Two teen authors from India and Pakistan who recently published their first novels both began writing during the COVID-19 lockdowns. Meeting for the first time at an online discussion, they discovered they had a lot in common.
Pahal Wasu, 15, hails from Noida, outside New Delhi, and lives in Sydney, Australia. Aminah Alavi, 17, lives in Karachi. Both attend schools with good libraries that teachers encourage students to use frequently, and from where students are required to check out books on a regular basis.
Pahal wrote The Boot House Breakthrough (Writer’s Collective, Bengaluru, 2022), a novel in English, for young readers. It tells the story of three friends who come together in a strange place where they connect with one another in a way that changes their lives.
Aminah’s book, about two best friends, Aik Sabak Seekha, or ‘A Lesson Learnt’ (Idara-e-Taleem-o-Agahi, the Institution for Education and Awareness, Lahore, December 2021), was published in English and Urdu.
They first came together at an informal virtual discussion organised by Tanay Agarwal of the Indo Pak Book Lovers Club, a cross-border online book club he initiated in October 2020.
“We just talked on Zoom like we were in a cafe!” Agarwal says. “At the end of that intro session, they exchanged numbers.”
That session was an important preparation for the public session two days later titled – ‘How to inculcate reading habits and writing skills in children’, broadcasted live on Facebook Sunday, 29 May 2022. “At such a young age they have accomplished something many adults find difficult,” he told Sapan News later.
A business consultant by day – “all left-brain activities – number crunching, data analysis, spreadsheets”, the Mumbai-based Agarwal spends his evenings on “right-brain activities”, involving books and stories. Leading the discussion, he gently drew out the young writers with questions about their journey, reading habits and family situations, exploring what helped them, and how they developed a love for literature that enabled them to evolve as writers.
The conversation, interspersed with giggles and laughter, reveals certain important catalysts in the young writers’ journeys. They may seem like prodigies, says Agarwal, but what makes them special is the evolutionary process rather than their genes. Speaking to Sapan News, he identified five factors in this process.
Family and upbringing
Pahal lives in a nuclear family, while Aminah lives in a joint family setup. In both cases, their parents and family members exposed them to wonderful stories at bedtime. Aminah’s father was the storyteller and Pahal’s mother inspired her to read different stories. Sometimes, the parents creatively made up their own stories.
The parents also started involving them in the storytelling process. Aminah’s father would ask her to narrate her own story. Pahal’s mother would encourage her to discuss and explore alternate endings of stories. This also enabled them to look for different stories in various children’s books. As they grew up, their parents encouraged them to choose their own books.
School and libraries
“There’s a connection that happens when everyone is sitting and reading in a library,” Pahal said. Aminah agreed. Both get excited about interesting books. If they come across one book after having already checked out another, they hide the new one to have it issued the following week.
As they both started exploring the world of literature, they developed friendships with like-minded children. Sometimes, friends would recommend books or, they would have conversations, arguments or debates about books. This healthy interaction with peers helped them delve deeper into literature.
Aminah in Karachi had access to initiatives of the Lahore-based ITA as well as the Pakistan Learning Festival (PLF), earlier known as the Children’s Literature Festival, annually held in cities around Pakistan.
Prominent Karachi-based children’s author and illustrator, Rumana Husain, is affiliated with both initiatives. Another prominent educationist, Baela Raza Jamil, in Lahore is the driving force behind both ITA and CLF/PLF. She is also a founder member of Sapan, the Southasia Peace Action Network, launched in 2021.
Projects of the ITA and CLF/PLF like their mobile library Kitab GaRi, and the Digi Kutub Khana which have learning kits enabling children to learn through stories, reach all segments of society in Pakistan.
Such community projects also inspire children to hone their literary skills, even if they don’t have supportive families, access to schooling, or like-minded peer groups, says Agarwal.
A child’s first mentor is usually a parent. Other mentors can be someone who provides professional support and guidance. In Payal’s case, her mentor was also her publisher, Maitabi Banerjee, an acquaintance of her mother’s. Aminah’s mentor is the prominent children’s author and illustrator, Rumana Husain, who is affiliated with CLF/PLF.
Sadly, not all children are privileged enough to have access to all five factors, but exposure to even one or two of these can change outlooks — and lives, experts believe.
“Reading and writing are two sides of the same coin when it comes to literature,” says Tanay Agrawal. “The more stories children read and hear, the more they will be inclined to creatively compose their own stories.” And the more children write stories, the more they will read to explore different writing styles.
Aminah was initially more interested in swimming than writing, but after witnessing her father’s epileptic attack, she felt the need to learn and write about epilepsy. One of her key tips for writers is to “just start writing immediately, whatever thoughts come to your mind and then make the necessary revisions along the way.”
“If you are writing for the short term, then write on something that is close to your heart. If you want to continue writing, consistency is important,” says Pahal. She admired J.K. Rowling after reading the Harry Potter series and wanted to write like her one day. She was also inspired to start writing poetry after reading a song in the story that she felt had more emotions than the story itself. Now, she wants to write a young adult novel.
Encouraging and supporting children to follow their heart’s desires rather than obstructing them opens doors for young writers and artists, Agarwal says. “If parents really want to see their children love literature and books, they themselves have to start reading,” he adds. “Had Pahal’s mother or Aminah’s father not loved stories and books, these two would not have accomplished what they have.”
Beena Sarwar is a journalist, co-founder and curator Southasia Peace Action Network, Sapan.
Featured image: Teen authors, Aminah Alavi (right) in Karachi and Pahal Wasu (left) in Sydney/Noida/ Photo: Provided by the author