Guest Post by Achintyarup Ray: The World of Jhupli
Author Achintyarup Ray talks about how his daughter, his many visits to Sundarban, and his own childhood experiences inspired him to write Jhupli's Honey Box...
In the south of Bengal, where big rivers, small rivers, their branches, tributaries and creeks create a maze of islands, there lies a deep forest. Or, we should say, clusters of forests. Because, these islands, big and small, are more than a hundred in number and around half of them are covered with forests. The other half, however, is inhabited by people. There are villages – big and small, with houses and shops, marketplaces and schools...
On one such island in this region called Sundarban lives Jhupli, the main character of our book. She is the daughter of a honey-gatherer. Her father has to go deep inside the forests to collect honey, and these forests are full of man-eating tigers. Like Jhupli's family, thousands of poor people who live in these areas are dependent on the produce from the forest. But their work is fraught with danger. In our story, Jhupli finds a way to make their job safer.
This is my first attempt at writing for children. A few days ago, someone asked me what prompted me to write this story. The answer is simple — my six-year-old daughter. It was for her that I started writing this. I typed a few words on my phone, and then a few more words and then a few more... and there was the story. With some hesitation, I sent it to the publisher, and it was selected! Initially, the main character had some other name. Later, I decided to name her after my daughter – Jhupli.
I came to know that Shivam, an artist from Chhattisgarh who was doing the illustrations, had never been to Sundarban. So, I sent him photographs that I had clicked during my numerous trips there, and his rendering of them was beautiful.
But the reader keeps asking questions. Jhupli is a village girl, from a family that is not well-off. So how did I, living in a metro, know about her day-to-day life? About her home, how she goes to school, what she eats, how anxiously she waits for her father every day... I didn't have to try much for that. I was a village boy till I moved to a town when I started going to college. So I know what life in a village is like. As for Sundarban, I have been going there since my early teens. And never as a tourist. Two of my uncles lived on an island there, so I would go there often. And much much later, when I was translating a book (The Hungry Tide by Amitav Ghosh) into Bengali, I visited the region several times, because the book had been written in the backdrop of the ‘Tide Country’ – Sundarban.
Then came Aila, a devastating cyclone that ravaged the region. The scars that it left in its wake in 2009 are yet to be healed. At that time, I went as a reporter (I am a journalist by profession). I have lost count of the number of times I have been to those islands big and small, islands occasionally visited by man-eaters, islands where health centres prominently display posters explaining what to do if someone is attacked by a tiger. I have stayed there, with the villagers, in their homes, listened to their stories, shared their food with them... So, I have a good idea of what life in Sundarban is like.
And I can well imagine the unease of a little girl who waits for her father who has gone to the forest to collect honey – forests from which not everybody comes back. To write about Jhupli's anxiety, I just had to look back at some evenings from my childhood. Our village was quite a few kilometres away from Kolkata. It used to take more than three hours to get there. Sometimes, Baba would go to the city for some work. And I would wait for him with my heart in my mouth because the roads were not safe after dark. Accidents were frequent. I remember, I would keep asking my mother every now and then when Baba would return. “Where is he now?”... and then again, after a few minutes... “Has he reached such and such place? Is his bus crossing that bridge now?” Whatever else I did, the thought remained in the back of my mind. In those days, there was no mobile phone, no GPS, no tracker... And finally, when Baba entered the house, pushing his bicycle, it was a great relief.
That anxiety of a child about his father found expression in this book written by a father for his daughter.
Buy a copy of Jhupli's Honey Box here!