‘We must inform children about the difference between fiction and history’: Udaya Shankar

The 2023 Bal Sahitya Puraskar winner reflects on his influences, the significance of learning history, and the challenges in the digital age.

Published : Jul 18, 2023 14:50 IST - 7 MINS READ

Udaya Shankar

Udaya Shankar | Photo Credit: Siddarth Muralidharan

Tamil writer Udaya Shankar, based in Kovilpatti, received the Sahitya Akademi’s Bal Sahitya Puraskar 2023 for his novel Aadhanin Bommai (“Aadhan’s Doll”) published in 2021. With a prolific career of 40 years and around 150 books to his name, Udaya Shankar seamlessly balances his roles as a political writer and a children’s writer. He is also known for translating books from Malayalam to Tamil. 

In Aadhanin Bommai, Udaya Shankar skillfully blends history and archaeology. The story follows a young boy named “Captain” Balu from Kovilpatti, who meets the magical Aadhan, and they embark on a remarkable journey through time. The boys travel 3,000 years back in time, exploring the Indus Valley civilisation, the migration of people to southern India, and the history of the Vaigai River Civilisation.

In an interview with Frontline, Udaya Shankar spoke about his works, the transformations in Indian history, and more. Edited excerpts: 

What was the starting point for Aadhanin Bommai

Around 2016-17, I came across news about artefacts found from the Keezhadi excavation, the transfer of Superintending Archaeologist Amarnath Ramakrishna, and attempts to halt the excavation. These events inspired me to write Aadhanin Bommai. Historians like Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya and Romila Thapar had written little about South India due to a lack of material evidence. The breakthrough came with the Keeladi findings, dating back 2,600 years. I wanted to introduce young readers to this significant discovery since few adults read about archaeology. Keeladi’s impact on the civilisation of Tamils has been substantial, thanks to figures like Madurai MP and author Su. Venkatesan and historian R. Balakrishnan, who brought it to the masses. So, I envisioned a story featuring my characters Aadhan and ‘Captain’ Balu, representing the past and the present. 

Aadhanin Bommai by Udaya Shankar, published by Vaanam Pathipagam. 

Aadhanin Bommai byUdaya Shankar, published by Vaanam Pathipagam.  | Photo Credit: By Special arrangement

Can you discuss how your childhood and growing-up experiences influenced you as a writer? 

During my childhood in Kovilpatti, my mother’s love for books influenced me greatly. As the eldest son, I often brought her books from the shop and would read them on the way back. My school had a library, and the teachers encouraged us to read, while my friends were enthusiastic readers too. Growing up in Kovilpatti, a town filled with literary giants like Ku. Alagirisamy, Ki. Rajanarayanan, Poomani, poet Devathachan, Tamilselvan, Cho. Dharman, and more, played a major role in shaping me as a writer. I have been writing since 1978, but it was only after 1980 that I truly delved into Kovilpatti’s world of literature.

Despite being a small town, Kovilpatti boasted over 10 renowned writers. This made it easier for aspiring writers like me to enter the world of literature without much struggle. We began our reading journey with the works of writer Pudhumaipithan, whereas many beginners typically started with Kalki, Akilan, and others. Writer Ki. Rajanarayanan was instrumental in developing the genre of Karisal Ilakkiyam (literature from the land of black soil) during that time. In 1982, he was compiling a dictionary of words from the Karisal Tamil dialect, and we had the opportunity to sit with him and assist in the process.

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Why did you choose the genre for Aadhanin Bommai - starting as a time travel tale and transitioning into magical realism? 

I chose magical realism to seamlessly transport the story 1,000-2,000 years back. Children are captivated when you use this technique to shift between worlds. Tamil lacks literature for young readers, leaving a gap for children aged 12 and above. We must create literature to meet their needs. 

How do you balance writing children’s literature with serious political works like Saadhigalin Udalarasiyal and Gandhiyathai Vizhungiya Hindutvam?

