Wednesday 27 July 2016

Immortal Kalam

Image Courtesy: Campfire Graphic Novels 

15th July 2015. I was working as the editor of a book titled Gifts of Teaching—10 Inspiring Stories that Celebrate the Joy of Being a Teacher. As the name suggests, the book was meant for teachers. The publisher and I were having informal discussions about whom we should contact to do a quick read of our book and write out a mini-review, which we could use on the back cover of the book.

My sister, to whom I had very smartly passed on this responsibility of coming up with appropriate names, turned out smarter. “Why is it so difficult? Dr APJ Abdul Kalam! Who better a teacher than him?!” she said with a frown that clearly suggested an air of superiority.

I tried arguing: “It’s a very big name, no? And there’s very little time.”

Ignoring my cynical smile, she said, “I just gave you the best name. If you are not even going to try, you’re a fool.”

I agreed with her on that and suggested his name to the publisher, who also shared the same concern—very little time.

27th July 2015. I was at the publisher’s office, sitting with the team, rushing through final checks and readying Gifts of Teaching for print. That is when a team member said, “Abdul Kalam passed away.”

Strangely, I did not react.
Or maybe, it isn’t strange, for the brain blanks out after hearing something unexpected.

The team member repeated, “What? I am giving you news…Abdul Kalam passed away.” I managed to mumble, “I heard,” and continued with the work at hand.

After closing the book, on my way back home, I couldn’t stop myself from thinking, ‘If only we had been able to get Kalam to write a short review for this book…it would have meant so much to everyone who put the book together, everyone who was a teacher and would read the book. If only…’ Of course, these may seem like selfish thoughts, but a note from Kalam was exactly that—a note from Kalam!

I anticipated a gloomy atmosphere at home; my sister truly admires Kalam for his various inspiring qualities. But when I saw her and realised she hadn’t heard of it yet, I knew I would have to be the bearer of this heart-breaking news. And when I did what I had to, the expected gloom took over. The television set came on and the next half hour was spent on consoling ourselves that the news was, unfortunately, indeed true.

We decided not to watch any more news or read through the pages of newspapers next morning that spoke about the man’s greatness. Sometimes, you don’t need to know someone personally to feel a sense of personal loss. My sister didn’t speak much to anyone the next two days.

First week of August. I received an email from another publishing house, asking me if I would take up an urgent project—a graphic novel biography of Dr APJ Abdul Kalam.

I stared at the email for a few moments as a million thoughts circled my mind: ‘Is this for real? Have I been picked, from amongst all the writers in this country, to write this iconic personality’s life story? Am I not too small? Is he not too big? Isn’t this one of those weird moments when I wouldn’t know whether I should express happiness or sorrow?’ My family, especially my sister, was thrilled. I, of course, was super-nervous. But we all knew one thing for sure—Dr Kalam’s was a story that needed to be told.

Soon enough, my days and nights revolved around Kalam’s life story. Death always reintroduces you to the person who was. I too re-familiarised myself with facts about Kalam that I already knew and got acquainted with new facets of his persona that I had been unaware of—in both these cases, emotions overflowed. I can’t recall how often I sat teary-eyed while scripting a touching scene from his life, marvelling at the genuineness of some of his attributes, and seeking courage and solace in his famous words. Simply seeing how the artworks were breathing life into the characters and my words as the graphic novel now took shape became a moving, memorable journey.

5th December 2015. APJ Abdul Kalam: One Man, Many Missions, a graphic novel biography written by me, was launched. While unveiling the book, I could sense the mystique that enveloped this entire episode of my life. Following Kalam’s words unknowingly, I had dreamt. And my dream had come true in a much larger way than I had expected.

All I had wanted was for this much-loved gentleman to write down his thoughts about a book on teachers that I had edited; but, here I was on the stage, as the author who had penned his memoir. As I watched the book’s video trailer play out on the big screen behind me, I knew that, despite all this, I would have one regret. Only one…

…That Kalam is not around to see and read my version of the story of his life!

Sunday 29 March 2015

An Interesting Character

Nervous, nervous, nervous! I sit in the reception of the office of a high-class entertainment magazine—I’m here for a job interview. I observe some chic girls/employees strutting around the office, and I instantly know that I’m a misfit here. Soon, I’m called in to meet the Editor. More nervous, nervous, nervous!

Having battled the scorching heat outside, I am and look a complete mess when I enter the Editor’s cabin. My handbag slips down my arm shabbily; a plastic cover looking more crumpled than folded is in my left hand; and I’m holding a folder with the right.

I see the Editor slowly scan me up and down. Surprisingly, at this point, my nervousness vanishes. Just like she’s amused by the picture I cut in front of her, so am I by her form and manner. Here was hoity-toity sitting on a tall chair with a tiny pillow squeezed behind her neck—perfect for the role of the Victorian drama queen, who’d swoon at the drop of a hat!

