Bali Rai tells us about a Punjabi tale from his childhood, which later inspired his writing.
Many things inspired my novel, Rani & Sukh. The first major inspirations were stories of star-crossed lovers – tales repeated to me by my mother. This was back in the 1970s, when every Punjabi household I knew had the same painting on their walls. It depicted two lovers, struggling through a dark and desolate landscape, leaning on each other for support, and fleeing certain death at the hands of each other’s families. The woman was called Sohni, and the man, Mehiwal, and theirs was a forbidden love. The tale is a classic in Punjabi folklore, and there are others too – Heer Ranja being particularly popular. These tales were full of melodrama, passion and intrigue. They were tragic too, and they fascinated me. There were heroes and villains, rich and poor, fairytale-like incidents, tragedy, and drama galore.
At the same time I was equally fascinated by Bollywood movies. We didn’t have anything to watch them on, however, so my first taste of the films that would later help to inspire Rani & Sukh came at the homes of uncles and aunts who hardly ever watched anything else. Down the street a young couple that knew my parents would take my sister and me to the local cinema too. It was there that I first saw classics such as Suhaag and Sholay – films that encompassed the entire range of human emotions in three and a half hours. Oh, and about fifty songs too . . .
Like the folk tales, there was passion and intrigue. There were family feuds, love and hatred, long-lost siblings and absent parents – in fact any emotion or family situation that you can think of. I loved them and I even sang along to some of the songs too, much to the annoyance of my sister who would hit me with things whenever I opened my mouth. There was one line from a song in the film Sholay – a tale of outlaw buddies, evil men and beautiful women made to dance on glass – which I sang over and over again:
‘… yeh dorsetay hum nahe toren geh…’
At least that’s what it sounded like to me.
But eventually I grew up and neither Bollywood nor my mother’s Punjabi tales felt cool anymore. They weren’t The Clash or Bob Marley – they weren’t even Eastenders. I was far too trendy for them. But in my heart something remained . . . Then, one day in 1986, I walked into my English Lit classroom and was given a play called Romeo & Juliet, written by some dead old white bloke called Shakespeare. I had never experienced his work before that point, and immediately assumed that it would be boring. Yet, as my amazing teacher, Nigel Gossage, explained the story and it unfolded, I was taken back to the tales my mother told me, and to the films that I had watched as a child. The similarities between Sohni Mehiwal and Romeo & Juliet were striking. Within two scenes, I was hooked to the play, and to Shakespeare in general. And I realised just how wonderful and important those old Punjabi stories were. So important, that somewhere in my head a little nugget of an idea formed. One that would go on to become a novel.
And Rani & Sukh came from that. It’s a tale of star-crossed lovers and blood feuds, family honour and passion, played out in the present day and in the Punjab of the 1960’s – the land of my parents. It is a love story and at the same time full of action. It has killing and emotional blackmail, illicit affairs and murderous villains. A true mash-up of Shakespeare, Bollywood and Punjabi folk tales. I’m not sure my mum realises just how important those story-telling sessions were. I guess I should go thank her!
Bali Rai has written nine young adult novels for Random House Children’s Publishers, as well as the Soccer Squad series for younger readers. His first, (Un)arranged Marriage, created a huge amount of interest and won many awards including the Angus Book Award and the Leicester Book of the Year. It was also shortlisted for the prestigious Branford Boase first novel award. Rani & Sukh and The Whisper were both shortlisted for the Booktrust Teenage Prize.
Madhvi Ramani shares a terrifying tale from her childhood!
My mother told me many stories, but the one that stuck with me is slightly disturbing and enigmatic. It goes like this…
Once upon a time, there were two sparrows. One was called Chucki and the other was called Chucko.
Now, Chucki was diligent, while Chucko was lazy.
One day, Chucki said to Chucko, ‘I’m going to fetch some water from the well. The kicharee* is cooking on the stove. Turn it off when it’s done.’
