Suniti Namjoshi | The fantastic fabulist
Witty and wise, Suniti Namjoshi’s feminist fables and stories are repositories of multiple meanings for young and adult readers
I met Suniti Namjoshi on a stormy evening last month at the Bowring Institute in Bangalore over cups of strong filter coffee. In town for the launch of her first ever picture book, Little i, published by Tulika Books, the London-based author was full of stories, especially about how she started writing for children—quite by accident and in part inspired by her niece Aditi, who is the inspiration behind her Aditi series.
“I was tired of taking her books about pink and blonde kids, so I typed up a story about an Indian girl and set it in surroundings that would be more familiar to her,” says Namjoshi, “This became Aditi And the One-Eyed Monkey, my first ever book for children which was actually published many years later.”
The funny part is that when nine-year-old Aditi read the story, she solemnly declared, But, this is not about my childhood, It’s about yours! “And she was bang on,” Namjoshi agrees. “In the story, I had written in places and characters who were derived from my own growing-up years.”
The second Aditi book also happened by chance after Namjoshi went for an event to the Blue Gate Fields Junior School in London, UK. “It was the strangest thing. There I was in front of a sea of brown faces in a school in London and all the children were thrilled to see me because I looked like them and I had also written a book about a character who was just like them,” she recalls. “They wanted Aditi to come to them and so I wrote Aditi And the Thames Dragon.” It was often such odd twists that caused the series to grow, and the places that Namjoshi visited, along with the things she liked—computers and the cyberspace, for example—wound their way into the books.
Little i is the latest instalment from Namjoshi’s imaginarium—a clever, whimsical and “stroppy little character” who is actually a runaway computer programme from an earlier book, Beautiful And the Cyberspace Runaway. Little i is a symbolic representation of the mathematical imaginary number, a little hat-tip to the self and a small but extremely important alphabet who keeps wanting to assert herself as the writer spins a witty and playful pictorial fable around her. On being asked for the nth time about her affinity with the fable, Namjoshi elaborates once again: “What the writing starts off with is an image, and a set of lines. These images start talking to each other and following their own inherent logic. Then begins the hard part of cleaning it up till it finally begins to sound right and the end result, whether it be a fable, a poem or something else, is something that takes shape through the process of writing. For example, when I think of a character like Little i who is a runaway computer programme, I try and think of what she would want to do now that she is outside the computer and in the real world. I figure that she would probably like to make friends and play. That is exactly what she goes about doing, stealing their vowels, and having some fun.”
She is as nimble with her language in a picture book like Little i as in the beautiful love poem, All the Words, from the Flesh And Paper collection.
All the words have leaped into the air like the cards/ in Alice, like birds flying, forming, reforming, swerving and rising, and each word/ says it is love.
Images that leave an impact, whether from Shakespeare or a comic book, all contribute to Namjoshi’s fables. “I didn’t choose the form or the animal characters, they just came together from the debris of images, stories and poems floating about in the bottom of my mind and from what forms the rag and bone shop of the heart,” she says.
Her fables, she says, mean something entirely different for different people. And it is children who often have the power to observe things that adults miss (remember the child who points out that the emperor is stark naked in the Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale, The Emperor’s New Clothes?).
The Monkey And the Crocodile, one of her representative fables in The Feminist Fables, is a story that could be read on many levels by different kinds of readers. In it the monkey which lives on a jambu tree protected by her crocodile friends has a perfectly safe and charmed existence. However, bored by the sameness of her life, she wants to see the world, or at least the source of the river. Although she is warned by her friends about the beasts in the big bad world, she persists and sets off on her travels. When the monkey returns, several years later, she is bruised, battered, missing an eye and rather worse for the wear. On being asked about her condition she mentions the beasts and it is a telling statement which reveals that they looked just like her friends. While at the most basic level, and especially to a young reader, this could be a fable about the dangers that a girl might face in the outside world after leaving her friends behind, there are far deeper layers of gender inequality, abuse and iniquity that would be revealed to a more mature frame of reference.
Namjoshi herself has experienced several contexts in her life. She was born in a small town in Maharashtra, educated in an American school in Mussourie, and worked as a young officer in the Indian Administrative Service. Shocked at the imbalance of power in her country, she realized the necessity of subverting this equation. But, as she put it, she “wasn’t good enough” to bring in that change as a government official. So she turned to writing and her journey thereafter spanned three continents and 46 years away from her original homeland.
Home is now a nebulous concept for the writer, as she grew up in India, was given Canadian citizenship, and meanwhile lives and teaches in Exeter, UK. As she writes in Goja: An Autobiographical Myth: “I belong to India and to the West. Both belong to me and both reject me. I have to make sense of what has been and what there is”.
Namjoshi explains that this feeling of rejection is often due to the inability to fit in. And she describes it through her inimitable and wry humour. “Once, a fellow graduate student asked me whether I had smoked grass and I said that I hadn’t and, in an attempted jibe at coolness, had instead told him how I had tried to smoke rolled-up cabbage leaves in the past,” she says. “Needless to say, our versions of grass were entirely different.” At her poetic best, she describes the difference between the two cultures as the difference in the ephemeral shades of light in the afternoon.
Namjoshi writes herself into many of her stories, such as The Conversations Of Cow to Saint Suniti And the Dragon. “There are different ideas behind each casting of myself,” she says, “If Sant Tukaram and other Bhakti poets can do it so why can’t I? I use this technique to question the existing norms at my own expense without attacking anyone else or gender stereotyping.”
It is this sense of humour that pervades her interactions as well. From joking with the photographer about the fact that there is finally a new picture to replace the existing one on the Internet (which, she says, makes her look like as though she owns precisely one red top) to cracking jokes about her age, Namjoshi is as full of lightness as her stories.
It is perhaps fitting that our meeting draws to a close with a striped tabby elegantly picking its way across a red shingled roof of the Bowring Institute in the fading light. It stops us in mid-sentence. To my mind, this unexpected image could well be the beginning of a new story for this extraordinary fabulist of our times.
Diya Kohli is a Bangalore-based writer, editor, and blogger.
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