“Sit down,” she says in her high-pitched, nasal voice—the kind of voice that one would associate with a witch from a fairytale. (Hey, don’t call me mean; blame it on storytelling stereotypes!) Looking at her, I think: Now is my chance to prove that I am no less refined and sophisticated than her. So, I ‘gently’ pull the chair closest to me a little behind, but it goes… Screeeeeech! Excellent. The chair, which was behaving like her ‘pet’, must have read my thoughts. Why else would a chair screech? No more chair-moving, I resolve, and ‘gently’ try and squeeze myself through the gap between the chair and her desk, so that I can sit down… But I half fall on the desk… She gives me a piercing look… Mumbling a sorry, I collect myself and flop onto the chair somehow.

The silly pet chair still has its way: it is too low for me to even see the Editor’s face. In between her face and mine, now stands her pet PC monitor. Praying, I ‘gently’ shift the chair a little again, so that I can see half her face and she half of mine. Then begins the questioning: two questions down, I already know that she has already made up her mind about me and that she is not interested in my answers. So, I relax and begin giving unrelated, random answers, which she (strangely) graciously accepts without a second thought. Good for me!

She tells me that I have a mountain of a task to deal with if I am hired, adding that she is not very sure I can handle it all. I smile. “I cannot afford a single spelling error in my magazine!” she heaves. Errr…Should I tell her about the three glaring mistakes I spotted while glancing through the glossy mag? Nah! What if she faints or gets a heart attack? And who wants homicide charges! I continue listening to her… “Around 10,000 people read my magazine every day… And I get at least 500 letters in a day, if there is an error, saying they saw one spelling mistake…” My brain explodes with silent laughter: Hahahaha… Who are these 500 readers who have no work but to write to the Editor of a magazine about one spelling mistake?

She looks down at my CV. Suddenly, she crinkles up her nose like she could smell a gutter… Is she going to sneeze? Nope. There’s chaos and disgust in her eyes. She looks at me horrified and asks me in high-pitched shock as to where my place of residence exists. She has never heard of that place. Well, names of places don’t always have an uppity ring to them—mine was one of those unfortunate areas. I try telling her where it is located, but in vain. She gives me the ‘How can such LS beings even dream of working here in my team?’ look. I give her a fake, understanding smile.

However, she generously allows me to go to Level 2 of the interview; she leads me into the edit room for a copy test. That’s when she turns abruptly and asks me the question of the century: “What’s your name?” And to think that she had stared at my CV and interviewed me all this while. Clean bowled! I tell her my name, and proceed towards my test.

Midway through my copy test, I notice that the team members speak to each other only in whispers. A pre-requisite to pass off as svelte, perhaps. Just then, I hear the Editor’s high-frequency sneeze reverberate through the otherwise silent office. Then she lets out a groan… Is she dead? Another sharp sneeze and another painful groan... This time, I’m sure her brains spilled out. I expect her high-pitched alarm to go off. She doesn’t disappoint. The poor snoot calls out like it’s an emergency, “Can someone please come here?” And someone goes running to her cabin.

Soon enough, she comes into the edit room and says, “Nandini!” Yes, she was addressing me so. And to think I had just told her my name fifteen minutes ago. I correct her. A fake apology later, she tells me she’s off for the day and leaves.

As I walk out of the office a little later, after completing my test, I know for sure that the Editor won’t hire me, irrespective of how I’d done the test. But what I learnt more importantly from this interview is that snobbish characters such as this Editor don’t just exist in storybooks and movies. Beware, they’re out there!

Saturday 21 March 2015

Meeting the Lion

It was never part of our Pune trip’s itinerary, but one fine rainy morning, we were off to one of the most famous forts of Maharashtra. I was too young then. But I remember every little thing that I liked about that journey. The curving roads; the pleasant weather; the cool breeze hitting my face; the green hills and the greener valleys; the chatter of my family, relatives, and cousins; and the beautiful, divine drizzle. I was transported into ‘Anotherland’!

It was so foggy that I could hardly see the humungous walls of the fort that were just three feet away from me. You see it now and now you don’t. Thrilling, for a kid of my age. Steep steps, sturdy walls, mysterious hideaways, secret paths, randomly wriggling snakes—it was unreal, and yet, it was all there.

Reaching the topmost point of the fort, I realised that nature is such a soothing element. For the first time in my life, drops of rain fell on me while I saw the clouds above, and the clouds below—and then, I touched a passing cloud. Unforgettable!

Standing there, the history of the fort unfolded in my mind. Shivaji. Tanaji Malusare. The famous ghorpad or monitor lizard, Yeshwant. The difficult climb, the great battle, the historic sacrifice. Stories have immense power, and as I soaked in that moment, I felt it all—the power of history, the power of heritage and legacy, the power of nature. The power of a fort called Sinhagad*!

*The fort, named Kondana earlier, was recaptured by Shivajis forces under the leadership of Tanaji Malusare. On hearing that the battle had claimed Malusares life, Shivaji had said, The fort is won, but the lion is gone. In the honour of the brave warrior, Shivaji then renamed the fort as Sinhagad—when translated from Marathi to English, Sinhagad means Lion's Fort’.