‘Sure,’ said Chucko, but as soon as Chucki went out, Chucko went to sleep and forgot all about the kicharee.
An hour later, Chucko was woken up by a mouth-watering smell. His stomach rumbled. He went into the kitchen and lifted the lid off the pot. The kicharee was done! He turned off the stove.
Chucko knew that he ought to wait for Chucki to return before he ate, but maybe he could just have a taste . . .
Mmmm, delicious! He had a little bit more. And then some more . . . until he had eaten the whole lot! Chucko put the lid back on the empty pot, and yawned. He was sleepy after such a big meal, so he went to lie down again.
Before long, Chucko was woken up once more. This time, by Chucki, returning home with the water.
When Chucki took the lid off the pot, she said, ‘Chucko! What happened to the kicharee?’
‘I don’t know. I turned it off in time. The cat must have crept in while I was sleeping and eaten it all,’ lied Chucko.
Chucki thought about this. She had noticed that the lid was on the pot. Why would the cat replace the lid after stealing their food? Chucki suspected that Chucko was lying, but she did not say anything. Instead, she waited until Chucko went to sleep again, thinking that he had gotten away with his lie.
Then, Chucki took a knife and cut open Chucko’s stomach. It was filled with kicharee, and Chucki’s suspicions had been proved right!
Like all good stories, I’ve thought about this one in different ways throughout the years. As a child, the rhythm and the sounds were pleasurable (chucko, chucki, kicharee), especially as told in Gujarati. Then, there is the moral, which seems to be ‘don’t be a lazy liar.’
Later, however, the question of whether what Chucki did was right occurred to me. How could she have taken such a decisive action without being one-hundred per cent sure that Chucko had lied? What if she had been wrong? And even if Chucko had eaten the kicharee, wasn’t Chucki overreacting? And where did this story come from? Did some Gujarati housewife, harbouring thoughts of killing her lazy husband, make it up? And what happens afterwards? Does Chucki live a happy life, or is she lonely without Chucko? Does she regret what she did?
*Kicharee is a Gujarati dish, consisting of rice and lentils.
Crystal Chan shares a story from China which had a special resonance for her growing up as a mixed-heritage child in the United States
Ai ya! That Chinese expression – which was often used by my dad – can denote confusion, amazement, discontent, irritation, surprise and even incredulity. The expression also features prominently in my favourite childhood folktale, The Seven Chinese Brothers by Margaret Mahy. In the story, seven brothers use their seven different supernatural powers to defeat the emperor, who is determined to kill them. However, since the brothers look alike, talk alike and walk alike, they keep exchanging places with each other and using their individual powers to thwart the emperor’s plans. (My favourite brother was the one whose legs could grow as tall as the depth of the ocean and so could not be drowned.)
I grew up half Chinese, half White in a small town in the 1980s, and I didn’t have images of people who looked like me, not on TV or in movies or even on billboards. Back then, there weren’t many children’s stories featuring Chinese people (much less half-Chinese people!), and so as a child it was liberating to cry out Ai ya! with my parents as they read me the story and to have this small mirror reflecting back to me some aspect of my own Chinese heritage. Although, as much as I wished, I had to swim each time I went into the ocean.
Crystal Chan’s debut novel Bird is published by Tamarind on 30 January 2014.
Tamarind author, Narinder Dhami, takes us to India for an awesome animal story from her childhood . . .
When I was a little girl, for some reason I was obsessed with elephants. I was given a toy elephant on wheels when I was four. ‘Mimi’, as I called her, was an Indian ceremonial elephant with a tasselled head-dress, and I used to push her around the garden. For the next couple of years Mimi featured in almost every photo that my parents took of me!
