“The character of Jamlo came from an Aadhar picture and a picture of her on the road”

Says Samina Mishra, a filmmaker, children’s book author and teacher. She teaches film at the International Baccalaureate level, aiming to use the arts as a means of self-expression. Mishra is a Mass Communications graduate of Jamia Millia Islamia, and her interests lie in covering themes that revolve around childhood, growing up and identity. Her movie Happiness Class on Delhi schools’ happiness curriculum is doing the rounds of film festivals to great critical acclaim. Her goal has been to give primacy to kids’ voices in all that she does. She also has to her credit, many books including Nida Finds a Way, and The House on Gulmohar Avenue, a publicly available documentary film.

In this interview, Sangitha Krishnamurthi holds a conversation with Mishra, after having read Jamlo Walks – the hard-hitting picture book based on a true story of a 12-year-old girl who walked all the way from Telangana to Bastar in Chhattisgarh. Carrying her little bag of chillies, Jamlo covered a distance of 155 miles during the lockdown.

What drew you into writing for children?

I can’t deconstruct why I write for children. The closest I can get to is my visual training from film making and my mass communications background. I have been drawn to whimsy and the everyday experience of being a kid. How do we stay whimsical as we grow up is a question that intrigues me. So, a coalescing of these various strands of education and interests got me into writing for children.

The actual journey started with not being able to raise funds for a movie on Delhi. That is when I pitched Hina in the Old City to Tulika books. It is now available from Eklavya Books and is about a young girl and how life is in the streets of purani Dilli, featuring the neighbourhoods that I explored. Fiction came later.

What is different about writing for kids?

When I’m writing for children, I try to remember the child in me, what I was like as a child and children that I know and engage with. I write to convince myself, asking whether the child I remember being and the children I am now in touch with, would identify with the story. A lot has changed on the outside but the universality of feeling stays true. Is it an interesting story to tell? Is the book age appropriate in how it handles issues? Do the ideas talk to all children? These are some questions I ask myself and then, I take cues from kids.

Nida Finds a Way is a hole book with Duckbill – please talk about this one.

There isn’t enough representation in Indian children’s literature of Muslim kids doing regular everydayness, being playful and just being kids. There’s a texture to every neighbourhood and that’s true also of a largely Muslim neighbourhood. That is hard to find in English kid lit. The story of Nida and her super protective father and her wanting to learn to cycle on the roads was the initial idea. I sent it off to Duckbill and they asked me to write more to make it a whole (hole) book! The ending seemed logical, given the events of the time. It started as wanting the Muslim identity to be incidental but it became of consequence, and I wanted to show something beyond surface level diversity of topi, sewaiyan, food and festivals. There is a nuanced texture of language, just how we live our lives.

Jamlo Walks was the clincher for me. It is a deeply moving book and it moved me and continues to do so. Do talk a bit about how you found the story and what made you write this. How did you decide that a picture book would be the best representation of this story? Did you think of an audience for the book before you wrote it?

We were all locked away by the circumstances. I am a filmmaker; I need to be outside to see and speak to people. We saw these scenes shot at night, dark silhouettes, walking by the Yamuna, dragging footsteps. A young woman cycling a long distance, with her ailing father, men on railway tracks. The news and newspapers were full of these stories of survival and desperation.

Many people seemed to have missed Jamlo’s story; the PARI website was my main source and this idea of the contrast between the two kinds of children I saw. The book came in one go. I wrote it and then refined it. But because it was a short story, it took the form of a picture book. I don’t believe that picture books, are for younger children alone though that is how they are looked at, particularly in India. So, this was a question to consider – was the story appropriate for the readership? I think the book is good for say age group of nine plus though I know people who have read it with their younger children. This is a book that needs to be mediated by adults, answer any questions that are thrown up sensitively. So, we added a note to tackle these issues. Readers will digest the book and respond at different levels.

What was your brief to Tarique Aziz, the illustrator? Was there one?

This was a truly collaborative project, much like making a film. Smit, Devangana, Tarique and I talked about big ideas like representation as well as small details. We had a discussion on what kind of cloth the bag would be made of. The character of Jamlo came from an Aadhar picture and a picture of her on the road, one that showed determination and vulnerability. We talked a lot about the feel of the book, what should be in the foreground, there were many iterations of the text, paring it down to distill the story that came from this process of illustrating it. Using the milestone and the road to evoke the journey, for example, was something that evolved from the discussion.

Do you think children should have books that talk of ‘difficult’ topics? Why?

The lockdown was hard for everyone, especially children. So I wanted the book to work at creating possible connections – our own experience of difficulty can open us out to another’s difficulty –  self-awareness  versus making it a ‘scolding’, a moralising to create  empathy for the ‘other’. I didn’t want  the book to become the ‘wagging finger’. But I did want it to talk of the difficult experiences of the pandemic for all children.

We should be talking about all kinds of topics, without it being a fashionable or trendy thing to do. The point is not to ‘do a story about poverty’ but having a story to tell. There are many difficult topics – families and what happens in them, death, social issues. The pandemic exacerbated some of them. Many adults feel that children should not read sad stories, but sadness is also a part of life, it isn’t a negative thing, but what acclaimed author David Almond calls, sadness with a reaching for the light. There is a rich inner world of children and there’s got to be room for sharing that experience, if only for other children to know and relate to.

Even in Jamlo Walks, she looks at the birds in her sadness, reaching out. Ursula Le Guin, the renowned American author once said that the role of the writer is to be a witness and remind us of that which we have forgotten. For those of us who come from positions of privilege, this act of witnessing must be accompanied with self- interrogation, so things that are on the margins are not forgotten but are also presented, and not simply to display our sensitivity.

At a time when no one has been untouched, a true and very real story had to be immortalised for everyone to read and hopefully discuss.

Mishra recommends

Neil Gaiman – The Ocean at the End of the Lane    

Jean-Pierre Simeon (Author), Olivier Tallec (Illustrator) – This is a Poem that Heals Fish

Anushka Ravishankar – Moin and the Monster

Siddharth Sarma – The Year of the Weeds

Angie Thomas – The Hate U Give

David Almond – My Dad’s a Birdman

Frank Cottrell Boyce – Framed

Jason Reynolds – When I was the Greatest

Arjun Talwar – Bim and the Town of Falling Fruit    

Uma Krishnaswami – Book Uncle and Me

Other favourite international authors:

Jacqueline Woodson, Sharon Creech, Maurice Sendak, Shel Silverstein,  Frances Hardinge

About the interviewer: Bangalore-based Sangitha Krishnamurthi is the co-founder of The Teachers Collective that works with schools, teachers and children inclusively. She is a wife and mother, who mostly tries to find a balance between being of use socially and making a livelihood at the same time. Reading is a long time passion which is now actively used as a way to motivate children to read. She uses kid lit and ‘story books’ in her reading classes to lure them into the amazing world of reading.

Published by

Prerna Shah

Love conversations, anecdotes, stories, books and the little things in life. Always happy to hear how your day was, travel tales, what you ate for lunch, and what you are making for dinner, and who you met on the bus today!

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