By Martin D’Souza | Opening Doorz Editorial | July 25, 2017

The year is 1997. Copies for the Campus Capers page in Bombay Times, a supplement with the Times of India come streaming in daily. Hard copies, not emails, some hand-written, some typed, no print-outs. Just 20 years ago, but seems like a century when you consider the giant leap technology has taken. Mobile phones were a luxury; today, it’s a necessity. Landlines were the way to communicate apart from Fax (whatever happened to that machine?).

College students had taken to the page like a fish takes to water, each one wanting to leave a mark with the journalist in charge of that page with their writing, hoping their ‘labour of love’ would be published. It was a hit page that set many a college student on their way to a career in writing.

One such student was Shilpa Manjal, an Arts and Economics student from Ruparel College, Mumbai. She had sent in her hand-written piece on something relevant. The journalist, who found interesting stuff, kept it away in a special file to look at later, at leisure. Shilpa’s piece was selected, and before it got into print, she received a call from Bombay Times informing her that it would be published and that her writing was good.

Her article was published a few weeks later, Shilpa was over the moon. She was invited to write regularly, which she did, never once missing the deadline. The writing keeda somehow got into her and she decided to pursue a degree in journalism at the Xavier Institute of Communications after her graduation, much to the chagrin of her parents (father in particular).

The journalist in question felt he had done more harm than good to the student. But Shilpa was adamant. She made her mark in journalism and today is known as Harshikaa Udasi. She married, and true to Sindhi customs, had to change her name!

Last week, 20 years after that call on her landline to her Borivli home, Harshikaa Udasi went up another step in journalism, stamping her name as an author with a children’s book titled, Kittu’s T̶e̶r̶r̶i̶b̶l̶e̶ H̶o̶r̶r̶i̶b̶l̶e̶ N̶o̶ ̶G̶o̶o̶d̶ Very Mad Day published by Duckbill Books.

Releasing the book with her parents was the journalist in question (who has seen her grow in her profession), who was taken by surprise at the call to the podium. Her father was all aglow, happy to see his daughters’ moment of glory. He never remembered how distraught he was at her choice of profession!

From 1997 to 2017, the journey has been brilliant to say the least, in her growth as a journalist as Shilpa chucked a 9-5 environment to work at her own pace, wanting to be at home with a growing child, rather than hanging out of trains, running for interviews, and meeting crazy deadlines within a newsroom.

She’s also the founder of Book Trotters Club, a club which encourages and initiates young children to the world of books.

openingdoorz met up with the author, getting into her world of books…

First things first. How did the idea for the book take shape?
Kittu’s Terrible Horrible No Good Very Mad Day is one of the winners of the Children First contest announced in September last year by Duckbill Books, Parag (a Tata Trusts initiative) and Vidyasagar School Chennai. The idea was to promote books with disabled protagonists and portray them like regular children with the same qualities and emotions — anger, love and mischief.

There are two things that prompted me to write the book. Firstly, I agreed with the Children First concept of disabled children being no different than other kids. There is this disabled child I know who is very independent, very witty, very energetic and very intelligent. The first thing that you notice about her is her attitude and not her disability.

So this child became your point of focus, your inspiration?
Absolutely. Also, I always wanted to write about her spirit and this contest gave me the chance to. The other inspiration came from this amazing initiative by a German lady named Ulrike Reinhard. Ulrike has developed a skatepark called Janwaar Castle in this village near Panna in Madhya Pradesh. It is India’s only rural skatepark and the biggest in the country! The kind of work she has been doing with the community there, urging them to become self-reliant, is fabulous. I started structuring my plot around these two reference points and that’s how this novel developed.

Your son is into reading, what is his reaction to the story?
He’s been into the story since day one. He and my husband were my sounding boards! He loves the characters and the way Kittu finally gets on to the skateboard. He wants me to write more! Obviously I am chuffed.

Did he have any inputs as to how the story could have been altered or anything of that sort?
Yes, he wanted me to try different people in place of Madhav, the kufliwalla, who unwittingly becomes Kittu’s rescuer when the disabled kid gets lost. I had to tell him I have a deadline to keep! [Laughs].

From active journalism to working out of home, how did you make the shift?
When I was working with The Week (it’s been a decade I realize!), I got an offer from The Hindu, Chennai, with an option of working from home. I jumped at it. Much as I love the sights and sounds of an office, the daily Mumbai commute can be quite taxing. So it was a conscious decision I made and I continued working with The Hindu for the next six years as a full-time journalist.

Was the transition smooth? Did you miss the work environment?
The transition was fabulous. I was still doing the same work–interviews, press cons, but coming back and filing stories at my own home desk! This obviously led to a better work-life balance than earlier. I could schedule my appointments in a systematic way. I didn’t need to go to every single press conference, just the ones that were relevant to my work. Though initially I felt that working from a remote location with no colleagues around me would be upsetting, I adapted pretty well.

Looking back, are you convinced that it was the right move to make… (leaving a steady job, to operate out of home)?
Totally. We were to start a family too and I wanted to keep motherhood as priority number one. Also, my husband and I both believe that ‘steady’ is a state of mind. You may have the highest paying job in the world, yet not feel at peace.

How did the Book Trotters Club come about?
Book Trotters Club (BTC) happened in 2014, over a cup of tea with my husband, Jagdish. I was talking to him about my dream of being involved with children and their education. He asked me to start right away. When I laughed and asked him where, he said ‘right here at home’! Our son was about three-years-old then and I used to read a lot of books to him. I decided we could take these books to more children and that very moment BTC came into existence. We even snapped up the name just then! The idea behind the club is to encourage reading in children, and gently divert them away from television sets, mobile phones and tablets.


How old is this club and by how many students has it grown to?
Three-and-a-half years! I started with six children. We now stand at 30. I believe in taking small batch sizes so I can have individual interaction with every child. When BTC started, I conducted only storytelling, now we have read-aloud sessions and creative writing as well.

What is the reaction of the parents whose children are into this club?
Most parents are super worried that their kids don’t read. A big chunk is worried that their children are speaking in their mother tongue. There are some standard rules I follow at the club. One, I don’t push the child into reading. I just keep books out on display and each of them has to choose one for home reading. I try to keep out unless they are fighting over the same book. Second, even though they speak their mother tongue, there is no shaming in the Club. While we are reading in English, I don’t see the point in putting the language that they know best, down. I try and make the parents feel comfortable with their mother tongue and ask them to keep reading to or with their child.

And the parents are comfortable with the choice of books for children?
[Smiles] I was just coming to that. There is a third category of parents who are always interested in what moral values I am ‘teaching’ through my books, who don’t approve of book titles such as Aliens Love Underpants! If at all I am ‘teaching’ anything to these kids, it is to fall in love with books, with stories, with the characters within and enjoy them.

How important, according to you, is it to introduce children to the world of books?
Very! The imagination and creativity levels of a child who is into books is vastly different from one who isn’t exposed. Superior vocabulary and better grasping of grammar, detailed writing skills, better comprehension and highly creative ideas, are part of learning with books. The earlier you begin, the better it is!

Footnote: The journalist in question who made that fateful call in October of 1997, to Shilpa Manjal, which veered her away from her father’s choice of profession, was Yours Truly!

Also Read: A skatepark in Janwaar

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