Written by Vani Venugopal and published on 13 July 2021.
In an exclusive interview, writer, translator and scholar, Arshia Sattar, talks about her books, writing for children and how parents can encourage children to read more
One of the greatest classical literature scholars and translators of our time, Arshia Sattar is perhaps best known for her translation of the Valmiki Ramayana. Having dedicated over thirty years to studying the text, Sattar has a personal bond with the Ramayana and her translation is often described as being the most enduring and authoritative. Arshia has also written many books on epic, mythology and the story telling traditions of South Asia including "Tales from the Kathasaritsagara", "Lost Loves: Exploring Rama's Anguish", "Garuda and the Serpents", "Uttara: The Book of Answers", and "Maryada: Searching for Dharma in the Ramayana".
Apart from being a scholar and translator, Arshia is also a beloved author of children's books. Her books for children include "Ramayana for Children", "Kishkindha Tails", "Pampa Sutra", "Adventures with Hanuman" and her latest book, "Mahabharata for Children". Retelling the stories of the epics for young readers, Sattar's books weave a magical world of mythological creatures that enthrals her young readers, while at the same time invites them to ponder over the complex ideas that the stories present.
Arshia Sattar was one of the speakers at the Little Festival, a dedicated children's lit fest conducted as a part of the Tata Literature Live! The Mumbai LitFest this year. She conducted a session titled "Unknown Heroes: The Lesser Known Characters From The Mahabharat".
In an interview with ParentCircle during the festival, Arshia talks about why she chose to retell the Ramayana for children, about her latest book, "Mahabharata for Children" and how parents can encourage children to read more.
Here are the excerpts from the interview.
Why did you choose to retell the Ramayana for children?
I think the Ramayana is one of the most beautiful stories in the world and as such, children from everywhere should have a chance to read it and know it better.
How is your version of the Ramayana different from how the story is traditionally told?
The Ramayana has been retold for centuries and so, there are many ways of retelling it for different audiences and in different time periods. In our time, we usually read the Ramayana in translation. Since I have worked with Valmiki's Sanskrit Ramayana (the first recorded Ramayana we have) for over 30 years, my retelling gives young readers a sense of the original. I have used images from the original text as well as incorporated actual dialogues and descriptions from the Sanskrit original.
Your latest book, Mahabharata for Children, is launching on November 14. Was it challenging to condense the epic tale into a 200-page book for children?
Yes, of course it was. But the good thing about retelling the Mahabharata is that it has a very strong central story about the rivalry between the Pandava and Kaurava cousins that leads to a devastating war. Whenever the Mahabharata is retold in a shortened version, whether for adults or for younger readers, that is the story to which we all return. And that's the story that I worked with for my new book.
You have written a range of books, for both adults and children. How different is it to write for children?
It's not that different, actually, because in both, you must remain true to the original text when you are retelling a well-known story. Yes, for younger readers, we must use a more restricted vocabulary, but that does not mean that we restrict our imaginations or that we leave out complex and difficult ideas and situations. It simply means that as re-tellers, we have to work harder to think about how such situations can be presented to young people who are also thinking about right and wrong, good and bad.
Many of your books are illustrated. How important are illustrations to a book, especially a children's book?
All my books for younger readers have illustrations and I'm very grateful to all the artists that have created the images that light up my words. I think illustrations help young readers develop their imaginations, especially when we're dealing with magical and mythological beings. Does Hanuman look like the monkeys we see in our real lives, what might a rakshasa look like, does Ravana carry his ten heads around all the time? Pictures help young readers see worlds that are not theirs as well as allow them to enrich the world that they already know.
In this age of video games and mobile apps, how can parents encourage their children to read more?
I think parents should spend reading time with their children - read to them and with them, every night before they go to bed, perhaps. We can add books to our homes rather than more and more electronic gadgets. And we must remember that children, like ourselves, have the right to read for pleasure and not just for instruction. Children need to be shown that books are fun and reading is an end in itself. So, it's not about the books we buy for our children, it's about how we locate books in our own lives. Children will love books and reading if we can show them that we love it too.
About the author:
Written by Vani Venugopal on 17 November 2020.
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