ROOPA PAI, children’s author and Bangalore city enthusiast talks to SUPRIYA D.G. about her bestselling book ‘The Gita For Children’ and the relevance of the original text across time and borders.
One might call Roopa Pai the quintessential Bangalorean for liking everything about the city! How else does one explain her passion for leading history and heritage walks around her hometown with equanimity, amidst the more glaring problems of urbanization that the city has been facing? These days, however, she is better known as the person who gave the TEDx talk ‘Decoding the Gita, India’s Book of Answers’, for the talk has gone viral since it first went up on YouTube in March 2017.
Born and brought up in Bangalore, Pai returned to the city with her family after several years of living abroad and in other Indian cities, to combine her passion for trails and tales into a job. She co-founded Bangalore Walks, the city’s first history and heritage walks and tours company, with her husband Arun Pai in 2005. She also continued to be involved with her freelance journalistic career, and with her primary love, writing for children.
A computer engineer, Pai always knew that she wanted to become a writer of children’s books. Her first writing job at Target, a cult Indian children’s magazine of the 80s and 90s, only made her firmer in her resolve. Her three years there shaped her writing and gave her definite tools to become a children’s writer. Since then, she has authored several children’s books, spanning both fiction and non-fiction, and covering topics as diverse as popular science, mathematics, and, most recently, economics for children. Her work includes India’s first fantasy-adventure “Taranauts”, an eight part series published between 2009 and 2012. It was Pai’s love for Indian mythology and folklore that inspired the idea for the series.
While Taranauts brought her critical acclaim (the first book in the series was shortlisted for the Crossword Award for Children’s Writing’ in 2009) and a huge measure of popular success with children, it was ‘The Gita For Children’, a contemporary retelling of the Bhagavad Gita presented as a how-to guide on ethical living, that became a runaway bestseller and catapulted her to national attention. It also won the Crossword Popular Award for Children’s Writing in 2016.
The Gita For Children was an outcome of serendipity and a long standing association with its editor Vatsala Kaul, who was also Pai’s mentor at Target. Pai grew up in a non-Brahmanical household with a regular diet of fables and parables, in part from oral traditions and from comics like the Amar Chitra Katha. She says, “I had no grounding in the Gita in childhood. My only brush with the Gita happened, oddly enough, at my Christian missionary school. Because I had a good memory, one of my teachers, a staunch believer in the Gita, chose me to recite selected passages at competitions. Some of that stayed with me.” It was the fact that Pai found Indian mythology and classical literature to be a fascinating subject that spurred her interest in eventually taking up the offer to write the book.
Says Pai, “ “Writing non-fiction for children is about demystifying complex concepts in a fun, accessible way. Writing fiction, on the other hand, is about subtly bashing stereotypes, being non-judgmental about characters, and not pushing one’s own beliefs and prejudices to the reader, One has to strike a fine balance, and stories have to be open-ended. That is how children learn to discern between right and wrong, accept people who are different from themselves, and develop a strong sense of empathy,” reminisces Pai as she explains how her writing evolved and helped shape ‘The Gita For Children’.
The book, which has also been translated into Hindi and Kannada, has found resonance among readers, both young and old, because the idea of narrating a conversation between two friends debating a moral crisis can be seen as very relevant to a world struggling to find its moral compass in a time of conflict and chaos. Pai meticulously transforms a classical text, which she calls the “distilled wisdom of the ages” into a conversation for and with children, seemingly from her own experiences as a mother! Pai quotes from several well-known literary sources to support a universal world view that The Gita espouses. Pai’s version then is a combination of story and philosophy with relevant examples from today’s world.
Revealing that she wanted to encourage the communal reading tradition, retain the beauty of the classical language of the original verse, and continue to accord respect to the characters from the original text while contemporizing it for children, she says, “I did not want, for instance, to have Arjuna call Krishna ‘Dude’! I also knew that this would be the kind of book that children would not necessarily read alone.” The book speaks to a diverse audience, and finds its place in the story telling tradition to connect with the idea of family time. Pai hopes and intends for the book to generate discussion between children and parents.
In her acknowledgements, Pai credits the work of Sarvapalli Radhakrishnan, (philosopher and India’s second President) ‘The Bhaagavadgita’ as a source of guidance and inspiration. Admittedly such pioneering work has attracted some criticism because The Gita is primarily viewed as a religious text and because Pai herself is not a religious authority and scholar. But Pai hasn’t taken it to heart. “This is my interpretation of the Gita,” she says. “By bringing myself to the text, the interpretation is necessarily subjective. But one of the messages of The Gita is that you cannot fight your nature, so I just went with the flow.” Pai laughs, quoting and clarifying both her style and approach to writing the book.
The Gita as a work of collected wisdom through time is evidence of its dynamic appeal, perhaps leading even to acrimony at times, depending on who does the interpretation. Pai believes that it is also a subversive text. Referring to Lord Krishna’s edict, ‘If one offers me a leaf, a flower, a fruit, or a little water, with devotion and a heart that is pure, I will accept that gift of love.’ (9-26)” , she says, “At a time when caste hierarchy and division between social classes was predominant (and it isn’t very different now!), these lines show that even people who had an inferior status, economically or otherwise, could be accepted as equal by God. It’s a great way to cut through the falsehoods that the people in power constantly tell the others, making them believe that they are the only ones with access to the Divine.”
Pai admits that researching and writing the book has been a transformative experience especially because of the message “you cannot control the world.” Because we are talking about the book in the context of the way we see the world today, ravaged as it is by dissent and divide, Pai sees hope for the individual- at least by connecting to the values espoused in The Gita and preached by all religions.