Her first book, Dungeon Tales, was Arabian Nightsesque. Her second, The Washer of the Dead, a collection of ghost stories centred around women, was humanistic rather than scary. Her next, Soap! Writing and Surviving Television in India, a handbook for people writing for the cash-rich but quality-strapped Indian TV industry, drew upon her years of experience in the space. She then wrote a three-book animal fiction series on the trot. Her most recent, Boy No. 32, is about a boy in an orphanage with the name, or rather, number Battees (32). That is, the boy is named 32, not the orphanage, because orphans apparently don’t deserve any better. But his life and luck may be about to change when the orphanage is inadvertently brought crashing down, letting him and his mates loose on the pathways of Mumbai and setting off a series of adventures, rendezvous and discoveries.
Somewhere, Venita Coelho’s life is as varied, adventurous, unconventional and humanistic as the books she writes and the themes she explores. She was born in Dehradun, grew up in then Calcutta, worked in then Bombay, lived in Coimbatore (which she considers home) and presently lives in Goa. She is a single mother to an adopted girl of 10, whom she home-schools and has started taking off with on tours across India in a customized caravan, because she feels that’s the best way to learn geography and history. She also loves animals, due to which she turned vegetarian 20 years ago.
Venita started off writing for TV, in the early days of satellite TV, and worked there the longest, before giving it up when the saas-bahu “poison” took over. She returned to front Jassi Jaisi Koi Nahi, but left TV for the second and final time when she saw Jassi too going saas-bahu mode. She wrote a few films, but took a break when none of the three scripts she penned turned out as envisaged. She switched her attention full-fledged to books, and has been quite prolific: seven books in 11 years, with about as many at various stages. She has started looking at films anew and is also interested in the rapid-rising space of web series. And somewhere in the midst of all this action, she has engaged in activism too, being a part of Goa Bachao Abhiyan and having taken on a celebrated writer and a well-known minister (both male) in different forums over different causes.
Irfan Syed spoke to the author whose life reads like one of her books, about her works and her writing motivations and inspirations. Excerpts:
You have written across mediums and genres…
Actually, I’m not a writer – I’m a storyteller. It’s allowed me the freedom of adapting, learning and going from genre to genre, medium to medium.
How easy or difficult is it writing across mediums?
TV is easy. TV is very formula. Once you’ve cracked the formula – 24 minutes, 12 scenes, ad breaks – it’s very easy to write… Film is the most difficult. In film, the universe you create has to be very credible. It takes many minds. It’s also very collaborative – and we as writers tend to be solitary… Easiest is books, because with books, you are the sole person in charge.
It seems the inspiration for Boy No. 32 came from the times you spent with street kids when waiting for the last train back from work during your TV days…
I was always on that last train back to the hostel. All the odds and ends would be on that train: hijras, fisherwomen, some urchin or the other… Because this train was empty, these kids would come and chat. I would have these absolutely fantastic conversations… They would also entertain me. They’d catch those handholds on top and swing from them and do acrobatics… I thought they deserved a book. I thought they deserved for people to look at them as more than just beggars. I wanted people to see them as children.
Were there any other motivations for writing the book?
Boy No. 32 is also about family. That’s what he is looking for. He’s never had family. It also came out of the conversations I had with my daughter about family, because by definition, we are not your standard family: single mom with adopted kid. The fondest, deepest, most loving family can be the family that you choose.
The book seems to have influences of Salman Rushdie: the telepathic communication between the kids and the various elements of fantastic adventure. You seem to be a Rushdie fan – also evident in your first book, Dungeon Tales. If so, do the similarities creep in subconsciously?
I picked up my first Rushdie when I was in college. I just fell into Midnight’s Children. Not as much for the storytelling, but for that the first time I read a book and said, ‘Oh my god, we can tell our stories and people will take us seriously.’ There was Rushdie using Bambaiya… accents… And he tells a truly Indian story. I was like: ‘I can admire an Indian author – and the world admires him as well.’ So, that’s why, for me, always at the back of all my writing is Papa Rushdie sitting there as inspiration.
The book could so easily make a movie. In fact, many of your books can. Is that your TV and film writing at play?
All the books are the movies that will never be made! Look at my animal rights series – climaxes that involve 250 tigers! So, that’s how I use my books. Because in films, you are trying to write stuff that will get made. But in books, you can write stuff that doesn’t have to ever be made – you can just go mad.
Most of your books are aimed at children. Do you find it easier to write for children than adults?
Adults have a whole lot of opinions and prejudices that they might not openly show. And a whole lot of thoughts about what is good reading and bad reading. Kids haven’t done that at all. As long as you are telling a good story and in a funny way, they listen to you.
How did the animal series books come about?
I got so sick of the way people are treating animals. Also because I fell in love with animals. In our family, animals are treated very much as beloved members of family. And I looked around at what we are doing in the world of animals. I said, ‘Animals have nobody to speak for them.’ I said I’m going to do it. And then I decided to talk to kids again – I’m going to tell them great fun stories, and those stories are going to teach them about animal rights, cruelty to animals, the space that animals have in the world and respecting that.
In Soap!, you’ve also talked about the physical problems you had while writing so much, which eventually receded through yoga. Is that you how keep fit and manage to write?
Totally. It saved my life. There is no problem I’ve had that yoga has not fixed.
You don’t intend to return to TV. But any plans to take up a web series, as they seem to be the flavour of the day and are also not saas-bahu?
I hope to do a web series. But what I discovered when I looked at the series that are really popular right now was, I felt I was a bit old and didn’t understand that kind of thinking or – well, not that kind of thinking – that kind of pitch. So, I’ve taken some time off and am just looking at the whole thing: at stuff that’s popular, at youngsters and what they are interested in, at pitch and sur, how it should be different… For me, it’s one more new genre to learn.
Finally, will you be writing on your pan-India trips?
I’ve got all these kinds of offers. ‘Take a camera and shoot it.’ ‘Do a blog.’ ‘Do a series.’ I said no to everything. I said I want to do something just for the fun of it for once. We are doing our tours, meeting people, seeing sights – and eventually I’m sure it will influence my writing. Any kind of adventure you have just deepens you, enriches you and feeds back into your work.
I wrote this piece for the magazine Harmony – Celebrate Age for this month’s issue. Here’s the piece online.