Arefa Tehsin and Chetan Sharma: Interviewed by Siddhartha Sarma
Says Siddhartha Sarma: Arefa Tehsin and Chetan Sharma’s Amra and the Witch (November 2018) is a delightful, quick-moving tale with memorable characters and clever word-pictures, besides drawings which stand out and add to the hilarity, in the best traditions of hOle books.
Amra, a Bhil village boy, is on his way to school when the sole of one of his long-suffering shoes comes off, forcing him to make a quick trip back home in the company of his best buddy, the relentlessly wacky Veerma (and his tyre). A accident with the maize pot (it wasn’t his fault!) and Amra needs to know, as he flees home for school, whether his mother saw him. The only person who can answer this is the Jeevti Dakkan, a witch who lives on the outskirts of the village. But she can be met only in the evening, and the two boys need to make it through school, where Ma’at Sa’ab and his moustache await. Needless to say, the day does not go well for them.
Tehsin drops the reader in the middle of the action, and this is one of the most delightful stories I have read in a long time, filled with memorable characters and dialogue that takes the reader along with the plot.
There might be a hOle in the book, but the story lets nothing slip by — I have seldom read such a small and thoroughly entertaining book so cleverly packed with glimpses into village life, in this case the Bhils. Their cuisine and local culture, preoccupations, dress, society, and even the everyday life of a village school, complete with the great concern that children have for the fate of the mid-day meal. Only a clever writer can pack so much with such deftness into a book of this size.
The illustrations are vivid, each turning up just where the reader wishes for one. I particularly recommend pages 21 and 53, for returning fans of hOle books.
SS to AT: The story, as you mention in the epigraph, is inspired by actual events witnessed by your father, the noted conservationist Raza H Tehsin. Could you tell us a little about these events? Did he actually come across two boys like Amra and Veerma?
AT: In fact, Daddy himself was the boy who encountered this witch in a wild ravine, one dark night in the 1960s. He used to live in a tattered hut in the remote forested hills of Aravali alone for months at end to look after one of his father’s mining operations, with only his gun as a companion. Two villagers had sought his help to tackle a couple of sambars that marauded their fields every night. My father, with his friends visiting him from the city, was crossing the bone-dry ravine with dry leaves blanketed on the forest floor when chammm… chammm…the spine-chilling sound of a witch’s anklets began following them. The villagers escorting them wanted to flee, and so did his friends. Before they could, he handed them his gun to hold the barrel. According to the prevalent superstition, if you were holding iron, spirits kept at bay. It didn’t take him long after that to stumble upon the wicked witch, like Amra did.
SS to AT: Veerma is perhaps the most whimsical character I have found in a book in a very long time. With just a piece of cloth as prop, he becomes a baniya (a village trader), a herb-selling woman and a fearsome dacoit. How many more characters does Veerma have, do you think?
AT: Countless, I’d like to believe. And he has not even met the politicians of our country yet!
SS to AT: Where does the delightful ‘corn song’ come from? Did you compose it yourself or is it a translation of a Bhil song?
AT: I composed it as I dream-walked in a cornfield with Amra and Veerma.
SS to AT: The banter between Amra and Veerma is priceless. Here is a memorable quote. They are on the run from an irate guard in a field. Amra asks Veerma why he fled with his tyre forgetting his best friend. Veerma retorts: ‘Everyone has a best friend. How many kids have a tyre?’ Couldn’t agree more. Did you have two (or more) real-life kids in mind while writing their dialogue?
AT: I’m afraid, it was all me. I suspect that like Veerma, I too suffer from this dastardly streak of a skin-changer when I plunge into a story.
As children, we did have close Bhil friends Veerma and Nauski to whom I’ve dedicated the book. I fondly remember having meals with them in their tiny mud hut, cooked by their mother – rich with the aroma of wood, and Veerma climbing up trees, nimble-limbed as a squirrel.
SS to AT: Have you come across a ‘Jeevti Dakkan’ in your travels in southern Rajasthan? Give us another witch story. Please?
AT: I haven’t, but my father has on numerous occasions. I’ll narrate a witch story from his book Steed of the Jungle God: Thrilling Experiences in the Wild.
It was a summer night in the year 1949. Raza, along with his brother Riaz, father whom they called Bapu and his friend Zakir bhai, were on their way back from their Chandesara soapstone mines. The gates of the walled city of Udaipur closed at midnight. If one wanted to leave or enter the city after that, a written permission was needed from the government of the Maharana. It was an independent India, but our state had not merged with the republic till the early 1950s.
Bapu stopped the car outside the city wall. He called the king’s policeman posted at Delhi Gate and showed him the permission letter. The guard opened the gate and they entered the deserted lanes of the city in their old B-model Ford.
They turned towards a narrow path, which led to their home. This was a sparsely populated area. The trembling shadows in the headlight of the car seemed like fleeing ghosts. As they took another turn, the headlight suddenly illuminated an old woman, wearing nothing but a loincloth around her waist and standing squarely in the middle of the lane. Bapu stopped the car. Wrinkles were visible all over her body and her skin looked like a water surface with frozen ripples. There were a few hair, bright white on her head. Bapu blew the horn many times. But neither did she look at the car nor budge from her position. Like the ripples on her skin, she, too, seemed frozen.
