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The Pop-Up World!

Pop-up books are probably the reason I started reading early. The very idea of a book that would move, that you could manipulate with the help of flaps and triggers to reveal surprises at every step, was fascinating for me. I suspect my mother loved pop-up books too since there were loads of them lying around the house when I was growing up. Goldilocks, Red Riding Hood were a few of my favourites.

Mostly I loved the surprise element. Having things jump out at you when you turned each page. Princesses, teddy bears, fairies. Hidden objects that came into view when you pulled flaps. It was like a tableau being enacted in front of your eyes. One you were in complete control of.

When I became a mother myself, I tried to get as many pop-up books as I could for my daughter. I wanted to share them with her. I had so many questions about the books. I was curious to know how it all began. Who invented the first pop-up book? How were they made? So I did some digging.

I found out that the first movable books were not intended for children. They were used for texts on medicine and astronomy. The earliest example is a manuscript dating to 1121, titled Liber Floridus that demonstrates the orbits of the planets around the Earth. Catalan mystic and poet Ramon Llull of Majorca is also believed to have used a revolving disc or volvelle to illustrate his theories in the 13th century.

The first movable for children, the turn-up book or the harlequinade as it was known was printed around 1750. Blue Ribbon Press filed the first copyright for the term “pop-up” for a book in 1932. Among the renowned artists in the history of movable books were Kubašta and the leader of the form, Lothar Meggendorfer. In fact, an award named after Meggendorfer is given by the Movable Book Society for paper engineers, the people who create the movable pieces and work with illustrators and printers to bring pop-ups to life.

How are pop-up books made?

You need a plan for the story at the start. The engineer figures out which parts will be the pop-ups and creates a prototype using card stock. The pop-up then goes into production. The fantastic part is that they are still made by hand as each story is different. One can use software to design it but the design needs to be cut into shape by hand.

Different kinds of pop-ups

Transformations: When you pull a tab and a new scene is created.

Volvelles: Involves the use of rotating parts.

Tunnel books: You can view the book like a tunnel.

One of my favourite books in our collection is this collectible, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, by Robert Sabuda. Sabuda is one of the most innovative children’s book creators who is known the world over for his amazing pop-up paper engineering. I don’t know about my daughter but I never tire of looking at it.

Here’s a list of some of the must-have books for your collection!

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The View-Master

It started out with wondering how travel would look in the post Covid world. Would virtual and interactive online tours become the new normal? Or could we put on smart glasses and travel like Johnny English with a few hard knocks and tumbles along the way?

It was then that I remembered the View-Master, my favourite toy from childhood, my own smart glasses if you please, that allowed me to see many sights and be part of many stories from the comfort of my bed. My father had bought the View-Master on one of his trips to Japan. My mum would guard it like the Grail Knight. Her grouse was that we kids (there were three of us) would fiddle with the slides, putting our grimy, mucky fingers all over them and she was worried the gadget would get ruined and she wouldn’t be able to fix it. So we were only allowed the View-Master as a treat on special occasions. When we did well in school or when we were unwell. While my older siblings weren’t particularly interested in the thing, they were outdoorsy children, I loved the View-Master. I actually looked forward to getting sick so that I could get it as a treat. Luckily, I fell ill a lot when I was a child as I had weak lungs and was prone to coughs and colds.

I called it কটাং কটাং (Kotang Kotang), because of the sound the trigger would make when you changed slides. I wish I could translate it but it’s just a word for the specific sound in Bengali. A clang clang if you will in English. Or a click click. You get the drift. All day long, I would watch slides. Babes in Toyland, Bambi, Prehistoric Monsters, Dinosaurs, Pyramids, Pagodas. My physical discomfort, raging fever all faded into insignificance when I was on these virtual tours into fantastic worlds.

I was just thinking of how much pleasure the little gadget brought me when I was ill. If virtual travel turned out to be something like that, it might prove to be a panacea for a lot of discomfort that we face from day to day. Covid included.

Facebook tells me that my septuagenarian mother has already signed onto a virtual trip to Jerusalem. Perhaps I will join her. After all, it’s only a trip to her bedroom – next to mine. I do wonder where the View-Master went though. I must ask her to look for it. I wouldn’t mind another go at it.

The Bait

Image courtesy: http://www.getbengal.com

If you’ve watched the Satyajit Ray classic film Nayak, you would remember the character of Pritish (rhymes with British) Sarkar played by the inimitable Kamu Mukherjee, the owner of Spectrum Publicity, who wasn’t averse to pimping his wife Molly to help him get a business deal. While he was happy to flaunt her in public as being just a “housewife”, he didn’t want her to work. He tells her to be nice to Mr Haren Bose so that he can clinch a deal with him. “It’s a game,” he exclaims when his wife gets upset and locks herself up in the toilet of the train.

