A tale of two books

My two books for children have been published 15 years apart. Understandably therefore, my experiences while writing them have been completely different. While doing the first one, there was no Google, and email had just come to India. The Brats were young and enthusiastically participated in the effort, reading the stories and offering suggestions and most importantly, I was younger. How time has flown! I had dedicated the first one to the boys but the second one is dedicated to my little granddaughter — no, she is too young to read my stories but has given me the status of a grandmother, and therefore deserves the mention, doesn’t she?

I wanted to share the tale of two books with you all when Cybernag has just completed four years.

It was in the early 90s…I had quit full time work and decided to write for children. The boys were growing up and I had a ready source of material for umpteen stories for children.  It was a breeze, right? How wrong I was, came home when my stories were rejected left, right and centre. I gritted my teeth and wrote one final story, making my mind up to stop trying if that one got rejected too. I looked anxiously at the editor’s face a couple of days later, waiting to find out my fate as a budding children’s writer. I exhaled slowly as she smiled.

Many stories, features and anthologies of stories for children later, I decided to write a book. It was to be the childhood stories of eminent people and included scientists, statesmen and others from the world over. I didn’t want them to be boring biographies, but dramatised stories of their childhood, that brought out the child in them so that the children reading the stories could identify with them. There were no Indian books in this genre at that time. I spent hours at the libraries and made copious notes on the period, place, lifestyle, dress and such. Finally I wrote a sample chapter and made a proposal.

It was then time to find a publisher. There were many who published children’s books, but I set my mind on National Book Trust (NBT). Their books were good, the marketing network was widespread to reach the far corners of the country — not just the metros — and the books were translated into other Indian languages. Being subsidised, they were affordable to children even in small villages, where NBT organised book fairs sales of their books. What more could an author want? My proposal was accepted and I was called for a meeting. And one fine day, I marched into the NBT office with a copy of the proposal.  A cursory glance at the pages (I am sure it had been reviewed before I went) and then the question:

‘Why do you want to write about those who are no more? Why not about Indians who are still amidst us and doing great things? Won’t that be more interesting for our children?’ I was given a list of names. I was stunned.

‘But…’ I sputtered. ‘They are all big people…’

‘Doesn’t that make it more challenging? I am sure you can do it.’  And the proposal was gently pushed back towards me with a smile.

Of course, I had met and interviewed big names for newspaper features, but a feature was more specific, with a question and answer format. This was different. The personalities would have to recall their childhood dreams, the disappointments and the joys of growing up; when they were vulnerable, innocent and looking forward to life; the influences that moulded them…

I’d like to think that my family was so confident of me to complete the job, that they didn’t think it necessary to show me any sympathy at my predicament. Instead, they were all excited. ‘Amma, could we come to meet them when you go?’ asked the Brats. I had no clue as to how to get their contact details and here they wanted to already meet them! The personalities were scattered all over the country. What was more, I wouldn’t be getting any advance to meet my expenses like travel and telephone bills. Remember, phones in the mid-90s had not yet become as cheap as they are today.  But the L&M dismissed that magnanimously and gave me the go-ahead.

The following weeks passed in a daze, trying to find eminent personalities who would agree to give me an interview to talk about their childhood. So began the slow process of contacting each one through snail mail. If I was lucky enough to get their phone numbers, I called – long distance. And then after several months, I had 12 personalities from the list given to me, who had agreed to meet and talk to me. There were artists, writers, scientists, judges, social workers and sportsmen and others from various walks of life among them.

Book covers2

Armed with my notepad, pen and a pocket cassette recorder – in those days we still used those – off I went on my journey of discovery. It was both exciting and scary. These were great men and women who were at the pinnacle of their chosen field and would not tolerate a fool. I had done my homework – lots and lots of it. I had decided against a QA format, as this was to be more a walk down memory lane for them and I couldn’t fit it all in some questions except maybe ask them the names and places and a few open-ended questions to jog their memories. Didn’t they love reliving the memories as they went back in time!

Once the interviews were done, I sat down to transcribe, write and edit the stories and soon  discovered that while writing a biography is not easy, it gets tougher when one has to write only about the childhood of such high achievers and even more challenging when the target audience is children. I also had to keep in mind that it would be translated into other Indian languages. (I translated my first book into Tamil!) Doing the two books involved interacting with no less than 23 personalities. It was sometimes overwhelming, but was always a humbling experience.

