Writer Venita Coelho

Adventure, She Writes

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.

Cover of Soap: Writing and Surviving Television in IndiaVenita 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.

Cover of the book Boy No. 32 by Venita CoelhoIt 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.

Cover of Dungeon Tales by Venita CoelhoThe 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.

Front cover of Venita Coelho's first animal-fiction book, Tiger by the TailHow 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.

 

 

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Cover pic for this piece, including snapshots of the three books featured and the title text

Animals / Books | Wonderful as an Animal

Logo for VegPlanet magazineThis piece is for the launch issue of VegPlanet, the new quarterly premier lifestyle magazine for vegetarian, vegan and veg-curious folk. This appears in their Media Matters section.

Author Venita CoelhoAt The Hindu Lit for Life 2016 litfest, held about a year ago, I had bumped into Venita Coelho, both of whose animal fiction books I had just read then. Venita has been a scriptwriter for serials and films, before recently moving on to authoring and activism. I wished to find out one key thing from her: the motivation for writing these books. Her answer was simple: “Write for children. Adults’ minds are too set.”

Perhaps why much animal writing is aimed at children. So, in this round-up of last year’s best animal-friendly writing, we feature a couple of children’s books, including one by Venita herself. But for good measure, and perhaps to show that all is not lost with adults, we also include one aimed at grown-ups. Happy animal-friendly reading.

Front cover of the second animal-fiction book by Venita Coelho, Dead as a DodoThe second in Venita’s Animal Intelligence Agency (AIA) series, Dead as a Dodo traces the efforts of three AIA agents – Rana (boy), Bagha (tiger) and Kela (langur) – to save a dodo. A lone member of this extinct species has been miraculously discovered, but as expected, avaricious hunters are in pursuit too, for unscrupulous collectors worldwide. The three sleuths need to take the dodo to safety, so that history does not repeat itself. Like her first book, Tiger by the Tail, this too is racy, with several fantabulous adventures. No wonder it won the fest’s Young World – Goodbooks Award. So, are the three able to save the dodo? The ending is… clever as a fox.

Front cover of Stephen Alter's 'The Secret Sanctuary'Stephen Alter’s The Secret Sanctuary is more sublime. This too features a trio (all bipeds though), also out on an expedition, but only by chance. As they head out for school one morning, they lose their way in the forest en route, and are forced to spend the night therein. Before too much harm can come to them though, they encounter a naturalist, who helps them navigate through and also educates them in the ways of the jungle. What baffles the kids most is that while they spot and touch many a wild animal, the animal doesn’t see or sense them in response. The premise is simple: animals are meant to be away from humans – and from humans harming them. If only that were true in real life.

Front cover of Han Kang's 'The Vegetarian'As simple and smooth as the previous two books are, South Korean Han Kang’s Man Booker-winning The Vegetarian is as complex and intense. The protagonist, Kim Yeong-hye, decides to turn vegetarian (actually, vegan, as she gives up dairy and leather too), but the story, in three parts, is not from her viewpoint. Kang presumably wants to portray how others perceive veg(an) folk. So, Part 1 has the protagonist’s family not taking her decision well at all, her father even forcing meat down her throat at a get-together. Part 2 is esoteric: her brother-in-law yearns to paint floral-scapes on her bare body, the idea being that a plant-preferring’s person’s skin becomes very alluring. (This may not be so esoteric after all: there are several studies supporting this notion.) Part 3, told from her sister’s perspective, depicts her institutionalization in a mental health facility, as she is seen to take her vegetarianism “to an extreme”. (Now, how often do veggie folk hear that?) Due to its surrealism and structure, Vegetarian is not an entirely easy read, but serves its purpose well: showing how challenging it may be for folk who resolve to lead an animal-friendly life to live that life, especially when they have to do so around unsupportive others. For folk who’ve turned veg(an) in real life though, that’s easy: just think of the animals.