I loved stories and books from a very early age, and of course, elephants featured in many of the traditional tales which my Indian father loved to tell to me and my sisters. These tales opened up a whole new world for me and later I discovered that these collections of ancient stories were called the Panchatantra, the Hitopradesha and the Jataka. I loved stories such as ‘The Mice and the Elephant’, ‘The Elephants and the Hares’, ‘The Noble Elephant’ and ‘The King’s White Elephant’. But my favourite was ‘The Elephant and the Dog’, from the Jataka, and it goes like this:
Once upon a time there was an elephant which lived in the king’s stables. The king was very fond of the elephant, and so the elephant was pampered and well-treated and only ever ate the best food.
Near the king’s palace lived a skinny, starving dog, and he began sneaking into the stables and finishing up the elephant’s food. For a while, the elephant didn’t notice, but soon he and the dog became great friends. They shared the food and the dog would curl up next to the elephant to sleep.
One day a farmer, who was visiting the palace, took a liking to the dog and asked the elephant-keeper if he could buy him. Now, the elephant-keeper didn’t much like the dog hanging around the stables so he agreed. The farmer paid the elephant-keeper and took the dog back to the country with him.
The elephant missed the dog very much. He was so upset that he wouldn’t eat his food, now that the dog was no longer there to share it with him. The elephant could not sleep either, without his friend by his side. He used to love to bathe in the river, squirting water over himself with his trunk, but now he wouldn’t leave the stables, no matter how much the elephant-keeper tried to coax him out.
Eventually the king found out why the elephant was so sad, and he sent his men all over the country to look for the dog and bring him home.
When the dog arrived, he and the elephant were thrilled to be reunited. And from then on the dog lived in the stables with the elephant, and they were friends to the end of their days.
I don’t know quite why this story appealed to me so much, but maybe it was because I had already realised the importance of true friendship, even though I was only a young child.
That’s what I like to think, anyway!
This autumn, Tamarind published Jamila Gavin’s Blackberry Blue: a collection of six magical fairytales featuring a diverse cast of multicultural heroes and heroines. It has got us thinking a lot about storytelling and the role it plays in preserving cultural heritage. We asked some of our authors to tell us about the stories they enjoyed as children . . . Here’s what Ann Cameron, author of the Julian and Huey series had to say.
My Swedish grandfather lived with my family from the time I was born. He saved my life when I was a baby. One night it rained and the roof of the house got a leak that soaked the heavy plaster of the ceiling over my bed. Suddenly, the ceiling fell right onto my bed, with enough weight to crush me to death. But luckily for me, I wasn’t in bed that night. For some reason my grandpa – who never got me up at night – had taken me downstairs to play. I don’t remember the day the ceiling fell in, but I know that I was safe, held in his arms.
My grandpa was a blacksmith and had a forge where he hammered all kinds of useful things out of red-hot iron. He had his blacksmith shop on our land and we called it the ‘monkey house’ because he monkeyed around there, inventing and making things. I loved to spend time with him in the monkey house, with its smell of tools and fire and its cabinet with many tiny drawers full of bolts and screws and different size nails. Because I was very young, I never understood why there were no monkeys in the monkey house. I kept hoping that one day the monkeys would show up.
My grandpa told me stories about trolls and also about gremlins. When things in our house went astray, he said that gremlins had taken them. I thought the gremlins had carried them away down under the grating of the heat vent into the mysterious dark place below it that led down to the coal furnace in the basement. I didn’t know how tall gremlins were, but I imagined them about a foot high, moving around our house in the night while we slept. It seemed that in our house the lost things, especially buttons, disappeared and were never to be found again – proof that gremlins were real. As I grew up, I rarely wondered where the lost things had gone, because I was quite certain they were never coming back. To this day when something disappears, I remember my grandpa, say to myself, ‘Oh, it’s the gremlins again!’ and wait a good while before I start to look for it.