For instance,

…I was a tad unsure of myself when it came to Ruskin Bond. After all, he was an institution when it came to children’s writing and had written so much about his childhood in his stories. The fact that he agreed to do the interview itself was humbling. The boys clamoured to go along and so I took them. Sitting in his simple home in Mussoorie, Ruskin Bond spoke about his father’s influence in shaping his interest in writing and how his demise had devastated him. In the end, he gave an autographed story book to the younger one and a fountain pen to the elder one, much to his delight. I still cherish the handwritten letter he sent me in appreciation of his story, when the first book Children who made it Big came out.

…When Mr.Narayana Murthy’s PA informed me that I would only get 25 minutes with him, I was dismayed. What would he be able to tell me in that short time? Could he even get into the mood to talk? I needn’t have worried. His story was as simple as the man himself and the underlying thread that ran through the entire interview was Sharing. Though he found his life’s mission only after his post-graduation, the seeds had already been sown in his childhood by the culture of sharing practised by his parents. And oh, he got up precisely at the end of 25 minutes, without once glancing at the clock, making me wonder if he had an inbuilt body clock!

….It was a first of sorts.  I had to use email, when it had not yet become common (there was only the DOS based ones) to interview Vishwanathan Anand because he lived in Spain. I certainly couldn’t have afforded the ISD charges even if I could have contacted him! I first spoke to his parents in Chennai and then interviewed him over email and he responded so beautifully.

…I still remember the conversation I had with the sarod maestro Ustad Amjad Ali Khan. He could recall the pain of disappointing his father when he went to play football – he was forbidden from playing rough games for fear of injuring his delicate playing fingers. As it turned out, the escapade had resulted in his getting hurt when the boys had turned rowdy on the field and beat him up in the fight.

…Meeting Mary Kom was a mind-blowing experience, about which I had written here.

…and many more such experiences……..Prof.Yashpal,  N.R.Narayana Murthy, Ruskin Bond, Mary Kom, Rahul Bajaj, Vishwanathan Anand,  Ela Bhatt, Bhaichung Bhutia, Bindeshwar Pathak, Lata Mangeshkar, Nani Palkhiwala, Justice Leila Seth, Satish Gujral, Ustad Amjad Ali Khan, Dr.Devi Shetty, Prof.Obaid Siddiqi, Mrinalini Sarabhai, R.K.Pachauri, Teejan Bai, Medha Patkar, M.S.Swaminathan, Sai Paranjpye and Santosh Yadav….to name them all!

It was enlightening and enriching to interact with each and I have tried capturing them to the best of my abilities in the two books Children who made it Big and When they were Children.

And just in case you are wondering about the name on the book covers, well, you can read all about how I became Zephyr here!

Homepage image courtesy: Swati Maheshwari

58 comments

  1. Landed here through a long route and glad I did. Was nice reading about the journey 🙂 I remember reading your post on Mary Kom. Look forward to reading these books now.

    Err and to tell you how I landed here – was buying rustic art products like I usually do and then that led me to an article, from there to Swati’s blog and then here 🙂

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    1. That journey is longer than mine and is interesting to boot. Will tell Swati about it too. She would be thrilled to know you biy Rustic Art stuff regularly 🙂 Do tell me how you like the books, Swaram.

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      1. Sure. Do tell her we are a Rustic Art family as a whole – the two sets of parents have been converted too 🙂

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  2. Thank you for pointing me to this post. It is wonderful to read about some of the behind-the-scene action. I ordered your second book a couple of days ago from NBT. Hopefully I will receive it soon. I am really looking forward to reading it and then telling all about it to the kids in my family 🙂

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    1. Did you get the first book? It has some great personalities and I remember them all so fondly. It was also done at a time when the media glare was not so intense, making the personalities baulk at talking openly and sharing their precious memories freely as happened in the second book. Waiting to get your feedback 🙂

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      1. No, I couldn’t find the first book on some of the websites they checked. I ordered the second one – When they were children. But just now I checked on NBT’s site, my order is still under “processing”. Should write to them and find out more.

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  3. What the self-effacing Zephyr chose not share in her post is, her first book has sold over 200,000 copies in 7 languages and is one of the top sellers of NBT.

    She is not only a lovely woman, a dear friend but an inspiration for all of us.

    A big hug to you, Z.

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    1. Oh Purba! You are just like the kids 🙂 I am touched by the love and affection you have for me. God bless you and a big hug right back.

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  4. Heartiest congratulations, Aunty! 🙂 And thank you for celebrating this happy occasion with such a warm and inspiring post. How exciting it is to read the childhood stories of noted people of today, I can imagine so much simplicity rooted in their journeys, growing up in a world where technology was still in its nascent stages and the family bonding very strong. And equally exciting it is to read about your journey. Your hard work — this — is our treasure. Thank you! Here’s to many many more years of writing, I wish you always keep touching hearts and roll out pearls of wisdom which people like me can gather to cherish for long.