Irficionado | Books’ Review | Venita Coelho’s AIA Series

Logo for Irficionado series

Author Venita CoelhoVenita Coelho began her writing career scripting serials for UTV, when that entity was still a production house and not a mega-channel. However, she moved out, out of serial-writing, as she herself says, “when the saas-bahu serials took over”. She wrote for one movie (the damp ‘We Are Family’, based on Hollywood’s ‘Stepmom’), before moving out of writing for the moving-images mediums. Presently, she writes books, out of Goa, where she moved out to from Bombay/Mumbai. She stays in Goa (but also spends some time in Bombay) with her family of people and her family of dogs and cats (five and two, respectively).

All that sounds like I’m writing her author bio for her next book’s jacket, and although I don’t mind doing so, that’s not the case. That is necessary to understand the kind of books she now writes and the style she pursues.

To continue the bio, Venita moved to activism after moving out of TV/movies (many, many people worldwide are following this path), and most recently is into animal activism (again not surprising, given the number of quadrupeds in her house).

All this comes brilliantly to the fore in her series of animal fiction brought out by Hachette. As she hasn’t given it a name herself, I’m calling it the AIA series, after the name of the agency in both the books so far – Animal Intelligence Agency.

AIA is a network of bipeds and quadrupeds across the world who fight to “Save the Animals, Save the World” (their motto). However, the two books so far centre around the ones in India…

The back cover of the books of Venita Coelho's Animal Intelligence Agency series, describing the agentsAgent 002 is Bagha, a Royal Bengal Tiger with a limp from a previous adventure, and who is typical of the male tiger: poised and not given to too much affection.

Agent 11.5 is a boy who gets his agent badge at 11.5 years of age. (So there.) Rana, named after a species of frog (see, this series is that animal-friendly) makes up for in the mind what he lacks in physique.

Bringing up the, um, rear is Agent 013, a langur named Kela. True to form, he is fidgety and a chatterbox. In the first book, he doesn’t have a number when he starts off on the rescue/adventure as it was revoked due to an earlier misadventure – the case of the exploding mangoes – but due to his efforts in the book, by the end, he gets back his badge.

Front cover of Venita Coelho's first animal-fiction book, Tiger by the Tail Book 1, ‘Tiger by the Tail’, is about the AIA’s efforts to investigate and rescue missing tigers. Tigers have gone missing from large parts of India and are, not surprisingly, landing up in China. Though perhaps not for the reasons you think (ornaments, medicines, aphrodisiacs); Venita takes the tigers’ tale to the max. (Will leave you to discover.) Along the way, and in China, they are aided by other agents and animals – a menagerie of dolphins, other langurs, a gigantic gorilla (are there other sorts, but wait till you read about this one), a giraffe, and a cussing rhino (who said plant-eating beings are calmer?). The humans are equally fun too, with Rana’s dada’s friend and a sloshed captain, who buys Rana’s tale that the 40+ tigers he’s just seen stepping into his ship is a drink-triggered hallucination.

Front cover of the second animal-fiction book by Venita Coelho, Dead as a DodoBook 2, ‘Dead as a Dodo’ (which I inadvertently read first as I couldn’t find the first earlier; this released this year, the first one last year), maxes book 1 in the wild department. Not content with saving tigers, Venita brings back the dodo from the dead, but being the only one of your species in this world has a price: collectors worldwide want him, though – tender mercies – alive. Along with Kela, the dodo provides the biggest laughs, as he’s a bit of a weepie, lamenting the fact that he’s all alone in this world – not content to being brought back from the dead.

Venita keeps the books very pacy and racy – perfect for her audience – but it left me a bit out of breath. (But as I just indicated, I’m not the audience.) The style is like Harry Potter meets Tintin, so now you know what I mean. The similarities to both permeate: Rana has lost both his parents to separate tragedies, he doesn’t recall their faces, he has animal companions on his adventures (Hedwig and Snowy, anyone?), the adventures are wild (Bagha jumping on trucks and Kela jumping on trains) and magical (a dolphin leads them to India after they switch off the GPS to avoid being detected by the Chinese as they make their way back with scores of tigers), and inter-species communication happens through a language called JungleSpeak (Parseltongue!).

She also sprinkles the narrative with interesting facts about the issue/s she’s addressing – done through two-page photos, sketches, doodles, notes – be it about the protection of non-human species and their habitats in ‘Tiger’ or about their extinction in ‘Dead’.

If you are an animal lover, you will read these. And then thank the entry of the saas-bahu serials on TV.