How ‘Susheela’s Kolams’ took shape

We’re so excited about the International Literacy Day event when our champions will read from ‘Susheela’s Kolams’ across the length and breadth and diagonals of the country! Author Sridala Swamy wrote the story, working with illustrator Priya Kuriyan at the workshop that Pratham Books had held in Delhi last year to bring out good Level 1 books. Writing for little ones is a big challenge. One has to engage them, make them want to read, welcome them on a journey into books, AND use the simplest of words and concepts to achieve that. How did Sridala come up with this idea for her book? Here it is in Sridala’s own words:
 About Writing Susheela’s Kolams : 
There was only one time in my life when I made a kolam. 
Like lots of other children growing up in the 70s, I used to practise drawing kolams at the back of a rough notebook. We began with simple 3-5-7 dots a line patterns, then attempted more complicated ones and challenged each other to see who could finish their kolam first without any mistakes. But these attempts never made it out of the page. 
My mother on the other hand…I have never seen my mother draw a single kolam in a book. In fact, I have never seen her draw a kolam with dots. What she does is what my grandmother does: freehand kolams made with rice flour. 
On our doorstep is a small dabba with rice flour in it. Every morning, my mother brings out a small bucket of water, sprinkles the ground with water to settle the dust and begins to make her kolam for the day. I never know what it will be. She bends over, takes a pinch of flour between her fingers pauses for a moment and begins. It always begins with a line so straight you’d think there was a ruler involved. In minutes, there’s a neat, absolutely proportionate and beautiful pattern just below our first step. 
When I was in my rebellious teens, my mother tried to get me to do things she thought every girl should be able to do. So I found myself with a cup of flour and a clean patch of ground. Not even a Cubist would call the line I drew a straight one: when the flour poured out from between my fingers, the line was smudgy and thick. Mostly, it looked like a series of slashes or dots. At 14, the kolam I had made resembled the first scribbles of a child holding an unaccustomed crayon in her hands.
I never tried again. But I watched my mother as she made her kolams and my grandmother as she made hers. I watched as the canvas expanded during festivals to include large areas of the garden, the corners of steps and the edges of floors. I listened as they spoke about the kolams they had made years ago and I felt left out of this community of shared talent. 
Many years later, for the first time in my life I found myself completely alone on Diwali in Delhi. My family was elsewhere and I was alone. I stood at my door and contemplated the mosaic and wondered if a kolam would show. Remembering my ineptness with powder, I decided to make a traditional Diwali kolam with wet rice flour. I tore a bit of cloth, dipped it in the flour and pictured to myself the kolams of Diwalis past. 
Under my fingers, the patterns grew: there was the basic square, embellished with semi-circles and spirals around the corners; there were lotus patterns and wavy lines for where the floor met the wall. At some point my neighbour came out to watch. She brought me a cup of tea and we chatted. I confessed that this was my first ever kolam and she looked as astonished as I felt. When I told my mother over the phone, her disbelief was overlaid with other complicated emotions that I could practically hear over the long-distance call. 
All these things were in my mind when I wrote Susheela’s Kolams. I didn’t necessarily want to put all of it into my very short story, but they were all there, like encouraging ghosts, as I began to write. 
I wanted it to be fun and expansive and just a little impossible. I wanted my Susheela to be the wizard of rice flour. I wanted all things to be possible for her. Like Henry with his magic purple crayon, I wanted Susheela to have to ability to bring the world into being or at the very least, to be able to reframe it within the lines of her kolam. 
The world is Susheela’s canvas and the wonderful thing is that the adult world does not think of her talent as vandalism. No one tells her she mustn’t draw on the sides of buildings or asks her what she thinks she’s doing, scribbling on the outside of trains. For a child, such a world exists only in the imagination. 
And where else can the imagination be fearless and free if not in stories? 
Thank you Sridala! And thank you Priya for getting all of Susheela’s kolams into the book….a book which is going to be read by thousands of little girls and boys soon.

Read more interviews with Pratham Books authors and illustrators.

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