Ponytale Books with Martin Kämpchen on his book Together We are Strong!
You have never written a book for young readers before. You are known in Germany as well as in India as a writer of books on Rabindranath Tagore, on Indian philosophy or literature and on Indo-German cultural relations. We know that you have translated Tagore’s poetry and Sri Ramakrishna’s conversations… How did this book come about?
First of all, I have also written fiction, but always in German. A novel on the life in an Indian tribal village was quite successful. I have done several volumes of short stories, all on Indian life. I often read from them when in Germany for lectures and seminars. The book Together We are Strong! is a first on several counts. It is the first fiction that I have written in English, and the first book for children.
Well, how did it come about? – In the years 2013 to 2015 I visited Nepal several times. The first time, I was invited by German friends to a trek in the Manaslu region. I was afraid that I would not be strong enough, that I would get sick or have an accident. One of the native guides – his name was Madan – lead me safely through the ups and downs of this experience, walking one step behind me for two weeks. With him following me, the trek became one of the great experiences of my life. I was full of gratitude and befriended Madan. At that moment, he had just qualified for joining University. But he and his family were too poor to afford several years of University studies in Kathmandu. So I promised to sponsor him.
Twice the young student took me to his village in Solukhumbu District for about a week each. There was no tourism, I witnessed the life of the mountain people, their struggles and their joys. The rhythm of their life entered me.
At the beginning of his studies what Madan needed most was a better knowledge of English. What could I do for him sitting in Santiniketan (West-Bengal) where I live since many decades? – I wrote short, simple stories in English about two children in his village, Merangdi… That is how it started. After having written three or four such episodes, I sent him a list of questions. Then I realized that my English was still too difficult for him. But I had caught fire. I continued to write one episode after another about Ramu and Tara and could not stop. I lived in a cloud of happiness when I wrote these stories.
Did you take Madan and his family as models for your stories?
No, I did not. Ramu and Tara are characters who are as much part of myself as they are part of the people I met at Merangdi. Only the Grandfather in the book is perhaps directly modeled on Madan’s grandfather whom I loved. He has expired in the meantime.
The characters are “part of yourself”, you say. What do you mean by that?
The characters are creations of my imagination. But they live in a mountain environment which exists as I have described it. The problems and the situations I narrate are very much the problems and the situations the people of Merangdi experience.
But Ramu and Tara experience the world around them in a very special way. They have a direct relationship with people, with animals, trees, the mountains and the valleys. What made you imagine them with such as gift?
To answer this question, I must go back to my life in Santiniketan. The most transformational inspiration I received have been the poems of Rabindranath Tagore. The poet evokes that spirit of communality with nature, with the cosmos. Trees are creatures fashioned by God just like us. We are co-creatures with the trees, the flowers, the rocks and the rivers. Once we have deeply imbibed such a view everything around us changes. I find such a cosmic attitude most befitting and natural within the glorious environment of the Himalaya. I have seen hints of such an attitude in the youngsters I have met in Merangdi. Or perhaps, I have dreamt myself into such a cosmic attitude through Ramu and Tara. And I wish that all my readers feel inspired and are animated by the way Ramu and Tara see the world.
Do you interact with children in your daily life?
Yes, I do. About twenty years ago, I have, together with several tribal (Santal) men, founded a village school for Santal children. It has grown and prospered. We have hostel students and day students. I visit the school regularly and tremendously love to be with the children. I have no children of my own – so all of them are “my children”.
Tell me about your own childhood in Germany.
Well, I grew up next to a farm, in a rural area. I helped the farmers when I was free after school, I went to the fields, took the cows and oxen to the meadow for grazing… I simply loved the rural pattern of my life. And farming sixty years ago was still without tractors and machines for mowing and reaping. It was basic and beautiful. Coming to think of it, this early experience very much played into the spirit of Together We are Strong!
Whom do you want to read your book? Who will be your readers?
I want my readers to be all young people especially in the towns and cities who have no direct contact with nature, with animals, with mountains and valleys, rivers and woods. I want them to taste the purity of life through this book.