    PS: Now, I know your real name.. not that it matters in any way but still, always feels good to discover the hidden. 😉

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    1. Thank you Arti. I am happy you know my real name and now you can decide on what to call me 🙂

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  5. Congratulations, Zephyr!

    I have read, and enjoyed immensely your first book- “Children Who Made It Big”. I’m eagerly looking forward to reading the new one.

    I’m glad you write for adults as well as kids, so that we get to read such great posts on this blog! 🙂

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    1. Thank you so much Manju! I am thrilled that you liked my first book 🙂 I am originally a writer for grown-ups and so it was doubly hard for me to write for children, see? 😀

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  6. Congratulations! When your writings touches the hearts of adults so well then it must surely inspire the children even more. I pray that your book reaches the hands of many.

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    1. Thank you so much Asha, not just for the wishes but your lovely words about my writing. I will try to live up to the expectations. And yes, one of the good things about a government publication like NBT is that it will reach children that is, if they print it regularly. My last book was always out of stock because it sold out so fast and they didn’t do reprints quick enough.

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  7. It turns out that my gentle friend is a SUPER ACHIEVER .I knew a lot about your achievements but not to this extent.You really took great pains to come out with these books -how thrilling it must have been.Hats off to you.These books must be a treasure of inspiration for kids.
    Manifold congratulations to you Zephyr

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    1. What a lovely compliment, Indu! Thank you so much. But I am not too sure about the super achiever part 🙂 It was such a painful journey sometimes, but it was a goal I had to reach and so marched on till it has finally come out.

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      1. I admire your toil and perseverance.

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  8. Congratulations! You do an excellent job of writing for children. My elder son was hooked to your first book till he finished reading it cover to cover. Now I am excited to get him your second book. I so loved reading about the challenges and excitement of interviewing the legends you did. I can also imagine two precocious brats tagging along, giggling and being wide eyed in the presence of these stalwarts. Always love the hear the journey behind books.

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    1. Thank you Rachna. I do hope Sid will like this one too 🙂 Yes, it has been a hard road for me to get them out. In fact, I couldn’t take up the second one, when it was offered to me in 2004 due to my vision loss. I took it up only in 2011 but unfortunately many in the list given to me had passed away in the interim including Laurie Baker and M.S.Subbulakshmi 😦 Vikki was in high school when I began writing, but the younger one was still in middle school when I was working on the book from ’96.

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  9. Such a lovely post…so inspirational !

    Congrats Zephyr, you have done it ! So excited and thrilled for ya !
    Waiting to get the book and read it ! Wouldhave loved to get an autographed copy of the book…..!
    You can always sign in my copy of the book when we meet !:)
    Hats off to ya !

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    1. Thanks Chitra! Where would I be, if it were not for the cheers from my friends? I am a very small fry — it feels odd to even think about giving an autographed copy 🙂

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  10. So Awesome. Congratulations. The books are keepers. I will read them first and read it to the children when they are older (my bum-chums are only 3 and 1 right now :)). May we get to read more of you in 2014!

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    1. Thank you Shachi. Your kids have a long way to go before they can understand the books — it is meant for kids in the 12-14 age bracket. I do hope you like the books enough to read it to them later 🙂

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  11. Congrats on the book and your blogoversary. It was nice reading about your journey.

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    1. Thank you for the wishes, The Fool.

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  12. Congrats! This was a really heart warming post!! 🙂

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    1. Thank you so much for the warm wishes, Rahul 🙂

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  13. After reading this post I feel I know a celebrity..OMG..you are…awesome..enjoyed the post and felt so happy….Keep writing here too..we always miss you..

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    1. Aren’t you too sweet, Renu! Thank you so much for the warm words of appreciation. I will certainly keep writing here, how often is the question 🙂

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  14. Wowww….if getting your book published is one BIG thing, the process of writing it all is an amazing journey that you have shared. How lucky you are to have met all these wonderful people! Ruskin Bond…it must have been a memorable experience, isn’t it? Writing for children in deed is difficult…I know your hard work, perseverance, your patience and all the effort you have gone through to get in print. Many congratulations for that. I will try to get both of them for Rushi. This post needs more applause than anything else…and hoping to read you more in your 5th year 🙂 Congratulations, BM!!