Ever since I watched the movie, first as a child and then later on when I was older, the character of Pritish Sarkar has always intrigued me. It was possibly one of Mukherjee’s best roles — the advertising man with shades of grey. A man using his wife as bait to help him catch big fish. In fact, it has always been a dream of mine to reimagine that character in a modern-day, corporate context. The character of Ranjan in my newest short story, My Trophy Wife, is inspired by Ray’s Sarkar. A man who uses his wife to help him rise up the career ladder. Does it work? You will have to read my story to find out.

Click here, it’s free to read. Do leave a review if you like it.

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The Name of the Game

If there is anything that puts me off about the process of writing, it is the part where I have to figure out what to name the characters in my short story or novel. Short of pulling names out of a hat, I do everything humanly possible to come up with interesting names. Names that reflect the personalities and quirks of my characters.

I think it is important for the main protagonists in your manuscript to have names. I’m talking about the characters that drive the narrative and contribute towards the progress of the plot. The reader should be able to connect with them from the first instance and a memorable name helps build that connection. Look at it this way, don’t you remember people you meet who have interesting, even unusual names? It is the same with the person reading your work.

I do not believe that all characters, especially the insignificant ones, need a name. Too many names can lead to unnecessary clutter and readers may get distracted. In a pacey crime novel for instance, a reader might get confused with too many names. In short stories, characters don’t necessarily need names. Ernest Hemingway didn’t believe in giving all his characters names. You must read A Clean Well-Lighted Place to understand what I mean. The latter is one of his finest short stories.

When I was writing Mr Eashwar’s Daughter, naming the characters was a huge challenge. Since my book was a modern retelling of Jane Austen’s Persuasion, I wanted the names to have some similarity to the characters in the original novel. So Anne Elliot became Anamika “Anna” Eashwar and Commander Frederick Wentworth was Farrokh “Freddy” Wadhera. But I didn’t name the characters on a whim. Farrokh’s parents were music enthusiasts and they named him after Freddy Mercury while the Eashwars were landed gentry and Eashwar was a title they adopted.

A few rules that I follow. You might find them helpful.

Do your research well: It is always a good idea to research the period you are writing about or even the region or country and then name your characters accordingly. Inaccuracies stick out like a sore thumb and readers’ can always tell.

Unusual & interesting: I like names that have an interesting ring to them, quirky names even. Or names that reflect the personality of the character I am writing about. Mrinalini from Dragon Aunty Returns! was a staid, prudish Bengali girl and I thought that name would be perfect for her. No offense to anyone I hope, living or dead.

Does it sound good? That’s the question you must always ask at the end of the day. Does the name have a pleasant or unpleasant ring to it? (depending on your character’s traits) Would you give your own child the same name? Your book is your baby, isn’t it? Give it the same importance then.

A word of advice: do not name your characters after your friends, relatives or lovers. It is never a good idea unless they ask you to do it or you get their permission in advance. Make sure you get it in writing so that they can’t take you to court later. Just kidding. Store the note safely somewhere though!

Click here to find out how authors named their famous characters.

It all starts with a diary

The idea for my first published novel, Dragon Aunty Returns!, a rom-com set in Gurgaon, took shape out of a blog post. My blog, Gurgaon Diaries (which is a book now but more about that later), was about my experiences (mostly hilarious) living and working in the Millennium City where I’d moved from Kolkata. One of the entries was about a woman whose distinguishing feature was her dragon tattoo and her malapropism among other things.

My blog had a modest following in the early days and when I published the post, everyone loved her. Well mostly. There were those who stopped talking to me and inviting me to their parties because they felt I had written about them. More about them another day.

Over the course of writing that post, Dragon Aunty took on so much colour and life that I felt I had to write a story about her misadventures. She couldn’t … she wouldn’t .. be confined to a 500-word blog post. It was almost as though she had taken on a life on her own and I had to follow her orders. If you get to reading the book, you will agree. She is that sort of woman. Bossy, pushy but with a heart of gold.

And there she goes hijacking the plot again!

What I wanted to stress on is that it is a good idea to maintain a diary or even write in a blog every day. You can write about ordinary things, everyday things, whatever you want – but write you must. Give simple things colour and meaning, some sort of structure and who knows, a story may emerge from there. Like the couple you see quarrelling when you are out on your walk or the odd man who spends all his time in the balcony, smoking.

Mind you, I am not telling you to turn into a stalker. All I’m asking you to do is observe. Pay attention to your surroundings. Look out of the window, write down what you see. There may be a story hiding behind the strange looking plant in the neighbourhood park or even the car that hasn’t been washed for days. What happened to the owners?

It doesn’t always have to be something extraordinary. I find so much meaning in ordinary things. It is a good habit to form and a great way to mine for ideas if you are planning to write a short story or even a novel. Try it and let me know how it works out, will you?

