Interview: Lubaina Bandukwala, Editor, Thank God It’s Caturday
If you look for escape in cute cat pictures when the human world gets too overwhelming, Thank God It’s Caturday edited by Lubaina Bandukwala might be the book for you. This is a collection of short stories featuring cats, written by some of India’s most loved authors.
Bandukwala is the founder of Peek-A-Book, a literature and storytelling festival for children. The stories are accompanied by illustrations, jokes and trivia that will bring a smile to your face and the book is dedicated to “all animal-loving kids” and illustrator Sonal Gupta’s cats Ninja and Meow. However, it will also appeal to those who are young at heart.
What is your favourite memory involving a cat?I grew up in Hyderabad, and we lived in a bungalow. Once, when I was a teenager, we kept hearing the mewing of a cat for a few days but could not understand where it was coming from. We had no pets! We were determined to find out, so we followed the sound to a spot under the staircase. Guess what? A stray cat had managed to find her way into our house. It was not difficult in those times because our windows were always open. She had made herself a comfortable spot on old newspapers that we used to store there, and given birth to the most adorable little kittens!
How did you come up with the idea of working on “a collection of cool cat stories”?The idea came from Vidhi Bhargava, my editor at Westland. She suggested it over chai after a session at the Kala Ghoda Arts Festival in Mumbai. I loved the idea. Animal stories have a lot of scope for a wide range of treatment. The cat especially has so many associations -- its demeanour, various myths surrounding it, its relationship with children, its representation in popular media (like Garfield), so it was an exciting idea to work on.
What was your brief for the writers you worked with? How did they respond? Was being a cat lover a qualification for being a contributor? I have worked with all the authors at some stage as a curator of my festival. For me, what was important was that each one has a distinctive style, and I knew that each of their stories would bring their unique voices and rich variety to the anthology. My only brief to them was to write a story about a cat that would appeal to readers who are eight and above.I was familiar with their strong points, and did not want to limit them in any way. And just as I expected, I got a terrific mix. Shabnam Minwala did a ghost story; Lavanya Karthik gave us her customary wry humour; Nandini Nayar added a touch of magic; Harshikaa Udasi and Vaishali Shroff had sweet stories about children and their special relationship with a cat; Neha Singh wrote a most unique piece of historical fiction; Nalini Ramachandran who writes excellent “twist-in-the-tale” short stories built hers on cat myths, Khyrunnisa A told of a jewel heist; Nalini Sorensen’s story was a fun romp for younger kids; and Lalita Iyer’s had an animal rights message. The cat through the eyes of 10 incredibly talented authors became a marvellous multi-dimensional creature! I was truly grateful that they all agreed to write for us.
All the contributors to this anthology are women. Was this intentional or just a coincidence? Do you think women have a special relationship with cats?The reason the authors in the collection were on my wish list was that they are some of the best children’s authors we have today. That they are all women was incidental. I think that the characteristics we associate with cats -- cool, standoff-ish, picky and independent are “feline” qualities that have traditionally been associated with women. But I know plenty of men who love cats. I don’t think there are men cat lovers and women cat lovers but I do think that there are cat people and dog people. Cat lovers are those who typically take time to be around cats and understand that they are as loving and as loyal as dogs.
Were you inspired to immerse yourself in the work of TS Eliot, Dr Seuss and other authors who have written catty classics? Are there any literary cats that hold a special place in your heart? During the lockdown, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musicals were -- for the first time ever -- available to us for free. I saw his interpretation of Cats (based on TS Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats), and it was outstanding. I loved it because of the idea that getting a second chance can give you a new lease of life. But I also looked at it carefully because it is about interpreting a story and giving it your own spin. I did not look to any literary heroes for inspiration but focussed on creating something new, fresh and reflective of our voices and our stories that would appeal to Indian children.
At what stage of the book did the illustrator enter the picture? Were the stories all written up and passed on to the illustrator, or did the illustrations appear first and give you ideas about writers to get in touch with? I think that illustrations are super important in a book. Good illustrations work with the text to take a book to a whole new level. Typically, in an author-driven anthology, we get an illustrator on board after the stories are written. I had no doubt in my mind that I wanted to work with Sonal Gupta on this. She has two beautiful cats, and has often shared pictures and drawings of her cats on her social media, so I knew she could capture the cat in various settings very well. She is always experimenting with different illustration styles so I knew she would add value of her own in bringing the story to life.
Since this book has been written for children, did you get their feedback on the initial drafts of the stories? Is this a process you find useful? When there isn’t enough time to get beta readers, what qualities in a children’s story convince you that it will connect with readers?When my daughters were younger, they read all my work. They still do even as teenagers, and give me valuable feedback. However, mostly we have a mental checklist that comes from just doing this stuff for a while. Something we look for is reading-age appropriate language and references. Will kids relate to references beyond their age group? Are the scenarios relatable? Is the reference to any technology dated? Stuff like that.
When you look back at the editing process, what stands out as a conversation or experience that was special for you?For me the special thing about the anthology were my conversations with Vidhi because we were really on the same page with what we wanted to do with this book. There is great joy in creating something with a team with similar ideas. My vision was not just a beautifully packaged collection of stories but a collector’s edition -- a book with stories, jokes, riddles and illustrations that children would love to possess and dip into over and over again.
Chintan Girish Modi is a writer, educator and researcher. He is @chintan_connect on Twitter.