As a member of the Tamil Nadu Progressive Writers and Artists Association for over 42 years, I consider myself a political person. Both the mentioned books and Vedha Kaalathukku Thirumba Mudiyuma (“Can we return to the Vedic Age?”) focus on direct politics. Sometimes, I use complex language in children’s books, but I countercheck by sharing the work with friends for scrutiny.

I prioritise children’s books and ensure at least four people review them for language and accuracy. I am careful not to convey any incorrect information to young readers. To me, writing political books and children’s literature are not conflicting, as both come naturally.

“India’s history has been altered in the past 30 years, with fiction often presented as truth, like changing cow to horse and inventing stories about the Saraswati River civilisation.”Udaya ShankarBal Sahitya Puraskar winner

What does the Bal Puraskar mean to you as a writer? 

While the Bal Puraskar is my first government award, it has garnered more attention for my work. I aim to use this opportunity to promote children’s literature widely. In Tamil Nadu, children’s books are rarely printed in quantities exceeding 300 copies in the first print. In contrast, publishers in Kerala proudly print 5,000 copies in their initial runs due to a stronger reading culture.

Unfortunately, many people are unaware of Tamil children’s literature writers. The main distinction between literature for adults and children is that children rely on teachers or parents to select and obtain books. This limitation calls for more genres in Tamil children’s literature, like those available in English.

As part of the Tamil Nadu Children’s Writers and Artists Association, we engage in brainstorming and discussions to introduce new genres and improve existing ones. Travel diaries, ballads, dramas, and investigation thrillers are yet to be explored. Currently, there are more books available for children above eight years old, leaving a gap for younger readers. We need a diverse collection of books covering ages 3 to 18 and addressing the queries of teenagers, allowing them to develop their own understanding of politics. My upcoming works will focus on science and history.

How does Tamil children’s literature fare in this period of gadgets and screens? 

I think we have a big responsibility as a society. You can’t stop the kids from using gadgets. It has become the “necessary evil”. But there can be a regulation of usage. If parents turn to book reading, children will also imitate them. Parents should tell stories to their children. They should read modern-day literature to their children. Next, teachers play an important role. There is no reading beyond the syllabus at schools. Teachers have the potential to bring all sorts of changes in children. It is because of the seeds sown by my Tamil teacher in my life, I turned out to be the person I am today.

The State government, on its behalf, is also making various efforts. It runs the Ilam Thalir Ilakkiya Thittam programme for government schools. For this year, the plan was to bring out 100 children’s literature books. So far 59 books have been published. Tamil Nadu Education Department is releasing the magazines Oonjal and Thenchittu for students from grades 4 to 9 in government schools. A magazine called Kanavu Asiriyar is released for government school teachers. Under the Illam Thedi Kalvi scheme volunteers go to houses and encourage children to read. But doing all this is still not enough because our society is evolving differently.

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Aadhanin Bommai is about history and the past; in these times, how crucial is it to engage in discussions on history? 

In our times, it’s crucial to share history and archaeological facts with our children. India’s history has been altered in the past 30 years, with fiction often presented as truth, like changing cow to horse and inventing stories about the Saraswati River civilisation. We must inform children about the difference between fiction and history. Many still think the Mahabharata and the Ramayana are India’s only epics, but we should question this, considering the country’s diverse ethnicities and languages. Creating awareness about mythological stories is essential to address this issue and avoid believing in baseless tales, as Yuval Noah Harari puts it. In our society, we often introduce fiction as history to children through prayers and myths, leading them to form belief systems based on it. We need to discuss this openly with them and break it down clearly. 

What are your upcoming books?  

I am working on two books now. One about the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi and another about King Vel Pari. Both the stories would unfold through the eyes of the same two characters ‘Captain’ Balu and Aadhan. They have been travelling with me in my stories since my book Pulikkugai Marmam (“The Mystery of Tiger Cave”). I used the same characters in Kattai Viralin Kadhai (“The Story of the Thumb”), Bhimbetka, and Yaar Andha Marma Manithan (“Who is the Mystery Man?”). 

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