Interview by Pankhuri Kumar and Akanksha Sharma
We are in conversation with Benita Sen, prolific author, editor and journalist. Benita weaves beautiful values into the stories that she writes. An ardent animal lover and a supporter of environmental conservation and sustainability, Benita’s books have also been presented to Michelle Obama. Join us in discovering what makes this lovely author tick, in our interview with Benita below.
Benita Sen: The Indian author who weaves values into her stories
Do tell us something about yourself and how you entered the world of writing.
I am a features journalist and a children’s author. To cut a long story short, I grew up in Kolkata and then married an Armyman. Since family is important to me, we moved together, wherever possible. That meant moving on from some exciting jobs with outlets like The Economic Times and Femina.
I would not be me if I could not do several things in a day, so I enjoy editing a B2B magazine just as much as I like completing a series of eight value education books for school students.
I need to be in touch with plants and other animals like birds and the first thing I do every day is to set out food and clean water for them.
I enjoy making things, which gets translated into books of handicrafts. Recently, I took art lessons and enjoyed them.
One of my inspirations is the thought that you need to thank life for giving you another day to become a better person.
Speaking of life and inspiration, are any of your books based on your childhood experiences?
When I write, something of my life invariably slips into my writing. I am working on a collection of stories from the Kolkata of my childhood. Those were charming times, and there is much to cherish from then. I hope to find a publisher who can relate to that.
Some day, when I find a publisher, I would like to write about all the animals, feathered and furred, that have come in and out of my life. My parents and I have rescued and raised all sorts of creatures from a crow to a bulbul. Three of our four dogs have been adopted, and each one merits a chapter at least. Although our tiny, simple home is tucked in at the back of my grandparents’ house and the approach is a very narrow gully, all kinds of birds and animals, including those in trouble and in need of a place to recover, keep coming in. I even had a calf for a friend.
You have written stories on a wide variety of topics for children. You have also spoken at a lot of different schools and venues. Which has been the most interesting venue with the most enthusiastic crowd?
Children and young people bring out the best in me. I love their energy and enthusiasm, their bright faces. Almost all the sessions have been amazing, so it won’t be easy to select one. One of the most memorable was in a village far from Kalimpong where the children, I was told by the organiser, did not speak much Hindi. My Nepali, in spite of my efforts, is really alikati (little). I was wondering how we would communicate especially since I was going to teach them about the environment. But we broke the ice with references to Shah Rukh Khan films and there was no looking back. I guess I need to thank SRK for that.
Recently, I faced the most amazing, lively audience in DPS Megacity, Kolkata. We were discussing my book on how the people of the Indus Valley Civilisation were environmentally more ‘green’ than we are. The students rocked the auditorium.
Do you give a lot of importance to the reviews that your books receive?
I guess one ought to take reviews seriously since they can help you improve. However, I forget to look for reviews. When I finish one project, I just go on to the next. I write because I have something to write. As they say, a bird does not sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song. The few reviews I have seen are often pointed out to me by acquaintances.
I have stumbled across reviews while searching for something quite different, online. So, the reviews could be months or years old. I feel awful for not having reacted to a child’s review and try to make amends by replying as soon as I find a review but I do not look for them.
How did you feel when your books were given to Michelle Obama?
The books were selected and handed over by the publisher, Pratham. Thankfully, I learnt about it from my editor only after the books had been given to her. It was a humbling feeling. My first thought was, “Really? I guess they had to give her something.” The next thought was with Yakity, the talkative little yak. He’s also been selected by someone kind (I have no idea who) for the Nami Book Fair in Korea. I’m glad that an animal from a part of the country close to my heart, the north-east, is getting known.
Does being multi-lingual gives you an edge over the other writers?
Like most answers in life, I’d say, yes and no. I’ve had the privilege of reading brilliant work for children in Bengali, Hindi and in English. However, I don’t believe language alone can give a creative person an edge because some of the most brilliant children’s authors have been unilingual. I have written some scripts in Hindi. What has helped is my training in dance and music. I studied Kathak for over 14 years and I practised the piano with a metronome. In Kathak, we were taught to set the same bol to different rhythms. So, rhyme comes naturally to me but I sometimes find that editors are not comfortable with unconventional rhyme schemes.
Please share some advice for writers looking to get published? How can they connect with publishers?
While there are more writers today than, say, 25 years ago, there are also more publishers and a lot of opportunities that you can access through social media. I have seldom met publishers in person, although I gather that is a good way to go about getting published. That’s not my style. Most of my work has been sent to an editor over email or when the publisher has asked for a submission. I guess each author has a distinct way of working.
Which is the one cause that you feel strongly for and relate to?
The well-being of ownerless, homeless, abandoned and/or injured dogs and cats is dear to my heart. For years now, I have given several hours of my day to trying to find them homes or help. It’s strange how life comes full circle. Some years ago, a neighbourhood dog was hit by a car outside our home. We had her treated but she lost one front leg. We tried to find her a home, since she is young and we cannot match her energy levels, but she found no takers. One NGO even asked me to put her back on the street giving me the logic that there are many three-legged dogs on the road. We could not do that knowing that she fell a victim to a vehicle on a busy street even when she had all four limbs. With one gone, she would be even more vulnerable. Well, to cut a long story short, she has come home to roost with us. She is active but needs some special consideration like getting in and out of the car, so we need to be alert to things that challenge her. So, now we live the cause that I feel so much about.
Please share a message with the readers of Indspire Me, who want to follow their passion and achieve their dreams.
There is nothing original that I can come up with but I have been inspired by an interview with Mrinal Pande. She said something that I interpreted as, just hang in there.