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    1. You know, Latha, when I had given that proposal I was just thinking that I would have to spend a lot of time researching the personalities but when I was given an entirely different assignment, I was flummoxed. Had I not been so full of beans and younger at that time, I would simply have bolted 😀 Thank you for the warm wishes and warmer words 🙂

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  15. “I looked anxiously at the editor’s face a couple of days later, waiting to find out my fate as a budding children’s writer. I exhaled slowly as she smiled.”
    Love this!
    Congratulations dear Zephyr and thank you for sharing this with us. Wishing you many, many years of writing!
    Love

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    1. Lovely to see you here, Chakra Incognita! Thank you for the wishes. Hugs.

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  16. Quite Nostalgic moment for you on this anniversary, Congratulations. I would love to read the book.

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    1. Thank you SRA. I do hope you like the book. It was indeed time for nostalgia for me 🙂

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  17. Congrats!! So happy that you are back in action

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    1. Thank you Bhavia 🙂

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  18. That is one fruitful journey isn’t it Zephyr.Would really buy both the books for my kiddos 🙂 And btw Heart Congratulations 😀

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    1. Thank you Sridevi. Good to see you here 🙂

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  19. Writing for children is tough; writing biographies of living personalities is tougher BUT this has to take the cake for being the toughest – writing biographical childhoods of living personalities for children. Amazing!

    Congrats Zephyr for the book and the blog anniversary.

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  20. Congrats on the book and on the blog anniversary Zephyr! It is tough enough to write FOR children; tougher still to write biographies of living personalities but THIS, by far, ought to be classified the toughest – writing biographical childhoods of living personalities for children! Amazing!

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    1. Thank you, Suresh. I think kids liked it, because the first one has been reprinted many times over and translated into six languages too. Hope this one strikes a chord too. And yes, writing for children is hard, for you have to refrain from both talking down to them and preaching.

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  21. This was a very inspiring post Zephyr and I am sure these books would be very motivating too! Hope I can lay my hands and read them some time:)

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    1. Thank you, Rahul for the warm words. I hope you like the books.

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  22. Congratulations for the blog anniversary, first, Zephyr!

    The gist of the book itself is so interesting. I have sent this link to my son to check where to get the book. He will get it online.

    Waiting to read these stories and many many more!

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    1. Thank you Sandhya. I just happened to remember my blogaversary and thought this would be a fitting post to mark it:) I have linked the books to the NBT online bookstore. It can be bought there.

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  23. Woohooo! congrats congrats congrats..can you please also add the link where we could get these books…I am waiting to get them, read them and then review them too 😉

    So so proud that I personally know an author who has interviewed such famous folks that too in the off beat way *gives proud look*

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    1. I am no big author, RM. Just your neighbourhood grandma, who happened to write books 🙂 Would look forward to your review! I have added the links to the titles of the book which you can buy online. It should soon be available also on Flipkart, I think.

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  24. Congratulations, Zephyr, several times over! ‘When They Were Children’ sounds so interesting. I’m hoping we’ll read more of you in year 5! 🙂

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    1. Thank you Corinne. I do hope I will be able to write more too 🙂

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  25. Congratulations on your blog anniversary, Zephyr! 😀 And what good news about the books! 🙂 Looking forward to reading “When they were children”. I am sure a certain member in my household will be keen, too.

    Love, Vidya

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    1. Thank you, Vidya! Oh, I know that certain member had reviewed my first book on his blog 😀

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  26. grondmaster · · Reply

    Nothing but this question: Where can we get our greedy hands on these books now?

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    1. I have added the links to the books in the post. You can buy them online 🙂

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  27. That is a wonderful post.The traits or factors that led to making of the great men/women should have been there even as a child.Are the factors internal inborn or external like parents,mentors,institutions is one thing I am keen to know.I am itching to see how you have brought them out in your two books.I will get them soonest.I am so happy at your achievement.

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    1. Like most of us, these great men and women too went through life’s ups and downs and some of them only embarked upon their chosen fields much later in life. However, the seeds of greatness were sown in their childhood, by their parents, teachers and environment. They are written in story form to make them interesting. Thank you for the wishes, KP.

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  28. Congratulations, Zephyr, for the books and for your blog anniversary. And knowing the shy kind of person that you are, thank you so much for sharing this post on your books and the journey to see them complete here. I found it very inspiring to read about your journey.

    Knowing your writing and you personally, I can’t wait to read the books – I know that they will be warm, genuine, honest and fantastic. Just like you. 😀

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    1. Oh wow! So good to see you here, Sudha 🙂 Thank you so much for the warm words and wishes. I was very very hesitant to put up anything about the books, for the reasons you have guessed, but wanted to relive the journey with my readers. So this post came about. I do hope my books will justify your faith in me as a writer.

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