Travel; lifestyle; heritage and arts; books and miscellany

Adventure, she writes

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Her first book Dungeon Tales was Arabian Nightsesque. Her second, The Washer of the Dead, a collection of ghost stories centred on women, was humanistic rather than scary. Her next, Soap! Writing and Surviving Television in India, a handbook for people writing for the cash-rich but quality-strapped Indian TV industry, drew upon her years of experience in the space. She then wrote a three-book animal fiction series on the trot. Her most recent, Boy No. 32, is about a boy in an orphanage with the name, or rather, number battees (32). But his life and luck may be about to change when the orphanage is inadvertently brought crashing down, letting him and his mates loose on the pathways of Mumbai and setting off a series of adventures and discoveries.

Somewhere, Venita Coelho’s life is as varied, adventurous, unconventional and humanistic as the books she writes and the themes she explores. She was born in Dehradun, grew up in Calcutta, worked in Bombay, stayed in Coimbatore (which she considers home) and now lives in Goa. She is a single mother to an adopted girl of 10, whom she home-schools and takes on tours across India in a customised caravan, because she feels that’s the best way to learn geography and history. She also loves animals, owing to which she turned vegetarian 20 years ago.

Coelho started off writing for TV in the early days of satellite TV, and worked there the longest, before giving it up when the “saas-bahu poison” took over. She returned to front Jassi Jaissi Koi Nahi, but left TV for the second and final time when she saw that the show was getting into saas-bahu mode. She wrote a few films but took a break when none of the three scripts she penned turned out as envisaged. She switched her attention full-fledged to books and has been quite prolific: seven books in 11 years, with about as many at various stages. She has started looking at films anew and is also interested in the rapid rising space of web series. And somewhere in the midst of all this action, she has engaged in activism too, being a part of the Goa Bachao Abhiyaan and espousing other causes as well. Irfan Syed spoke to the author about her work, motivation and inspirations. Excerpts:

You have written across mediums and genres….

Actually, I’m not a writer—I’m a storyteller. It has allowed me the freedom of adapting, learning and going from genre to genre, medium to medium.

How easy or difficult is it writing across mediums?

TV is easy; once you’ve cracked the formula—24 minutes, 12 scenes, ad breaks—it’s pretty easy to write. Film is the most difficult. In film, the universe you create has to be credible. It takes many minds and is collaborative whereas we, as writers, tend to be solitary. The easiest is books, because with them, you are the sole person in charge.

It seems the inspiration for Boy No. 32 came from the time you spent with street kids while waiting for the last train back from work during your TV days.

I was always on that last train back to the hostel. All the odds and ends would be on that train: hijra, fisherwomen, some urchin or the other. Because the train was empty, these kids would come and chat. I would have these absolutely fantastic conversations. They would also entertain me. They’d catch those handholds on top and swing from them and do acrobatics. I thought they deserved a book. I wanted people to see them as children and not just beggars.

Were there any other motivations for writing the book?

Boy No. 32 is also about family. That’s what he is looking for. He’s never had a family. It also came out of the conversations I had with my daughter about family because, by definition, we are not your standard family: single mom with adopted kid. The fondest, deepest, most loving family can be the family you choose.

The book seems to have influences of Salman Rushdie—the telepathic communication between kids and various elements of fantastic adventure. You seem to be a Rushdie fan, which is also evident in your first book, Dungeon Tales. Do the similarities creep in subconsciously?

I picked up my first Rushdie when I was in college. I just fell into Midnight’s Children. It was not as much for the storytelling but for the fact that it was the first time that I read a book and said, ‘Oh my God, we can tell our stories and people will take us seriously.’ Rushdie used Bambaiya dialect to tell a truly Indian story. I was like: ‘I can admire an Indian author, and the world admires him as well!’ So, that’s why, for me, always at the back of all my writing is Papa Rushdie sitting there as an inspiration!

The book could so easily make a movie. In fact, many of your books can. Is that your TV and film writing at play?

All the books are the movies that will never be made! Look at my animal rights series—climaxes that involve 250 tigers! So, that’s how I use my books. Because in film, you are trying to write stuff that will get made. But in books, you can write stuff that doesn’t have to ever be made—you can just go mad!

How did the animal series books come about?

I was sick of the way people were treating animals. In our family, animals are treated in a loving manner, much like family. I thought, ‘Animals have nobody to speak for them. So, I’m going to do it.’ I decided to talk to kids again; tell them fun stories that would teach them about animal rights, cruelty to animals, the space that animals have in the world and the need to respect that.

Most of your books are aimed at children. Do you find it easier to write for them than adults?

Adults have a whole lot of opinions and prejudices that they might not openly show, and a whole lot of thoughts about what good and bad reading is. Kids don’t think like that. As long as you are telling a good story in a fun way, they listen.

In Soap!, you’ve talked about the physical problems you had while writing, which eventually receded through yoga. Is that you how keep fit?

Totally! It saved my life. There is no problem I’ve had that yoga has not fixed.

Any plans to take up a web series?

I hope to do a web series. But recently, when I looked at a series that is really popular, I felt a bit lost. I didn’t understand the thinking. So, I’ve taken some time off and am just looking at the whole thing: at stuff that’s popular, at youngsters and what interests them. For me, it’s one more new genre to learn.

Finally, will you be writing on your pan-India trips?

I’ve got all kinds of offers: ‘Shoot it.’ ‘Do a blog.’ ‘Do a series.’ But I’ve said no to everything. For once, I want to do something just for the fun of it. We are doing our tours, meeting people, seeing sights, and eventually I’m sure it will influence my writing. Any kind of adventure you have enriches you, and feeds back into your work.

Photo: Kaira Coelho
Featured in Harmony — Celebrate Age Magazine
October 2018