S02Extra03: Reading with Zai

A reading with Zai Whitaker

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Deepika: As promised, we have a very special extra lined up with Zai Whitaker, Managing Trustee of the Madras Crocodile Bank. Zai also dons the hat of a writer of children’s books. It was in this avatar that I became part of the Zai fan club as a child, after reading Andamans Boy. Published by Tulika Books, it’s the story of a 10-year old who journeys to the Andaman islands and finds the home he is seeking with the Jarawa tribe. Having grown up in the islands as a child, it felt particularly close at heart!

In this episode, Zai talks about her favourite books and why she feels that spending time with children, reading and listening is so important.

We also asked her to read some of her work which we’ll dive into in just a moment. But first, here’s what Zai had to say about what drew her to writing.

Zai: So writing was another thing that my parents did and so again, we grew up thinking that, you know, one had to write and I have memories of myself even before I could write, sitting there with a paper and pencil because that’s what one did you know, that’s what my parents did. So by the time I could write and I must have been in the fifth or sixth grade i started writing what i used to call stories for children when i was a child myself and you know. So i wrote lots of extremely bad stories, extremely bad poems as a teenager. And then when I moved to Chennai and started working with Rom at the snake park, I realized how important this whole, you know transfer transporting of this snake conservation and snakebite mitigation message was so I started talking and writing about that quite a bit. And so I stopped writing fiction and was just writing about the environment and, you know, conserving reptiles mostly and we did a few books together, but mostly it was articles for newspapers and magazines.

And then for 15 or so years I was teaching at Kodi (Kodaikanal) School. My children lived with me there and I was teaching middle schoolers. And I think that was a very important part of what happened to my writing because I started reading the literature they were reading and discussing it with them and it was also a wonderful captive audience. I would say ‘Hey, you know, listen to the story. Do you like it?’ And they said, ‘No, Miss. Come on, it’s boring.’ And so I got to know what that age group likes and doesn’t like, what they engage with. And then I started writing more and more for that early teen group, and I think the first thing I wrote fiction wise for them was Andamans Boy, which is based in the whole Andaman and Nicobar ecosystem but it’s fiction. So I tend to do that a lot, you know, take a basis in environmentally ground-truthing and build a fictional thing around it.

Deepika: One of her latest offerings, which emerged during the pandemic is called Zyrus the Virus which in many ways is the ‘ultimate human adventure.’ As she says in an interview with The Hindu, “I remember begging my mother before my birthday, “Please, no educational books please!” This is always at the back of my mind when I write. The story should be at the centre, and it should be a good one, worth reading for its own sake.”

She also talked about the importance of the written word in the life of a child and how books become a medium to have conversations about the world at large.

Zai: I think the key word is time, you know, we need to spend time with the children. We need to talk. We need to read, we

need to read what they are reading. During my teaching years I practically stopped reading what I wanted to read and I was reading what they were reading and that was so important and so useful to me as a teacher. So as parents too we need to not just do bedtime reading some 15 minutes, but really enter those books and those characters with them, talk about it and also talk about all these other things and you know children are wonderful to talk to and they sometimes they very often make the right decisions. So yeah that time with the family discussing these things. There was a lovely cartoon I saw once of a little guy and his father. And the father is off somewhere with the bag and this chap is saying, ‘But Dad I don’t want quality time, I want quantity time.’

Deepika: We couldn’t think of a better way to encourage this ‘quality time’, so we asked Zai to read from some of her work and are excited to bring to you, Mr. and Mrs. Scorpion from her book Boastful Centipede and Other Creatures.

Zai: Mr. And Mrs. Scorpion

Miss Scorpion on a star full night
Met a Mr. and, out of sight
Of other creatures danced away
A lively arachnid ballet

For that’s what scorpions do,
In case you never knew.

Arm an arm and claw and claw
Such perfect love you never saw
Before the Dawn light hit the sky
They were married, my oh my

For that’s how scorpions wed
In case you’ve never read.

The babies they are white, not black
And ride on Mummy, piggy back.
Moulting skins they quickly grow
The baby loads does make mum slow

For that’s how scorpions grow
In case you didn’t know.

At last, the kids become too large
To ride on this maternal barge.

It’s time to leave because if not,
Mom might gobble up her lot

For that is Scorpion lore,
In case you never saw.

Now they rule the underground
Hunt their prey without a sound
Kill it with a tiny drop
Of toxin from the red tail top

For that how scorpions hunt
In case you never learnt.

Deepika: Zai’s attention to the everyday, to the many creatures that inhabit it and our surroundings is what I love about her writing. And in the same spirit, Zai read In Praise of Ant Lion.

We also asked her what her favourite books are, to which she responded saying it was My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell and The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame which she kindly agreed to read from.

Zai: And this is the first paragraph of Wind in the Willows.

The river bank. The mole had been working very hard all the morning, spring cleaning his little home. First with blooms then with dusters, then on ladders and steps and chairs, with a brush and a pail of whitewash, till he had dust in his throat and eyes, and splashes of white wash all over his black for and an aching back, and weary arms. Spring was moving in the air above and in the earth below, and around him, penetrating even his dark and lowly little house, with a spirit of divine discontent and longing. It was small wonder then that he suddenly flung down his brush on the floor, said bother and, oh blow and also hang spring cleaning and bolted out of the house without even waiting to put on his coat. Something up above above was calling him imperiously. And he made for the steep little tunnel, which answered in his case to the graveled carriage drive, owned by animals whose residences are nearer to the sun and air. So he scraped and scratched and scrambled and scrooged and then he scrooged again and scrambled and scratched and scraped, working busily with his little paws and muttering to himself. Up we go. Up, we go to let last pop is out, came out into the sunlight. And he found himself rolling in the warm grass of a great meadow.

Deepika: We hope that after listening to Zai you and the little and not-so little ones in your life will also pop out into the sunlight and grass to read and be read to, to watch and listen and pay attention to all the creatures that make up the world we live in!

If you’d like to listen to more of Zai’s readings, visit our social media pages where we have more treats of its kind awaiting you!

Outro: In our next episode, we chat with Vijay Dasmana who describes himself as a rewilder–someone who looks at a degraded landscape and rewilds it. He shares his journey in rewilding the Aravalli Biodiversity Park in Gurgaon, the power of citizen action and why we need to relook at our idea of development and ask instead: ‘Development for whom?’ Don’t forget to listen in!

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This podcast was created by Srinidhi Raghavan, Deepika Khatri and Arpita Joshi. The Sound editing was by Vijay Chawla.