Interview: Aparna Karthikeyan, author, No Nonsense Nandhini
What was the best part of writing a children’s book about someone you know?You get to know them better! My respect and admiration for Chandra – and women farmers like her – grew as I fleshed out her story. It was Chandra who taught me the meaning of the word “resilience”, much of what I know about farming, and everything that is wrong with the agrarian world. Once, she asked me: where are the chairs for people who grow your food? What grit it must take, to wake up when the world’s asleep, pluck tens of kilos of flowers and take it to the collection point, and then back and… get started with the housework! Every single day. I was thrilled and grateful I got a chance to share my thoughts with children. Hopefully, it will start a conversation, get them thinking.
How did you approach the same story differently as a journalist and as a children’s book author?Where I would put a full stop in journalism, I could put a comma and continue, imagining and dramatising scenes and conversations and importantly, wishing for Chandra a softer life, one that wasn’t as brutal as her real one was. That’s obviously not something I could do in my journalism. Chandra is a firecracker of a woman; every conversation with her is punctuated with humour. Here, I could weave in much more of her feistiness and her fun side. Having said that, the learnings from journalism – especially reporting for PARI (People’s Archive of Rural India) – taught me to observe little details, read and research to understand the big picture, and talk to more people to get a bird’s eye view. Those are important lessons, and they’re so handy when you want to write about something that’s not your lived experience.
To what extent was Chandra involved in the creation of this book? Quite a bit, actually. While it is fictionalised, the book is based on her life and I wanted her to be comfortable with whatever I was writing. We’d have long conversations late in the night, after she was done with all her work - about the plot, about falling in love, the accident, the speech… she approved them all. Importantly, she picked the name Nandhini for her character in the book.This interaction wasn’t new though. Even when I wrote about her for PARI I would ring her with lots of queries. She always had the option of not answering them. But she would give me answers, and then ask: “Why do you need to know all this?” I would tell her, it was my editor, P Sainath – the boss, as she called him – who raised them.When she met him in person during my book launch in Chennai, she went up and asked Sainath the question she had long threatened she would -- Why did I have so many queries every time I wrote about her? And Sainath explained to her -- patiently and in Tamil -- how editing worked, and why it was important to get the facts right. I think Chandra is convinced now. Maybe next time I do a follow-up, she won’t ask, “Tell me the truth, why do you need to know all this?”
Why did you decide on the title No Nonsense Nandhini apart from its obvious alliterative appeal?The credit for that marvellous title goes to my editor, Shobha Viswanath, the publishing director at Karadi Tales. She came up with this one after we mulled over many options, and I thought it was just perfect, capturing Chandra’s spirit in three words! And then, Chandra too approved of it.
What are you hoping for readers to take back from this story, especially in the context of farmer-led protests in India?I truly hope people see how impossibly hard it is to make a living as a farmer. Everything is a struggle – and there’s so little they have control over. The price of every input – be it seeds or fertiliser or pesticide – is determined by others; so is the final price for their produce. What bargaining power does a small farmer have against a multinational corporation? Where is agency, where is choice? And yet, every day, cultivators are asked to absorb shocks that would bring corporates to their knees.Take the recent COVID-19 lockdowns. We read so much about supply chain disruptions of big corporations. What about the people who raise perishable goods, flowers and fruits – which we have happily consumed at very affordable prices at other times – and who took such a beating? Did they make headlines? Who is to compensate them for their losses? Who will pay the fees for their children’s education? Who will fund their dreams?
Which parts of Chandra’s story were the hardest to fictionalise?The personal losses in Chandra’s life were the hardest. Her husband actually took his own life. And this was soon after her father died in a road accident. “Cruel” is a mild word for those years, and yet, she marched on. She has done much of it by herself, with very little help from her family. But I wanted – at least for her character in the book – to have some pillars to lean on.
How did you manage to weave in issues like child marriage, rural indebtedness, and gender inequality without being preachy?I’m so glad you think that those issues came through without sounding preachy. I had to include them because they are so central to her life – and to so many women like her – and they spend hours and weeks and years doing unpaid work, with little recognition for their effort. The hard fact is that rural women do about 70% of the agricultural work, and they own 13% of the farmland.Yet, in our minds, a farmer is usually a man in a dhoti, driving a tractor or with a plough in his hand. Women? Oh, they do the transplanting. They sing songs. Then they sit under the trees and chat a little bit. That is the perception. In reality, they do much of the still unmechanised and backbreaking work. Like weeding, which is important but poorly paid. Because it is done by women.But that same woman cannot get a loan. Because the land is not in her name, and even the language we speak does not recognise her as a farmer. To correct it, we need to change the language, and talk more about farmers who happen to be women. Maybe we should drop the gender prefix because women farmers are not an exception; they are the rule.
What kind of support did you receive from the People’s Archive of Rural India while developing this book?Before and during the writing of the book, P Sainath and PARI taught me the framework to write about rural Tamil Nadu, and especially the intersection that interests me – culture and livelihoods. Sainath also kindly read the drafts – many drafts – and gave me important suggestions. He is also the world’s best fact checker if you’re writing about rural India, and probably knows more than anybody else about it! The editors at the publishing house, Karadi Tales, were also very thorough and suggested that I expand on the speech. I’m glad I did.
The ignorance of urban dwellers is another theme you touch upon in this book, and it seems like a moment when the storyteller turns her gaze within and makes a jibe at herself. How has your work with PARI transformed the way you view the world and the choices you make?Every day, I realise how little I know about where my food comes from, how little I engage with the lives of the people who keep my culture alive. I don’t know how the disconnect came about, but it is deep and worrying. But thanks to mainstream media, I have a very good idea about this actor’s child’s preferred breakfast cereal, and that rich person’s bathroom tiles.This book – which is part of a series by PARI and Karadi Tales – hopefully will help fill some of those gaps. Being a part of PARI has helped me understand my privilege and importantly, question it. How do I make it work not just for me (and people like me) but for the people I write about? I think that’s one thing I hope we can collectively do – and which PARI is already doing – not just write about people from rural India, but create a vibrant space where they can tell their own stories, in their own voices. How powerful that would be!
The image of Nandhini waking up at midnight, donning a miner’s lamp, and going to her field to harvest sampangi flowers is imprinted on my mind. If you were approached by a filmmaker to turn this book into a screenplay, and also consult on the casting, which actor would be offered the role of Nandhini?Oh Chandra, of course! I think she’s the best person to act as herself, and how well she’d do it! I know for sure she’d laugh for five minutes straight if I told her about this. Let’s hope it happens!
Chintan Girish Modi is a writer, educator and researcher. He is @chintan_connect on Twitter