Winning the Big Little Book Award 2021 was another well-deserved accolade for S Sivadas, a wellspring of creativity who has authored more than 200 books in a writing career stretching over six decades. Writing was not originally part of the plan for this college chemistry professor based in Kottayam in Kerala, but he has stuck with it, and to great effect, since making a tentative debut with his first book back in 1973.
Prof Sivadas’s best-known work, Vayichalum Vayichalum Theeratha Pusthakam (the book that never ends) has been staple reading for generations of children and he is widely recognised in the world of Malayalam literature, and beyond, for his simplicity, sensitivity and quirky science-themed narratives, not to mention the range of topics he tackles. In this interview with Nikhil Menon, the prolific professor says that his mind continues to buzz with ideas, adding that his only concern is having enough time to cover them all. Edited excerpts:
What was it like for you when you became a writer?
Never did I even dream of being a writer; my goal was to become a scientist. I was brought up in a village, where I enjoyed a life immersed in nature, books and people from all walks of life. Reading from the book of nature helped me acquire knowledge, wisdom and the idea of simple living and great thinking. By the time I became a teacher, I was already a communicator with ideas and language.
A great social leader and communicator of that time, the late PT Bhaskara Panicker, chanced upon my talent and urged me to write science stories for Eureka, the children’s magazine of the Kerala Sasthra Sahitya Parishad [KSSP]. Even though the material for this was not available anywhere, I obeyed and embarked upon the journey. To my surprise, my first book received the Kerala Sahitya Academy Endowment Award in 1973 and after that I became an active writer for KSSP. It was a tricky circus act, but I juggled the roles of college lecturer, writer and head of my family.
Later, I became the editor of Eureka. This allowed me to experiment with various writing formats, on the one hand, and to acquire knowledge on the other. Thus, my transformation into a fulltime writer was complete. In order to give children well-rounded knowledge, I began to write books on nature, ecology, science, mythology, religion and history. In fact, everything under (and above) the sun.
Each individual is endowed with immense potential, each one of us is a sleeping genius. So what’s there to writing 200 books in a lifetime?”
Is science underrepresented in children’s literature?
Children’s literature as a whole is underrepresented in India. Urgent steps have to be taken by all organisations, including the government, to give due importance to children’s literature, including science literature. In addition to good food, healthcare and education, it is imperative to provide children with good literature. Every child deserves to develop an ethical and scientific temperament and a feeling for culture and wisdom.
You have written more than 200 books. What keeps you so prolific as an author?
There’s nothing extraordinary about penning so many books if we realise that it is the result of using the wonderful human brain properly. The brain has about a hundred billion neurons. Each neuron is like a microcomputer, able to connect up to 10,000 other neurons at a time. The supercomputer that is the brain can pass as many as 1,000 trillion synapses, or signals, at a time. But we use only a very small percentage of the brain’s capacity. Each individual is endowed with immense potential, each one of us is a sleeping genius. So what’s there to writing 200 books in a lifetime?
Sensitivity towards nature is a consistent theme in your work. How can parents inculcate this in their children?
Nature is the most fragile, exquisite and delicate web of interrelated living and non-living things, and mother nature maintains an equilibrium for the well-being of all. We must expose children to nature and let them feel its warmth. Only when children experience and appreciate nature do they begin to love it and become responsible citizens committed to conservation.
Like any other value system that we desperately try to inculcate in children, parents are duty-bound to teach children to revere nature. And every writer, particularly writers of stories for children, should passionately work to ingrain a love of nature in children.
How do you go about selecting themes and weaving them into your books?
Sometimes themes flow in naturally and unexpectedly; at other times one selects them consciously. A writer must be like an alert detective, and then themes will be revealed to them at any moment. Long ago, one early morning, I noticed a mother bird perched outside my window, rearing her young. That observation inspired me to write an eco-spirituality novel, Keeyo Keeyo, a reader favourite that won awards.
I like to write on all types of themes, from eco-spirituality to environmental degradation, motivational books, fun books, books on learning techniques and even ‘modern’ topics like nanoscience and Covid-19. The one thing I’m not worried about is running out of themes. When I began writing I did worry about that. But after writing all these, I have another grave concern: at 82, and left with so many themes, subjects and ideas to choose from, I’m afraid I may not be able to cover everything.
In your more recent work, do you see a greater skew towards themes such as climate change? What are you focused on these days?
Problems like climate change need to be addressed. In fact, I have written a novel based on the experiences of the devastating flood that hit Kerala in 2018 (Snehappuzha, or River of love). In it I highlighted not only the calamity but also the positive response from society in the aftermath, the social impact of community kitchens and relief camps, how differences of faith, culture, wealth and so on instantaneously vanished before the monster.
What must be done to strengthen and promote regional children’s literature (and the reading habit) in India? And what role do initiatives like Parag play here?
Only when children experience and appreciate nature do they begin to love it and become responsible citizens committed to conservation.”
India is a great country of diverse cultures, languages and religions. A majority of our people, including children, live in regions with a mix of cultures and languages. This reality makes it immediate, important and imperative to develop children’s literature in regional languages. It’s not an easy task, considering the vastness of our country and the different standards of living. Organisations like Parag, with their experience and networks, could bring in a lot of change in this area.
What, to you, is the significance of the Big Little Book Award?
Every prize is definitely uplifting for a writer. BLBA, the most significant such prize in India, is a recognition that every author dreams of. As a BLBA winner, I feel jubilant but humble, since it has bestowed on me the liability to prove that I am worthy of this recognition.
What is your message for school educators and children’s writers?
Every child is a wonder of creation, a potential genius ready to open the petals of talent and bloom, to fill the world with fragrance. You are destined to do the divine task of transforming the child into a wonderful human being, capable of creating a brave new world. Devote your life to that great task.