Published: 07th July 2020
How author Arundhati Venkatesh went on to pen the wacky tales of Petu Pumpkin
In a candid conversation with Edex, children's author Arundhati Venkatesh talks about her writing, her influences and what's next
Children's author Arundhati Venkatesh's childhood was straight out of a Ruskin Bond story — climbing trees with friends, a house with a sprawling garden, a haunted house, a fish pond and a lot more. The author went to school in five towns and worked in four continents. Everywhere she went she liked making up stories. Now, she puts them down on paper which later become bestselling children's books. Her character Petu Pumpkin is quite popular among kids and her books have won her several accolades. Her books Petu Pumpkin Tooth Troubles won the SCBWI Crystal Kite Award 2015 for India, Middle East and Asia, Junior Kumbhakarna won the RivoKids Hindustan Times Parents and Kids' Choice Award in 2014. Her book Bookasura: The Adventures of Bala and the Book-Eating Monster is about an imaginary monster however, she insists that the idea came from her childhood experiences. When she's not busy writing stories, Arundhati can most likely be found in the corner of a bookstore or library in Bengaluru.
Let's see what the author has to say about her writing journey, herself and what inspires her the most. Excerpts from an interesting conversation:
When did you first decide to become an author?
It was something I had always wanted to do but I didn’t realise it was children’s literature that I wanted to write. Back when I was a kid, there were only a couple of Indian children’s books (in English), so the thought never occurred to me. While in college, my roommate and I joked about writing a romance set in India — India’s first Mills & Boon novel. It was a decade later when I was working in London that I discovered the world of children’s literature and then there was no going back.
Tell us more about your childhood.
I had a lot of time to daydream and make up stories, climb trees, form secret societies and get up to all kinds of antics with friends. For nine out of fourteen school-going years, my house was within walking distance of the school. For five years, we lived in a colonial bungalow in the Western ghats, next door to a haunted house. To reach school, I had to go down a ravine and across a stream. Sometimes, I’d see wild horses or reptiles along the way. It took me seven minutes, three if I ran. At home, we often had snakes, hoopoes, hornbills and langurs as visitors. It was straight out of a Ruskin Bond story. Summer holidays were spent with grandparents. That’s how the setting for Bookasura came about. The house with the sprawling garden, the fish pond and the well — all that existed. Only the monster is made up!
It is not so easy when it comes to engaging children, how do you go about that?
By not thinking about it at all! I vividly remember what it was like to be a child and I write to please myself. I get bored easily, so I have to make sure the story is interesting enough for me to keep going. In the process of writing, I find myself making sense of the world or dealing with my own unresolved issues and insecurities. I write to work through my emotions. Children are perceptive and can see through self-help books masquerading as fiction. A whiff of adults preaching and trying to improve them will send them scooting in the opposite direction.
How did you come up with the Petu Pumpkin character? What is special about him?
Fresh out of a writing workshop, I was eager to try my hand at chapter books. Alas, schools had their Christmas break and my five-year-old was home and hungry every half hour. Frustrated, I asked him to write a story about a boy who was never full. Why don’t you, he shot back! So I did. And that ended up being published as Petu Pumpkin Tiffin Thief. I’m either eating or thinking of food and, for as long as I remember, I’ve had a protruding belly. I’d always been uncomfortable about it but writing the Petu Pumpkin books helped me come to terms with it. Now, I have no qualms talking about my paunch in my sessions at literature festivals and schools across the country, and even to leading newspapers like this one.
Who inspires you to write?
Richmal Crompton’s tongue-in-cheek wit and Roald Dahl’s wicked humour continue to inspire me even now, decades after I first read the books. It was Swami and Rusty that made me realise stories could be set in India too and have characters like the people I knew. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee showed me what writing could do. Asterix taught me the wonders of wordplay and that history and humour could go together. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Alice in Wonderland, swashbuckling adventures like Treasure Island and The Count of Monte Cristo — all the books I read were a masterclass in writing.
What’s your favourite thing to write about?
Food! And school stories. Also bumbling monsters, trees (that kids clamber up to escape ferocious dogs, where secret society meetings are held or monsters lurk) and riddles. No matter what I write, I find there’s always loads of humour. Instinct, for sure, is the biggest tool any author can possess. Other essentials in a writer’s kit: Self-doubt (and faith, in equal measure), the ability to handle failure, the determination to go on day after day.
Which children’s book character do you think you’re most like? Tell us the children’s book you love, like the ones on top of your list
As a kid, I identified with Matilda. More recently, Priya from Daddy Come Lately by Rupa Gulab (except that she’s bad at math I’m not). Hilary McKay’s Saffy’s Angel is definitely on the top of my list, so is Coraline by Neil Gaiman. I thoroughly enjoyed reading Harsha Vardhana by Devika Rangachari. Vanamala and the Cephalopod by Shalini Srinivasan is another middle-grade book I’d recommend. Picture books are my absolute favourite and Shh! by Chris Houghton is one that is perfectly done.
If you had to write a story about an object/human around you, what would it be about?
I’ve written stories featuring the hybrid creature I live with that squawks like a chicken, bleats like a goat, crawls around like a puppy and eats like an elephant. You’ll have to read the books to find out more!
Tell us about your future plans.
There are a few picture book manuscripts I’ve finished, chapter book ideas and middle-grade novels that I’m working on.