Manuscript help, book reviews and author interviews
Roopa Pai’s work has appeared in many well-known publications including Business Today, Indian Review of Books, Travel & Leisure South Asia, The Times of India, Deccan Herald, The Pioneer, and the Asian Age.She is the author of Taranauts, India’s first fantasy adventure series for kids and has many other children’s books to her credit. Roopa is part of the founding team of “BangaloreWalks“, an initiative that organizes walking tours in various parts of Bangalore.
Roopa was an absolute delight to interview!
tgbc: From Taranauts to Bhagwad Gita!! How did you decide to take such a leap?
Roopa: Just to confuse everyone! Seriously, though, if you take a closer look, Taranauts has a not-so-subtle undercurrent of Indian mythology running through it, and the Gita is an integral part of Indian mythology too. In that sense, it is not such a stretch that the Gita has followed Taranauts.
The truth, however, is that it wasn’t me that made the leap of faith – it was my friend and editor at Hachette India, Vatsala Kaul-Banerjee, who more or less emotionally blackmailed me into writing it. She had been my editor through the Taranauts series, knew of my strong interest in mythology, and trusted me to retell the Gita in a way children could understand. After six months of staunchly resisting – I had very little familiarity with the Gita, and did not trust myself to be able to reinterpret it for anyone, let alone impressionable children – I finally agreed to try it. Once I had plunged into the text, though, I found it unexpectedly absorbing. By the end of it, I wanted to share my new-found awe and wonder in the Gita with everyone I knew, especially children. And that’s how the book happened.
tgbc: What were the sources you referred to for this book?
Roopa: Several. My most fundamental references, however, were Dr Radhakrishnan’s scholarly and wonderfully liberal commentary on the Bhagavad Gita, and the more lyrical interpretation by Swami Prabhavananda and Christopher Isherwood. I also read various other commentaries – both books and blogs, listened to spiritual gurus speak about different aspects of the Gita (youtube is such a wonderful resource), spoke to Gita scholars and people who were familiar with the text, and read up all kinds of fascinating related information that the internet led me to. A lot of the a-ha moments in fact happened when I wasn’t actively researching – in the course of reading a piece of fiction about something entirely else, or talking to a friend about something mundane – suddenly the penny would drop, and a philosophical concept I had been grappling with would make sense.
tgbc: How did you distill the learnings into this not so thick book?
Roopa:Well, I had to always keep in mind that this was a book for children. Comprehensiveness was not as important, in this book, as comprehension. So I didn’t translate / transliterate every single shloka, as most regular commentaries on the Gita do. I ‘storified’ it instead, giving the narrative an easier flow. I decided that as long as the main gist of each chapter was conveyed, I would be doing okay. In fact, I concentrated more not on the main text but on extracting lessons from each chapter that would be relevant for young readers, lessons that they could apply in their 21st century lives. Brevity was key – young readers have very short attention spans when it comes to life lessons and such, so I kept both the chapters and the lessons short, alternating them with each other to further break it up.
tgbc: What aspects of the Gita fascinated you?
Roopa: One was the idea of responsibility – the Gita is very tough on that. You can try and find as many excuses as you like to justify shirking your responsibilities – as a student, an employee, a dad, a writer, or, as Arjuna did, as a warrior – but none of them will wash; the Gita sees through all of them. Second was the idea of karma – not as some fatalistic ‘destiny’ that you should resign yourself to, but as an incentive to work hard, be good, and earn brownie points for your next life, for your children, and for the general good of the universe. Because, really, you ARE a product of your lineage, of all the good and bad decisions your ancestors made, so you owe it to your children, your fellow-humans, and the universe, to make good choices every time, even if those choices don’t seem to directly impact them or you in the present moment.
I also loved its storytelling structure – place the conversation just before the Great War, sort of like a commercial you have to sit through after the serial you’re watching has paused on a cliffhanger; bung in a mega-dose of drama and spectacle – Krishna’s Vishwaroopa form – in the middle, at chapters 10 and 11, right around the time when the philosophy is getting dense and readers’ interest could be beginning to wane – and then, when you have them all stunned and worshipful and obedient, give them the rest. It’s like a 101 on How To Get The Reader To Read What You Want Him To Without Losing Him
tgbc: What are some of the things we have mis-read in the Gita? (some common misconceptions)
Roopa: I don’t know if these concepts have been misread in the Gita or are generally misunderstood, but the idea of karma, like I mentioned before, was very nicely clarified for me by the Gita. The other very important one was about caste – in the Gita, Krishna very clearly states that it isn’t a man’s birth, or even his occupation, as we’re often told, but his NATURE that decides if a man is Brahmin or Kshatriya, Vaishya or Shudra. Anyone who is serene, has self-control and tolerance, who is pure in action, thought and word, is a Brahmin, never mind what family he is born into. Anyone who is heroic in the face of adversity, a courageous warrior in the face of injustice, and a resourceful and dependable leader, is a Kshatriya. And so on. There are several others like these.
tgbc: How long did it take you to write the book? What did you do to relieve the stress?
Roopa: It took me about a year. Six months of research, followed by six months of writing. There was no stress while writing it. It was a surprisingly enjoyable process – I looked forward to each day’s writing.
tgbc: What were your comfort foods at the time of writing the book.
Roopa: There is a section of the Gita that deals with the saattvik diet, which is the right diet for peace and contentment, but that section only comes towards the end of the book, so I basically ate what I wanted. My comfort ‘food’ is lots of chai, – several dozen litres were consumed during the writing of the book.
tgbc: Who were you most ready to kill while writing this book? And why?
Roopa: No one at all! I had become this calm, peaceful, non-judgmental person during the writing of the book, BECAUSE of the book. Unfortunately, that good behaviour only lasted until the book was done. The Gita guards its wisdoms jealously – one reading of it, however detailed, will never be enough to make you a better person. The trick is to keep revisiting its wisdoms as often as possible – its ridiculous how quickly you forget them. Having said that, I must say that I now view the world through Gita filters, and I love the view.
tgbc: What are you working on next?
Roopa: A book on Economics for children. I don’t know anything about Economics, so I figured this was a good way to find out. The Gita has taught me that this is as good a learning strategy as any to follow in life.