Although I was born in the United States, I have spent many years living in Panajachel, Guatemala. Just like the tales of the Brothers Grimm, some of the stories from the Cakchiquel Mayan tradition can seem quite violent; there’s one like ‘Hansel and Gretel’ but instead of a witch, there’s a big tree in the mountains which takes compassion on them and opens up so they can hide inside it to escape a lion. Then the two siblings live together in the mountains for years where they grow their food and the brother makes friends with a dog. They meet strange people deeper in the mountains, some of whom plan to eat them! But then Gretel falls in love with one of the men of the place and turns on her brother; she wants to kill Hansel, because he doesn’t like her new boyfriend. Hansel’s dog saves him from poisoned food the strange people want to feed him. Hansel knows about the poison because the dog is his food tester – what the dog won’t touch, Hansel knows is poisoned and won’t eat. The story comes to a climax when at a dance, Gretel and her boyfriend want to push Hansel into a concealed deep pit with a fire at the bottom. Hansel notices the pit, and pushes his sister and the boyfriend into it, where they burn to death. Hansel cries because he had loved his sister. From there on, it’s happily ever after.
Another story concerns a two-headed eagle that carries away children and even adults who go to the fields to plant corn – and eats them. To escape it, one family carries a giant hollow gourd to the fields so they can hide in it when they heard the eagle’s cry. Every day, the eagle lands on the gourd and claws at it, but the gourd is so strong and smooth, the eagle can’t break it open. But one day the father of the family forgets the gourd – and the eagle flies away with them all to carry them to his nest and eat them. When it sets them down in its nest, the father takes out a small machete. With it, he fights the eagle and chops it to bits, and no one ever has to be afraid to plant their fields with corn after that.
British World Champion and Tamarind author, Christine Ohuruogu, has been recognized for her achievements by receiving the Sunday Times and Sky Sports ‘Sportswoman of the Year’ award! We couldn’t be happier for Christine who, in winning this award, has joined a prestigious list of inspirational, elite sportswomen.
Christine is the only British female athlete to have won two world titles, she’s an Olympic gold medal winner and on top of all that, she doesn’t let her success get in the way of her determination. She’s still trying to run faster!
Of course, we at Tamarind also know Christine for her brilliant Camp Gold series.
The series follows Maxine, an enthusiastic young athlete who attends Camp Gold and discovers her natural talent for running. Although not strictly autobiographical, the books give us a little insight into a young girl’s passion for competitive sport and the kind of determination it takes to get to where Christine is today. Maxine is a brilliant, strong female character and we can’t help but see a little of Christine in her.
Christine is a true inspiration to the next generation and – fortunately for us – has passed on a little of her wisdom through her books.
Big congratulations from all of us at Tamarind Books, Christine!
Our intern Joe considers the European fairytale tradition . . .
Jacob and Wilhem Grimm didn’t live in a vacuum. They were politically aware academics collecting stories (often from the upper and middle classes) in the brief decades between The Enlightenment and German unification. They lived in a unique place and time within the evolution of European society. And yet, the stories they collected have been retold and beloved at least in part because they cover subjects of such authentic humanity as to make the tales seem timeless.
In Blackberry Blue, and other fairy tales, Jamila Gavin offers six brand-new stories inspired by the tales of the Grimms as well as Hans Christian Anderson, but updates this tradition to reflect our ethnically diverse population. On the surface of it, this collection is for girls and boys who have ever fallen down and noticed the ‘flesh-coloured’ sticking plaster doesn’t quite match or wondered why Father Christmas doesn’t look like their father but, as we learn in Gavin’s tales, appearances deceive. With stunningly beautiful (truly stunning) illustrations, these tales speak to the same authentically human power as what we have from the Grimms because Gavin, like Europe itself, has invited a wider audience to join.
In the 45 years between their first and final editions, the Grimms added and edited and altered their collection. Society was changing, the Grimms were changing, and so their stories changed. They were not the first to tell most of their stories and, two centuries on, we continue to add to and edit and alter the pantheon of European faery tales. With Blackberry Blue, Gavin gives us the next incarnation of this long and ever-evolving tradition.
Are you a Foundation, Key Stage 1 or Key Stage 2 teacher? Are you struggling to engage your students with creative writing? Then our joint event with theatre and education company MakeBelieve Arts is for you!