The Death Wish

 

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The chalk outline has been washed away, the orange safety cones removed and the greyish black concrete looks as though it has just been laid. There is no trace of her ever having lain there on the ground, cold and lifeless, eyes unseeing.

In 2017, an elderly lady jumped off the balcony and killed herself in the condominium where I live. The incident haunted me for days. I would stare at her balcony for hours wondering what it was that forced her to take such an extreme step. I wished I had known she was going through mental turmoil or even been able to help somehow.

I tried to imagine how she must have felt in the moment before she plunged, ten floors down, to her death. One moment of hopelessness, futility, unloved by the ones she cared for the most in the world. That’s all it took.

I hoped it was all over for her in the flash of an eye. I hoped she didn’t suffer or writhe in pain while we carried on with our lives within the comfort of our homes unaware of the tragedy that was playing out a short distance away. Our self-contained boxes. The incident left me feeling very helpless and vulnerable and I decided to start writing The Ghosts of Gurugram.

Retelling Jane Austen

 

I read Pride and Prejudice when I was eight years old. Along with Les Misérables, Mill on the Floss and Lorna Doone. My father had just died and a generous friend of my sister’s had loaned me a collection of her books and comics to help me deal with the pain of losing a parent. It was an abridged version of Austen’s classic, dog-eared with big lettering and black and white sketches.

I loved it.

I was always slightly precocious for my age, the youngest of three siblings, and the story of a mother trying to get her three daughters hitched to wealthy husbands appealed to me. I was hooked. I devoured all the books in the pile. As I grew older, I read the unabridged versions one by one. The pleasure I got from reading them was undiminished.

Austen’s novels take a humorous look at society and life in the late 1700s. There is irony and realism in her plots, characters and the worlds that they inhabit. So much so that if you transport any character to the current world that we live in, they would fit in quite well and you would relate to their predicament. Women, marriage, dysfunctional families, money problems, greed, pride and the biases that all of us hide. These are things we come across daily, don’t we?

The reason Austen’s appeal has stretched across centuries.

Imagine my delight when my publisher Juggernaut Books commissioned me to retell one of Austen’s classic novels last year. Persuasion is the last novel fully completed by Jane Austen and was published at the end of 1817, six months after her death. The novel follows the life of Anne Eliot and her ex-fiancé Commander Frederick Wentworth.

It took me three months to write the novel. While there have been many retellings of this particular tale, I didn’t read a single one of them. I wanted to stay true to Austen and write the story in my own way keeping the modern milieu as a backdrop. My novel takes readers to North Bengal (Siliguri & Jalpaiguri), Kolkata, Gurgaon, Dharamsala and Mcleodganj – towns and cities which are special to me. There’s music, tea, doomed relationships, quirky parents and second chances. Not just that, the protagonist is named after legendary singer Freddy Mercury. In my novel, Commander Frederick Wentworth is reborn as Farrokh “Freddy” Wadhera.

Mr Eashwar’s Daughter is available on Juggernaut Books. You can buy the book here.

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The Heart of the Matter

A friend asked me on Twitter after reading my post on writing short fiction, how does one get the reader to experience an emotional connect with what you are writing? There are some stories in which the plot isn’t particularly new or extraordinary yet they manage to make the readers feel a myriad of emotions.

Now I can list out all the different techniques that you can use to write your stories so that your readers get hooked. The way you create your characters, using plot, descriptions and twists in the narrative to hold their interest. You will find most of that on the Internet if you look for it.

What about the emotional connect then? How do you write something that will move your readers? In the words of Ernest Hemingway: write hard and clear about what hurts.

As a writer, you need to feel emotion when writing to be able to convey that feeling successfully to your readers. If your writing leaves you cold, how can you expect your reader to be moved to tears by it?

It’s a dangerous proposition. Difficult even. It can leave you feeling vulnerable and exposed. But whoever said writing is an easy job? And the simpler your tales are, the more complex emotions they will tap. You need to be prepared to journey to the dark places inside your soul, play with your own feelings and life experiences so that you can tell your tales convincingly. You have to make people believe, giggle uncontrollably, shed a tear or perhaps feel terrible rage.

These journeys will not be easy and they will leave you emotionally drained. But it will be worth it. That part I can guarantee. My last short story, The Red Thread, about a young apprentice tailor who falls in love with disastrous consequences left me weeping after I had written it. It wasn’t a particularly pleasant experience but recent events and a trip down memory lane prompted me to write it. Do read and tell me what you felt. I’d be curious to know.

Have you ever read a story that moved you to tears or rage or intense contemplation? Have you wondered what it was about that story that made you feel this way? Write back, I’m waiting to hear from you.

Meanwhile, you can read some of my other short stories on the Juggernaut Books app here.