Interview with Padma Shri Geeta Dharmarajan

This month we got a golden opportunity to have a conversation with a very special person. We are sure that reading this interview will evoke many awe-inspiring emotions in you. You would feel as if you are sitting in a storytelling session which is deep, enriching and profound. The special guest is none other than Padma Shri Geeta Dharmarajan. She is a writer, editor, educator and the Founder and President of Katha, a nonprofit organisation that she founded in 1988. In spite of being a go-getter and someone through whose journey we can learn so much, the enthusiasm in her voice is so childlike and infectious that you can’t remain un-enamoured.

Our Founder & Chief Mentor, Anupama Dalmia, spoke to her about her journey and the person that she is. Here are some interesting tidbits from her tête-à-tête.

Anupama: Ma’am, we are so grateful that you took out time for us, thank you very much. So, our first question is obviously, how did your journey start? Were you always captivated by books and storytelling? Was it a part of your childhood as well?

Geeta: Ok, so I come from a very middle-class family, where we were not left with much by the end of the month. But my mother always had an interesting story to tell about the hardships we used to face, like for whole month she would save money in our Tirupati Balaji Hundi at home, but invariably by 25th of every month she would take out the money saying “Our God is very understanding, he won’t mind, he knows we want this.’ So even if we didn’t have enough to buy books, stories were a part of my childhood through my mother and also through temple visits, where I would go with her or my grandfather and listen to these mythological discourses and stories. I remember, when I was 7 or 8 years old, I got my first book ‘King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table’ for agreeing to sit through my first tooth extraction. And I still find the book absolutely fascinating, memorable. And of course, the Tamil women poets like Avvaiyar of 2300 years ago and more modern poets and writers left an indelible imprint on my thought process. They brought forth an intense desire in me to be compassionate to all. They meandered through my early learning and shaped my choices later in life. Working for underprivileged children was never as a do-gooder but out of empathy and compassion.

Anyways, as my love for books was known to all in my family, everyone who visited us brought me books as gifts. Later I joined a “convent school” run by Irish nuns, where the seed of kindness and compassion was further watered and engrained in my education and learning. Also, my Principal there, Sister Nessen, felt that I had a way with words as I was reading a lot, so became my mentor and always encouraged me to write. I always say my father and mother gave me wings but my Principal taught me how to take a flight.

Later as I grew up and went to the University of Pennsylvania, I could never take India out of me. I used to be so nostalgic that I had to come back. But by then with a bigger perspective, I realized that consumerism had crept into our lifestyles in India as well. We were forgetting our centuries-old wisdom and were running after the western market-oriented culture. New mothers were forgetting that breast milk is the best; we were all forgetting cures could and should come out of our backyards and kitchens. By then I was in my 30’s, and with all this tussle in me, I came to Delhi in 1987 and ‘Katha’ journey started.

Anupama: It was so inspiring to hear that. So initially when you started, I am sure you must have faced a lot of challenges. When you started, were you a one-woman army or had a team with you? What were the hardships you faced?

Geeta: As I returned from the U.S.A, where translation was big by then, I realized we have so many good writers in regional languages which should be translated and have a wider readership. So, I wanted to translate books for adults and because back then there were not many writers for children, I wanted to write stories for them. I had a literary agent in New York who loved my children’s stories, and a publisher in UK just waiting for my first novel for adults. But I wanted to start with a children’s magazine for children who came mainly from working families where both parents had never stepped into a school. I went knocking on many government doors as India was celebrating our 40th year of independence. I thought they would be eager to celebrate children too along with India’s independence. But I was disappointed.

Finally, I went to the UNICEF office with the idea of fantasies and stories to look after the mental wellbeing of children — and it was very well received. So I worked on this children’s magazine for a year. I had earlier worked in India Today’s Target magazine for kids. In fact, Rosalind Wilson was my first guru as a publisher. I thought a magazine was a better way to keep on communicating with kids on various topics regularly. I started working on it and alongside I approached a few translators and began the work on a translation project. In 1988 came out the first magazine Tamasha! and apparently, UNICEF liked it very much so they funded the subsequent editions and also, other departments of UNICEF approached me with their projects, that made me financially sound to continue my translation work for adults. And in 1991 came out Katha’s first translated book for adults. Till 1990, I was handling everything on my own, with the help of my daughter Tulsi, who was good with technology and calligraphy, and my son Guha’s drawings and illustrations and my husband, Raju’s editorial inputs. So yes, you can say we four were the Team Katha in the initial days.

Anupama: I, as well as the students at BTB, love the fact that ideas of your books are very unique. Like your recent one ‘The Tales of Makkhilal’, or ‘The Mystery of a Missing Soap’, where through fun storytelling you give such strong messages. So, how do you get these ideas, and then produce them in such unique narratives?

Geeta: Anupama, I think for me any idea has to originate from children only. I am always listening to them, always observing them. In our Katha Lab School, we get children from the underprivileged class, but what amazes me is even poverty can’t take away the inherent humour of children and that inspires my stories too. So, I feel a writer has to be very observant. You have to see more than other people see and hear more than others do. Our senses should be alert all the time to grasp a moment, a laughter, a tear – everything. And if you are blessed with it then it is the Dharma of a writer to use this skill properly. Not for fame, not for money but to give pleasure. Because a writer gives happiness to the reader, that should be his primary objective.

Anupama: You have put it across so beautifully. Another thing I noticed is that the illustrations in all Katha Books stand out and are very attractive and artistic. Children need that visual engagement while reading books and you seem to have a wonderful team which depict the stories in such an engaging way.