Literature Alive is being held at the Random House offices in London from 1pm-3.30pm on Friday 29th November.
The fantastic MakeBelieve Arts will be providing you with creative strategies to use in the classroom. AND we’ll be bringing our founder Verna Wilkins. Verna is one inspirational lady who has extensive experience speaking at to educators. She recently spoke to Early Years Education students in Birmingham. One student said, ‘She held my attention from start to finish, which is a hard thing to do, and left me wanting more.’
Literature Alive certainly promises to be an exciting and inspiring afternoon.
To find out more and to book your place, click here.
This month, speaking at an event entitled, ‘Free at Last’ at the Southbank Centre, the journalist Gary Younge invited the audience to consider the nature of history. Since moving to the States from Stevenage, Younge has extensively researched and written about the African-American civil rights movement, and in conversation with fellow journalist, Hannah Pool, he shed light on some of its forgotten heroes.
The title of Younge’s talk refers to the final line of Martin Luther King’s seminal ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, which concluded, “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”. In the year that marks the 50th anniversary of the speech, it’s right that much consideration has been given to the importance of King, and Younge talked extensively about interviewing King’s friends and advisors who gave their first-hand accounts of how the speech came to be. But Younge also used his talk to highlight people like Claudette Colvin who was the first person to resist racial segregation on the buses in Montgomery, Alabama, a whole nine months before Rosa Parks, but who then became pregnant out of wedlock, and Bayard Rustin, a leading activist for civil rights who was openly gay. Both are examples of people who had pivotal roles in the civil rights movement but who have been all but written out of the history books because their personal lives didn’t conform to the traditional Christian values which were central to the movement.
As Black History Month draws to a close, it seems an appropriate moment to contemplate the nature of history and history makers. Using E. H. Carr’s quote, ‘History means interpretation’, Younge underlined that the ‘facts’ of history are made by ordinary people with their various biases and agendas. The fact that history is not independent of the people who decide what does and what does not enter the historical record means that often, the things left out are as interesting and important as the things left in.
Last night the Tambassadors left Tamarind Towers and decamped to City Hall where Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, was hosting an event to celebrate black entrepreneurs and the contribution of black businesses to society. After an introduction from the Chair for the evening, Tim Campbell, founder of Bright Ideas Trust (and the first ever winner of The Apprentice!), an esteemed panel of black businesspeople including Ade Sawyerr, Damon Buffini (co-founder of Social Business Trust), Natasha Faith (co-designer of LA DiOSA, Young Ambassador to The Prince’s Trust and the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund), Sonia Brown (director of the National Black Women’s Network) and Ric Lewis, spoke about their experiences in the world of business and gave their advice for the audience of experienced businesspeople and young people looking forward to business careers. On the subject of embracing failure as well as success in business, Mayor Boris Johnson was typically entertaining, noting, ‘A man called Chumba Wamba once said, “I get knocked down but I get up again, you’re never gonna keep me down!”’. The assembled audience was too polite to point out that Chumbawamba were in fact a band comprising at least eight members in 1997 when the single from which he was quoting, Tubthumping,* hit the charts . . . !
It was heartening to see so many young faces in the audience and we hope they were as inspired as we were by the panellists and news of the work being done by young black businesspeople to provide opportunities in their communities. One of the main issues voiced was how to break through the barriers that prevent black businesses from penetrating markets outside of their traditional consumer base to compete on a global stage. Whilst there are no easy answers to this question, the panel were in agreement that the explosion of connectivity provided by communications technology is a golden opportunity for black businesspeople to take their products and services to billions of consumers around the world.
Tim Campbell brought the meeting to a close perfectly by explaining that the biggest concern for black businesspeople should be the biggest concern for all businesspeople: to provide the best quality product possible. At Tamarind, that has always been our biggest concern and it will continue to be as we move into the next 25 years of the imprint.
*The irony of the title of this single is not lost on us . . . An unintentional blunder or a really clever joke? You decide.