Saturday, September 9, 2017

Sleepless, And Full of Stories

A candid telephonic interview with Yasaswini Sampathkumar, author of 'Kottavi Raja and his Sleepy Kingdom' (published by Pratham Books), reveals the woman behind the story that is spreading its wings across the country today. The story was chosen for this year's 'One Day, One Story' campaign and will be read by 5700+ #PBChamps across India and the world. Chetana Divya Vasudev shares more...

A couple of years ago, Yasaswini Sampathkumar was coping with sleeplessness -- her six-month-old refused to sleep through the night.

Suggestions poured in from all quarters. Feed him a certain concoction, rock him to sleep at a particular angle. You, a storyteller, are having trouble? Tsk, tsk, try soft music. Or a walk?


She hasn't found a sure-shot solution yet. But a year ago she gave in to wishful thinking, and the nocturnal protagonist of her Kottavi Raja and His Sleepy Kingdom, inspired by her son, found relief in the end. (Oops, belated spoiler alert!)

"I'm still waiting for that day," says the former molecular biologist.

The book has been chosen for our annual storytelling campaign -- Season Six of One Day, One Story. On September 9, volunteers, or #PBChamps as we call them, will bring Kottavi Raja alive for children across the country and overseas. Through storytelling, read-aloud sessions or other activities and games.


This campaign strives to make children fall in love with reading. Yasaswini participated in this initiative in 2015, when she took Umesh P N's The Boy and the Drum to children in and around IIT Guwahati, where she lives.

She has loved writing for as long as she can remember. Once her son was born, she had less time to call her own. But, unexpectedly, she made time to write more.

"Earlier, when inspiration struck, I'd put off writing. But once he was around, taking up nearly all my time, if I thought of something while rocking him to sleep, I knew I'd have to write when he was napping," she recounts. "If I didn't, it would never happen."

But she missed telling stories; she used to teach English to children from neighbouring areas and stories were a big part of her classes. But with the baby, she didn't get to go out much.

So when she heard of the #PBChamps programme, she was in two minds. ‘What if my son needs me,’ was her first thought.

She signed up anyway. "I told myself those two hours of storytelling, whatever happens, would be mine," she recalls.

She found it was very rewarding. “I told the story in English, after which a parent took the Marathi translation home to read to her children.”

How does it feel, now that her book has been chosen for this year's campaign? Truly unreal, she says. Yasaswini is ecstatic, almost incredulous, about how many people have signed up to be champs. "I'm really, really, really thrilled that a story I wrote in a moment of frustration with my son's sleeping habits has been translated into so many regional languages," she adds.


"When I sent out my manuscript (Kottavi Raja...), there was some initial interest. Then I thought it had died down. For so long, I thought my book wouldn’t see the light of day," she reflects.

Hearing that she'd see it in print was a dream come true, and that it has been chosen for the campaign has only made her happier. September 9 is special to her on two counts: the fact that her story will be told and retold across the country and beyond its borders, and because her son turns three. Her family is planning to celebrate the occasion with children in IIT Guwahati, where she lives, with stories -- including Kottavi Raja... -- in several languages.

"It's so great to even talk about children's books, I rarely get to do that," she confides. "It's such a wonderful world."

David Shannon's No David and Rani's First Day of School by Cheryl Rao feature among her favourites.

She wishes more adults would read children’s books because "they cut the crap and are very clever in a way books for adults are not". And read them to remember what it's like to be a child. Her stories try to do that.

"A lot of my ideas come from children, including the the one on the weight of air (a Pratham Books title in the works). That came from a class discussion where the children wanted to know why a balloon full of air doesn't fall faster to the ground than a balloon that hasn't been blown."

This is a STEM (Science-Technology-Engineering-Mathematics) book. How do such books work in class?

"I don't think the stories and the lessons (that follow) have to be strongly connected," she offers.

When you begin a class with a story, no matter how unrelated, you have the children's attention, Yasaswini believes. "It's like telling them even though you're an adult, you can be fun."

While the children clearly enjoy most stories -- they even tell her some in return ('You know, ma'am, there's a chudail here...even though her feet touch the ground she's a chudail and she comes during the day too, so please let us go home early') -- most settings are rather alien to them.

Ask her if she thinks Kottavi Raja would have been different had a kid written it, and the line goes quiet. After a few seconds, she says, "I think he'd have been a lot more persistent." Like her son.

When she tells him it's time for bed, he responds with, 'But why Amma?', a question that has become an integral part of their lives.

"It usually goes like this: 'Come on, it's time for bed.'

'But why should I go to bed, Amma?'

'Because you've been running around all day and you must be tired.'

'But why am I tired, Amma?

'Because you've been up since six in the morning.'

'But why did I wake up that early, Amma?'"

"Sometimes, he asks about what he was before he was born!" And she’s struck dumb.

Yasaswini’s examples are endless and insightful in a way that only an empathetic observer's can be. Perhaps, each of these might become a book in it's own right. You never know.

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