Geeta: O yes, Absolutely! I have an awesome pool of illustrators working as freelancers, for Katha. They are all too good as creators of great art!

Anupama: That’s really wonderful! Coming to my next question, as a mentor, I often feel kids are not really exposed to a whole lot of literature, may be in school libraries and otherwise. And that is why my constant endeavour is to make them aware of different genres and different kinds of literature at BTB. What’s your experience with this? And also, do you think we, as in parents and teachers or even publication houses, try to follow the fad and try to mould their reading list according to International bestsellers when Indian authors and books would be more relatable to say to a reluctant reader?

Geeta: I would like to answer this in three parts, from the child’s/reader’s perspective, second the publication house and third the teachers or parents. So, children can be categorized as those who can read, who have a tradition of learning in a formal environment and those who can’t, like the ones in our Katha Schools.

Here, we as publishers have failed. We have seen the demand and just catered to it, without trying to create a demand for more cohesive readership solutions for all. Before Crossword happened in India, we never saw books as products, for us they were an experience. Now consumerism has crept into books and reading as well. We don’t allow children to come up with their own desires and needs. We won’t gift an inexpensive book but a costly video game because we feel that’s what kids want. There is a thin line between want and need. The child needs to have an experience, an imagination, an engagement of all senses and a book can give all of it. We have started negating the value attached to giving with a full heart, and what matters only is the cost of the gift. So, as a parent, we need to learn how to get them excited about reading as an experience for life. For example, if a parent says to a 5 years old child, “Ah! Do you see that crow, what lovely ruffled feathers she has? I would really like to know more about crows. I think I’ll go and pick that bird’s book on our shelf, would you like to come too?”, it can make them excited about life, about learning. This way we make them creative and compassionate.

Technology today is changing so fast that when your kids grow up, you don’t know whether mobile phones would be still relevant or not but empathy, compassion and creativity would never go out of fashion. And reading often gives that – an ability to live someone else’s life. Secondly, maybe we can let children make their own choices regarding what they want to read and when they want to read. It is not like a chore but an experience. Let them have it as they want at their own pace. as parents let us not burden them with our ideas and dreams. So, it’s the responsibility of parents and teachers and publishers, all together to let the children shape themselves as readers, without any blinders.

Anupama: I completely agree with you Ma’am. We need to give them the choices and let them pick. I am sure with your unique thought process, Katha must be brimming with new concepts and initiatives. What are the future plans of Katha?

Geeta: There are lots of things on my mind. As a publication for children, and a non- profit organization, our bottom line is not profit but social change. Then we are also working towards a green change, i.e we plant more trees and work for the environment. To mitigate climate change.

But intrinsically what I want at Katha is for children to progress from collecting data and information to gaining knowledge and hopefully gaining wisdom, eventually. Wisdom is something you can’t hand over to a child, so we try not to be preachy and moral in their face but package the stories in a fun way. We are working on a series on Faith. And it has nothing to do with the religion or God per se. It’s more about Advaita, the unilateral ultimate being, the God within. So we are working on the great offerings of Kabir and Rahim, Avvaiyar and Lal Ded, and the Bhakti Poets, the teachings of His Holiness Dalai Lama and Mother Teresa, and some of our best contemporary wordsmiths.  We have this beautiful book coming out on Rahim’s Doha. I want to give children what they could forget but something that will definitely come back to them later in life. I want to help them strengthen their conscience which can tell them right from wrong. Because from all the exposures that children have today from media to social media to their role models like movie stars, they have nothing that strengthens that inner voice for them. Faith will do that. I always believed that India’s plurality is the biggest strength we have. How do we let our children celebrate that diversity even in these divisive times? So, that is our one focus, other than that I feel that we haven’t done much for our rural children. There’s a lot of scope for the oral tradition of knowledge transfer and storytelling. We have been so urban that we haven’t paid much attention to our farmers or weavers or fisher-folk. We must learn to work for both the Haves and the Have-nots. Then finally, at the risk of being called saffronised which I am not, I truly believe that we need to go back to our heritage, our ancient knowledge. America is only 200 years old but we have a written and recorded history of 3000 years and more. We must bring back Prakrit poets or a Kalidasa. I feel if you love nature, you must read Kalidasa. We can bring in an English translation maybe. We owe it to our children and youth to make them know Kalidasa if they know Shakespeare already. We have to make them proud of our lineage and our heritage and not disregard our rich past. So yes, these are the projects I am very excited about at Katha right now.

Anupama: That’s amazing and exciting Ma’am and we are so looking forward to all these projects of Katha. Before we sign off, I have one last question. For the children who are interested in creative writing, at BTB or otherwise, what pointers would you like to give them? Particularly about how they can own their expressions and not be boxed in their heads.

Geeta: I think, they should feed their imagination a lot. Be observant and have an open mind. Read a lot, really a LOT! If they have an idea that they have read about before, they shouldn’t write about it. Be original, that will take you far and thirdly, be patient with your writing. Once you are done, read it and re-read it a couple of times more. Be self-critical, edit it. That will polish your craft.

Anupama: Absolutely, I feel this is great advice, not just for children but for us adult writers as well. Thank you so much for taking out time from your hectic schedule and talking to us. It was so enriching and enlightening to listen to you.

Geeta: Thank you Anupama. It was my pleasure completely.

// This post has been written by Writer & Editor, Deepti Sharma //

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *