by Kaushik Viswanath, Illustrated by Shilpa Ranade and Narrated by Sanjay Dutt

Thank you Shobha – for recommending my book and also giving candid answers to my questions. It is clear that we have a long way to go to bring Indian books to world stage but it is not hard as we think it is. 

We are chatting about Indian books and their place in the world stage at 6 pm GMT today, 24th April 2015, with hashtag #storiesfromindia – Don’t miss it!!!!