But I also I want my readers to be adults – the parents of children, the teachers of primary schools and all readers who are able to savour the taste of life as seen through the experience of two lovely children. I think the book can refresh the mind of every adult reader who is open and receptive.
Ramu is a curious young boy with an eagerness to grow up. How did you conceive this character?
I am intrigued by the combination of childlikeness and wisdom which I see in Ramu. It does exist in children, I believe, although perhaps not with such intensity.
Ramu has a very fascinating thought process, the way he thinks sheds a lot of light on the perspective of a “six maybe seven year old”. Why did you choose Ramu as your voice for this book?
Well, “my voice” is actually the dialogue between Ramu and Tara. They often differ in their approach to life, but ultimately they always come together. It is childlike, pure love which brings them together and makes them “strong”.
In Together We are Strong!, there is an incidence in ‘Tara Defies the Silly Rain’, where Ramu wants to meet Tara but he is stopped by his father, and it is Tara who braves the rain and perhaps parental pressure to meet Ramu to placate him. You find the intuitiveness at play again. What is it that you would like to convey to your female readers through Tara?
You are giving the answer! It is intuition – which in children can be unalloyed. No rational thinking or any other factor comes in the way. Ramu and Tara are so well attuned to each other that they intuitively know what the other needs and thinks. Here Tara is often Ramu’s teacher, she, more strongly than Ramu, follows her powers of intuition.
Nature plays a pivotal role in your book, be it in the form of the Himalayan mountains, the rain, or the plum tree. Knowing that a large majority of your readers would be from the cities, is there a specific reason for you to have set the adventures of Ramu in the countryside? Is this a conscious stand on your part for “environmentalism”?
A good story never proclaims a message in a straight-forward manner. For that the form of an essay is best. A story is left to interpretation. It is meant to set the readers’ own thoughts and feelings in motion. Thereafter, the readers may formulate the “message” of the story, not the writer. Obviously nature is very important to me and I want to instill that love into my readers, young and old. Nature is alive, vibrant, it has personality, feelings, a soul, many souls…
Do you think children’s literature can play a role in addressing issues like lack of amenities and employment, poverty, and education for all? Do you think that to some extent these are topics that are usually avoided around children?
I am not knowledgeable about children’s literature in India. So I cannot judge. But I do believe that children should face the problems of poverty, injustice, disadvantage, lost childhood – but in a manner children can understand and relate to.
Are you working on any other writing projects at the moment? Do you plan on writing more children’s fiction in the future?
Yes, until the end of August 2017 I have a Fellowship at the Indian Institute of Advanced Study in Shimla. I write a book on Rabindranath Tagore’s educational ideas comparing them with the educational ideas of the German educator Paul Geheeb. The two met in Germany in 1930 and felt that their schools supported very similar ideas. After completing this book, I shall begin another children’s book, set in an Indian Adivasi village. Really, I cannot wait to start.
What is your writing routine? What was the process of writing Together We are Strong! – did you follow a particular schedule?
I always begin writing very early and try not to interrupt myself or get interrupted until noon. As to Together We are Strong! I wrote whenever a new episode popped into my mind. So I followed no routine. It was a haphazard process, but Ramu and Tara and their village environment were always revolving in my mind. I was living with them the whole day.
What is it that you find the hardest part of writing?
Writing the first draft is easy while it happens. But while I write there is the fear of failure always lurking in the back of my mind. A few years ago I began writing a novel after elaborate preparation. After a few months I realized that I could not continue. I had to abandon the project.
What do you think is the best thing about being an author?
To be an author! By that I mean to be able to create, to have that glorious freedom to create a story, to create a universe apart from one’s own life’s universe. True writers are co-creators with the Creator God. Writers live twice – in their own life and in their stories!
The book is riddled with messages of wrongs and rights for the younger generation. Is there a particular message you want to give to your readers apart from the ones already added in your book?
A children’s story should of course show their readers how they can and should lead their life. But a good story need not express a message in so many words. The message is embedded in the story, the readers will find the “message” themselves if the story impacts them emotionally.