Ahead of his appearance at the Auckland Writers Festival, novelist (for adults) Rajorshi Chakraborti tells us about the books his daughter is reading, and his aspirations to write a book for her one day.
A big challenge is looming for me.
‘Looming’ isn’t the right word because I’m kind of looking forward to it. The challenge is to write a book for our six-year- old daughter Leela. You see, her persistent complaint against her writer-father has been that he only writes books for grown-ups, that ‘would be boring for kids’. How can I have a kid I have read so many books with, who loves reading so much, and not have written anything for her? In Leela’s eyes, this is a baffling anomaly, and something’s wrong with me if I don’t see the need to fix it.
And I do want to fix it, even if this will be a step into unknown waters for me. I have published a YA novel, but a younger readership would be a different challenge. Leela recognises this will be something new, and has suggestions to help me. One of them I even love. She has offered to give me chapter-by-chapter feedback; this isn’t the idea I love. But I’m not far off finishing a first draft of my latest novel, which Leela has heard me describe to friends as a ‘supernatural mystery thriller’ (promise, it is!). The terms of my agreement with her state that my very next book will be for kids (hence the challenge drawing close). One bedtime, after I’d switched off the lights, she said, ‘Baba, why don’t you write a version of the story you’re working on for kids and put both in the same book? Then parents can read the grown-up version, and kids their one.’ I wasn’t sure about the double-decker volume idea (although why not; I’ll suggest it to my publisher), but I did go ‘Aha’ about a supernatural mystery for kids. It’s still the direction I’m ambling in.
She even had a brilliant storyline ready for me: ‘A parent takes their kid (or kids) in a time machine to show them what their own childhood was like, and then… You go, Baba, take it from there.’
Whatever I end up doing, I hope to report back in a few months’ time with something she’ll love, because it has become one of my new dreams as a writer to watch Leela read something by me as avidly, inseparably, indivisibly, as she does with her favourite books and characters. You couldn’t slide a sheet of paper between them. As both a writer and fellow reader, it’s an inspiring sight. I aspire to such absorption.
Who are some of the personages that currently put her in this state? Well, George and Harold above all, and their friend and collective creation, Captain Underpants. The girls who form the Anti-Princess Club. The Ella Diaries. The Naughtiest Girl a while back, and before her, the friends who go up the Magic Faraway Tree, which are the only two series amongst these that I introduced Leela to. And alongside them there are, or have been, Billie B Brown, Judy Blume, Jacqueline Wilson, Roald Dahl, Margaret Mahy, Mo Willems, Emma Chichester Clark, not to mention books about the solar system, the insides of the human body, Simone Biles and Malala Yousafzai. An incredible, and intimidating, list for me to dream of taking my place amongst – people, stories, worlds, ideas that have held my daughter completely enraptured.
I also love to note evolutions in Leela’s reading. For instance, her recent devouring – borrowing and re-borrowing from our wonderful library network in Wellington, without which life for both father and daughter would truly be ‘weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable’ – of the twelve ‘epic novels’ in the Captain Underpants series interest me for two reasons. They are the first boy protagonists she has wanted to read about in a sustained way, which is just an observation, and also her love for their irreverence reminds me of my own adoration, when I was only a bit older, of the William books by Richmal Crompton. I can’t wait to see what Leela will make of the Outlaws.
And our story-times have evolved too, just as she has as an independent reader. Right now, for instance, I’m reading Gorky Park when I do storytime alongside her (not to her, don’t worry), while she’s equally immersed in an Ella diary. Kind of like parallel play, rather than the times when Leela and her mum, Sasha, or I shared being lost in the same book, which I suppose is something lost. But we still look forward to this nightly half-hour, because we’re still next to one another, and inside the enchanted triangle of book, kid and parent.
Leela’s absolutely right. Which writer wouldn’t want to be part of that?
Rajorshi Chakraborti is an Indian-born, New Zealand-based novelist, essayist and short story writer. His novels include Or the Day Seizes You, Shadow Play, Balloonists, Mumbai Rollercoaster and his latest, The Man Who Would Not See, published in March. He appears in an Auckland Writers Festival event on Friday 18 May 2018, 'An Inside View' with novelist Xue Yiwei, poet Janet Charman and journalist Francis Wade, to reveal an insider’s take on their experience of Asia.