They remained there for about five minutes, with Bapu periodically blowing the horn. Without turning her head, the old woman took a few slow steps towards the side of the road. This gave Bapu enough space. He turned the steering and overtook the old woman. Even then, she didn’t look at the car. Everyone remained silent. Bapu stopped the car near his friend’s house. Zakir bhaicouldn’t contain himself any longer and uttered just two words as he stepped down, “Jeevti dakkan!” (living witch!)
Without replying to his friend’s remark, Bapu drove the kids home. After breakfast the next morning, he called Raza and Riaz.
“Did you see the old woman standing in the middle of the road last night?” Bapu asked.
“She didn’t look at the beam of the headlight nor did she respond to the periodic honks.”
To this also they replied, “Yes.”
“Zakir bhai said that she was a jeevti dakkan.”
“There is no such thing.”
Now they didn’t know what to say.
In that era, there were no toilets in the houses. Every colony had open community toilets, separate for ladies and gents. These places were called dhondhe.
Bapu explained, “From the physical condition of that woman you can very well gauge that she was almost deaf. She must be blind too due to cataract. Neither the beam affected her eyes nor was she able to hear the honking. She must have come out for nature’s call and was going towards the open-air community toilets. As blind people do, she moved by habit and memory on her usual path towards the dhondha. No such thing like jeevti dakkanexists. Do not be afraid of such things in life if you want to enjoy the solitude of the jungles.”
That logical explanation was embedded on their tender brains and every time they came across a strange phenomenon, they tried to analyse it rationally.
SS to CS: Did you have any particular motifs in mind while making the illustrations for this story? The clothes and houses are based on real-life counterparts. Do the illustrations also give a nod to Bhil art?
CS: The pictures arise from the story and from personal experience and research. I had a great experience being part of a Bollywood film (where Big B’s titular character was named after the legendary Bhil — Eklavya, 2007) shot around Udaipur several years ago…
Imagination works with memories to create a movie in the mind’s eye… the spirit of the people, the children, the posture, the heat, the dryness, the dust, all this plays in one’s head… Research fills in on the specifics; in this case, there were a bunch of documentary shorts available online that refreshed the memory of the very remote parts of Rajasthan as well as provided an insight into their lifestyle.
Unfortunately, there wasn’t scope in this style of pictures to play around with Bhil art though a picture book would certainly allow that adventure!
Here we must make the story come alive and add to the excitement of the narrative…
SS to CS: The art really pulls the reader along, and puts a smile on her face. There is a great sense of energy, of animation, running through the drawings. I particularly recommend the reader (again) to take a look at page 53, which made me crack up.
This is your second hOle book. Do you prefer a different treatment for the art in this series?
CS: Thank you for really seeing the pictures and enjoying them so… Being an animation filmmaker, I see the story as a film, especially a great telling as this is, and I want to capture those moments that leap out at me; some which convey the excitement of events and some which help us ‘feel’ the space, the world of the story, the mood so as to convey the experience of the story as if it were happening to us. As if we were there.
The format of the hOle books makes one think in very economical terms. Actually, illustrated chapter books with black-and-white illustrations were a childhood favourite of mine! To be able to provide a similar experience to young readers is one of the highs of working on hOle books. The black lines must communicate everything. That and a minimal amount of shading to accentuate important elements is all you have to create the whole world of the story!
SS: How does one collaborate on a story like this? How did you decide which scenes or objects and characters would get visually represented? Could you tell us a bit about the process? Also (again!) whose idea was page 53?
AT: The entire credit for conceptualizing and breathing life into the characters goes to Chetan and the editor of this story, Sayoni. Maybe Chetan can tell you a little more about it.
CS: Heh! Sayoni waved her magic wand and wrote me an email!
On reading the script, you get a sense of these characters. The sketches try to pin their spirit down in a few rough lines. We may sometimes differ on some details. For example I initially saw Amra as being lanky as it gave him a very interesting movement, which you can see a glimpse of in the picture of the shoes falling apart and when he is making a dash from home! So even though he became a bit younger and shorter, his essential personality didn’t change at all. His face, his expressions, his essential attitude were very clear to me. Veerma won everybody’s heart in the first sketch itself! He is really something. I am a bit like him today. I was like Amra when I was a kid!
In terms of the process, I do like to know what the editor would like to see in the pictures, considering they are living with the script and story for a while already before it comes to me and they also know the writer’s mind to an extent. So they prepare a wish list.
But the story really shows you the sights and sounds. In fact, I made many more sketches than we could use in this book! Even the final list was more than the stipulated number, but it just had to be done. All the pictures you see in the book just had to be done! Our little Bhil heroes just had to get the best treatment I could muster. I do think that not a lot of stories are told of other communities where their ‘otherness’ is not the key thing of the book. That is what makes this telling such fun for me. It’s a completely normal adventure and its exotic elements are so matter of fact and so straightforward.
The picture of Amra bursting into Jeevti Dakkan’s hut made itself. He got so frustrated that he just burst into the hut! This full-page picture is one of the unscheduled ones. Everyone was as surprised as Veerma. I am very grateful they used all the pictures! Jai ho Duckbill godmothers (or good witches, ‘Badakiachoch dakkan’?) ki for bringing this about!