KHYRUNNISA A is a children’s writer, academician, and columnist. Her book series ‘Butterfingers’ is a raging hit among both children and adults. Khyrunnisa talks to MEERA NAIR about her writing, teaching and more.
Was the genre of children’s writing a conscious choice?
No, it happened quite by accident. We used to get the Mumbai-based children’s magazine, Tinkle, for my son, Amar. A Tinkle original short story competition for adult writers of children’s fiction caught my eye and on a whim, I sent an entry. That story, titled ‘Butterfingers’, won the second prize, which made me quite happy. The story of my writing career would have ended there had it not been for a visit to my house by Prabha Nair, the assistant editor of Tinkle at that time. She encouraged me to keep writing and, well, I followed her advice.
How difficult or how easy is it to write for children?
Depends on how you look at it. Writing for children restricts your options. A children’s writer has to be conscious of all the unconscious taboos with reference to theme, language and style. Children are hard to please, and to get their attention and keep it is very challenging. If you have managed to crack that, writing for them is most enjoyable and rewarding, well, at least metaphorically.
Today’s children are gadget freaks. Is it important to get them to pick up a book and read?
Reading is a sedate activity that encourages mental discipline while simultaneously giving pleasure to the reader. So it’s very, very important for a child to read, especially because they are gadget freaks.
Research has come out with findings that addiction to gadgets makes children distracted, over-stimulated, bored and shallow learners, while reading makes them well-adjusted, intelligent and responsible. But most importantly, children must read for fun.
You also write columns for newspapers. What kind of writing do you enjoy the most? Have you ever thought of writing a novel for adults?
I enjoy both kinds of writing. Well, I have thought of writing a novel for adults but haven’t progressed beyond that thought!
Humour is an essential ingredient of your writing. Are you someone who laughs often?
I don’t know about laughing often; I only laugh when there is reason for amusement. But, yes, I like to look at the lighter side without losing sight of the fact that life is serious. If one can observe life through the spectacles of humour, it can go a long way towards getting the right perspective on things.
You were an extremely popular college teacher. What do you think builds a strong teacher student relationship?
First of all, a teacher must teach well; she must make every effort to prepare well for her classes and make them as interesting as possible. I think she should understand students and be understanding. It is very important to love and accept students as they are and to be unbiased in one’s dealings with them.
A teacher must respect students and earn their respect by her teaching, work ethics, attitude and general behaviour. All this lays the foundation for a strong and affectionate teacher-student relationship.
You are a Muslim married to a Hindu. Do you think there is growing religious intolerance and how do you think this influences the children of today?
I never think of myself as a Muslim married to a Hindu, but as a human being married to another human being. Religion, caste and similar labels have never entered into any of my dealings or relationships with others, it is always the person who matters to me.
I don’t even know to identify castes and am least interested in such narrow concerns. When children grow up in a house where caste and religion are constant talking points or study in schools where religion is harped upon, they become conscious of such distinctions.
Indeed, there is growing religious intolerance today; consciousness of religious and caste distinctions is on the rise. People are slotted into religious/caste pigeon-holes. Those who instinctively categorize others on the basis of religion and caste are also judging others on that basis. I think that falling into this habit shows intellectual laziness and a high degree of negativity and narrow-mindedness. In a teacher, this way of thinking is a lamentable flaw that can have a negative impact on children.
It is the responsibility of teachers and parents to set an example to their students and children by ensuring that the atmosphere in which the children grow up is free of such narrow distinctions and prejudices. They need to have open, unprejudiced and generous minds for that.