In an email interview with Saurabh Tankha, authors Bijal Vachharajani (BV) and Radha Rangarajan (RR) talk about working for environment, ways to get kids closer to Nature and finalising the 10 names for the e-book, 10 Indian Champions Who Are Fighting To Save The Planet by Duckbill Books, to be released this evening. Excerpts:
When you initiated the process of writing this book, how many names did you list and on what criteria did you finalise these 10 champions?
Radha Rangarajan Multiple lists were involved, and this task turned out to be tougher than writing those ~20,000 words! First, we came up with a list of names of all the inspiring people who have worked on and are continuing to work on wildlife conservation, research and environmental issues. We then made a list of the topics we wanted to cover — birds, large mammals, marine wildlife, climate crisis, waste, rivers, reptiles, etc — and slotted all the names under them. We had to make a decision on whether we should cover the biggest names of the past like Dr Salim Ali, Zafar Futehally and Jim Corbett or focus on people who are actively working now. We picked the latter, and then focussed on how to arrive at the right gender balance among the people we would feature in the book. Some interviews didn’t work out, so we also had to rethink accordingly. We were always very sure about featuring children, so the team of Dharavi Rocks was on our list from day one!
Once you were done with the final 10, how much time did it take you to get the final draft on the editor’s table?
Bijal Vachharajani Radha and I are both serial procrastinators. We agreed on the first ten’s list in May 2018 and in August of that year, we travelled to Chennai to meet Romulus Whitaker. What followed was a whirlwind schedule of phone calls, meetings, emails, and more of calls, meetings and emails. After that, we delivered the first draft exactly a year after, in May 2019.
Did all the names welcome your effort or you had to face hard times to get them to talk?
RR The one uniform thing across the people we shortlisted and spoke to — other than the fact that they all are among the best at what they do — was that they all insisted that they couldn’t do what they did, by themselves. They all had colleagues, field assistants, forest department staff, guides, mentors and lots of help along the way. People like Vidya Athreya, Rom Whitaker, Kavita Kuruganti and Aparajita Datta have worked closely with local residents and indigenous communities in their geographical area of study. In fact, most of the champions we interviewed, insisted that the people who work out there on the field are the real champions. So it took a fair bit of convincing, but we finally won them over!
Why is it still that kids are not drawn towards Nature and instead are lost in electronic gadgets?
BV Like Rachel Carson, I believe that children have an inborn sense of wonder and it needs to be fostered by groan-ups (she said adults). Today’s trying times are a testament that multiple generations are growing further away from Nature, and that also means lesser reason to protect it. However, as part of my work, I constantly meet children who are staunch Nature defenders, who can rattle off the names of all the bird species in their area, and who love books and books about Nature. Greta Thunberg, Vanessa Nakate, Aman Sharma and many others are leading the climate movement and these children and young adults remind us that it’s the younger generation who will ensure they will inherit a better Earth.
Are there any solutions to get these kids closer to Nature?
BV Read about the wonderful world out there. Step into it when possible. You don’t need to always travel to a forest (though it is a life-changing experience to be able to do that) but look closely around you. The tree outside your window, the shrub by your house, the seed pods on the ground have wonderful stories to tell — of the puk-puk of the Coppersmith Barbet, the symmetry of a seed pod, the skills of a signature spider. There’s so much to observe and marvel at, right where you are.
Any author who inspired you to write?
BV I grew up reading Enid Blytons and later, everything I could get my hands on. I’m a big Potterhead of course, and I am a big fan of the nature writings of Rachel Carson and Robert Macfarlane. Actually, Radha inspired me to look closer home for inspiration, when it comes to Nature.
RR Enid Blyton was a huge influence, early on. But over a period of time, pretty much every piece of good writing served as an inspiration to write; be it a well-written song, a poem, an op-ed, a short story, a novel.
What is that one thing which is the most important part of a book?
BV That your reader keeps turning the pages, stopping to reflect, laugh, cry along with your characters.
RR That the reader knows there is something great to look forward to. That each page is engaging and riveting enough that they look forward to it even more.
The word “creative” to you is…
BV Something you work hard on. And then ctrl + alt + repeat.
RR Something that’s all your own; a thing that you do well and love to do.
What does it take to be a good storyteller?
BV We’re all made up of stories. I think honesty, integrity and imagination are integral to being a good writer. Also, the constant belief that you can do better the next time around. And a little bit of fear, whether you’re giving your best or not.
RR Every single one of us is a storyteller; we all exchange stories in every conversation. A decent measure of curiosity, along with integrity, and the drive to make every word and every line better makes one a good writer, in my opinion. Add to this, the ability to be introspective.
Fiction or nonfiction
BV To quote the Sorting Hat, ‘difficult, very difficult.’
RR This is like asking Dobby to choose between Harry Potter and freedom.
Favourite childhood book
BV The Magic Faraway Tree series by Enid Blyton. You climb a tree and find a magical world – true in fiction and in real life.
RR Not one in particular, but a lot of Enid Blyton and Agatha Christie books were my favourites. I also read an abridged version of The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas which had gorgeous illustrations and was captivated by it for years.
Favourite childhood author
BV I grew up on a steady diet of imaginary scones and a very real stack of books by Enid Blytons.
RR Enid Blyton, all the way! I spent many hours dreaming of a picnic by the moors where I would eat scones and jam while reading a book.
Favourite book now.
BV So many! But The Lost Words by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris and Year of the Weeds by Siddhartha Sharma for today.
RR I need many, many pages for this. Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen and Spirals in Time by Helen Scales pop up right now.
Favourite author now.
BV Anushka Ravishankar, Shabnam Minwalla, Jerry Pinto, Robert Macfarlane, Joan Didion.
RR Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Peter Matthiessen, Robert Macfarlane, Samanth Subramanian.
You are, at present, reading.
BV Flitting between Pax by Sara Pennypacker, Flight Behavior by Barabara Kingsolver, and Who’s There by Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar and Anupama Ajinkya Apte. And tons of manuscripts for my day job.
RR I’m usually in the middle of many books at a time – Spillover by David Quammen, Discovering Bengaluru by Meera Iyer, Eating The Sun by Ella Frances Sanders, The One And Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate.