Rilla Alexander: Without the doing, dreaming is useless

Sticking with ideas from beginning to end is always difficult; more so in any sort of creative field where it almost always requires self-motivation. When it comes to writing, I have terrible discipline. I’m easily distracted by anything that doesn’t require sitting down and actually working on the ideas my brain throws out. But the thing is, the ideas don’t leave me alone. So it isn’t an entirely comfortable existence, this grapple between imaginary goals and spectacular laziness.

Which is why I was thrilled to see I wasn’t alone in this! In this excellent video, designer and illustrator Rilla Alexander addresses the pervading issue of the creative struggle. She provides examples from her own life and at the end of the video, she reads from her picture book. Her character Sozi daydreams, procrastinates, sets deadlines, gets tempted by new ideas, buckles down and works hard – and finally – she realizes Her Idea.

Image courtesy Flying Eye Books

Image courtesy Flying Eye Books

I found myself agreeing to everything she said. Inspired by her similar list of problems, I’m going to try and stick to a steady diet of work, starting with a minimum commitment of an hour a day. That doesn’t sound too bad, does it? (“Ha!” snorts the derisive voice from my future)

Among other things she discusses the life-cycle of an idea right from the initial “I love it! I’m so excited to create!” stage to the middle stage of procrastination and the happy/unhappy ending (depending on whether you choose to finish the work or not).

She also has great advice for struggling artists:

  • Deadlines give you realistic expectations. Instead of being preoccupied by how wonderful your idea is, concentrate on getting it done and actually make it happen
  • Break down the idea into small tasks rather than focusing on the whole goal
  • Avoid getting distracted by new ideas by writing them all down in an idea book so you can focus on the task at hand
  • There’s always going to be another idea that looks better but that’s only because you’re not working on it. If you were, you would also discover its flaws and failures
  • Don’t abandon this idea, don’t cripple it with self doubt – just keep working

A collection of retellings from Indian mythology and Western fairy tales

A school recently asked me to start a reading club for their students, and I had my first session on Saturday. While a club celebrating books sounded right up my alley, I decided to cast the net wider by looking at stories in all formats including but not limited to films, TV shows, cartoons, podcasts, Youtube videos, video games, music, photography, comic books, Facebook, Twitter, and possibly, in a future session, stories told entirely through emojis.

I didn’t want to throw them off the deep end on the very first session, though, so I started off simple. The session focused on retellings.

A poet and scholar called A. K. Ramanujan said, “In India and in Southeast Asia, no one ever reads the Ramayana or the Mahabharata for the first time. The stories are there, ‘always already’.”

This is true of Indian mythology and it’s also true of fairy tales the world over. These stories are so old, that they never go out of fashion. Everyone knows them, or knows of them.

But my favourite versions of these tales are retellings, a new way to tell an old story. If a book promises to be an imaginative version of ancient mythology, or if it features fractured fairy tales, I’ll instantly add it to my to-read list. I love it when familiar plot lines are turned upside down, or everyone acts out of character, or even when they’re all transported to another time/world.

I think retellings are so popular partly because we know these old stories so thoroughly that they become exciting and fun when they don new avatars. But I think the problematic aspects of these old narratives also plays a role in us seeking new versions – the casual sexism, the one-dimensional characters, the insistence on being either wholly good or wholly evil without any in-between, the blatant fear of anything or anyone who is different.

To be fair, we live in a different world from when these stories were first told. We have different values, our sense of morality has shifted. I love retellings precisely because we’re free to do absolutely anything with the original stories. The characters and plots are such an intrinsic part of our cultural consciousness, that we can make them more interesting by playing around with them. We know the rules well enough so that bending them doesn’t pose too much of a problem.

Which brings me to the list the title promised.


sita's ramayanaSita’s Ramayana by Samhita Arni

This is an utterly gorgeous book, which features the Ramayana from Sita’s perspective – a point of view not many people seem to be familiar with. Only a handful of the students (between grades 5 and 8) were aware of Sita’s circumstances after the war. The book breaks down the narrative and relays the story simply, without any dramatic flourishes but with a great deal of compassion. If you’d like to take a look at the making of the book, you can read this.

Suggested age: 12+

palaceThe Palace of Illusions by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

It’s an approach similar to Sita’s Ramayana, in that it’s the Mahabarata from Draupadi’s (or Panchaali, as she’s known here) point of view. But it widens the scope and is richer in details since it has much more room to play around with. What I found quite strange was that while the narrative seemed perfectly normal to me, apparently it had created a stir in some other quarters for being too feminist!

Suggested age: Not too many teens might find this appealing since Indian mythology isn’t considered cool, but for those who are interested, I’d say 12+

breaking the bowBreaking the Bow: Speculative Fiction Inspired by the Ramayana by Various Authors

Where else are you going to find an anthology with a time-travelling Sita, aliens in the Ramayana or Surpanakha as a reality TV show contestant?

Suggested age: Tough to peg an age limit for this one, but I’d say an advanced reader who isn’t afraid to experiment. And of course, any adults with a taste for the strange.

asuraAsura: Tale of the Vanquished by Anand Neelakantan

I haven’t read this book, but the premise sounds intriguing. You never hear about the Ramayana from Ravan’s perspective. This book’s definitely on my list.

Suggested age: Your guess is as good as mine.

ash mistryAsh Mistry and the Savage Fortress by Sarwat Chadda

This is a book trying to ride the Percy Jackson-induced mythology wave (OH for Rick Riordan to have a free rein to work on an Indian mythology-centric series). But it’s not half bad. Technically, it doesn’t count as a retelling, I suppose, but it’s still great fun. Our country’s ancient tales have so much retelling potential that I’d love to see this trend continue.

Suggested age: 9+

the wordkeepersThe Wordkeepers by Jash Sen

This is a fairly unconventional take on mythology. Like Ash Mistry and the Savage Fortress, it isn’t exactly a retelling – more like ancient mythology meets the modern world. The book features peripheral characters from the Mahabharata and has a fascinating blend of new characters, old myths and plenty of twists.

Suggested age: 12+


Also, watch the film Sita Sings the Blues (available for free here), an excellent version of the Ramayana.


revolting rhymesRevolting Rhymes by Roald Dahl

This is my favourite Dahl book. It’s his interpretation of six fairy tales, told in his inimitable style with dollops of wicked rhymes, clever schemes and surprise endings.

Suggested age: 10+

girls to the rescueGirls to the Rescue by Sowmya Rajendran

I love complaining about the princesses in fairy tales for being generally useless and spectacularly boring (I watched Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs for the first time a few weeks ago. What even was that?). Which is exactly why I love this book where the princesses do exactly what I’ve been wanting them to do. They take control of their own lives and manage to be interesting people I could actually imagine being friends with.

Suggested age: 10+

hero's guideA Hero’s Guide to Saving the Kingdom by Christopher Healy

This book is the first in The League of Princes series. The fairy tale princes are tired of being ignored and are determined to make a name for themselves. They set out to be heroes but they are astonishingly bad at the job. The book brings together characters from four different fairy tales – Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Rapunzel and Cinderella – and is the funniest thing I’ve read all year. If there’s just one book from the list you’ll read, make it this one. I can’t wait to read the other books in this series!

Suggested age: 9+ (If they’re reading Percy Jackson, they can handle this)

ali babaAli Baba and the Forty Thieves: Reloaded by Poulomi Mukherjee and Amit Tayal

I picked up this comic book from my library specifically for the club session. It transports the Arabian Nights tale to present day Mumbai where Ali Baba is an autorickshaw driver and the forty thieves are the Russian mafia. I thought the change in setting was pretty cool, but I expected the book to take more liberties with the plot. But it followed the same story as the original with a change in period.  I’d recommend it for people who aren’t too familiar with the original, or who don’t mind reading the same story in a different setting.

Suggested age: 10+

fairy tale twistsThe Fairy Tale Twists series by Katie Dale

This is an early chapter book series where the stories are told in rhyme and has really inventive twists to familiar tales. My favourite moment was in Prince Charming’s Princess Quest where the prince stumbles upon a seemingly dead Snow White who can only be brought back by true love’s kiss. His reaction? “I don’t even know her. How can I be her true love!” So one of the dwarfs, who does know Snow quite well, steps up to the job and kisses her instead. He turns out to be her true love and they live happily ever after!

cinderThe Lunar Chronicles by Marissa Meyer

I haven’t read this series, but it sounds fascinating. It’s essentially fairy tales in space, with some of the characters as robots. Each book entails a new take on an old fairy tale, including Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel and Snow White. The story takes place in a futuristic world where humans, cyborgs, and anrdroids all coexist.

Suggested age: From what I can make out, 13+

three little pigsThe True Story of the 3 Little Pigs by Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith

I’ve been looking out for this picture book for a couple of years now. It dismisses The Three Little Pigs as mere propaganda and tells you the other side of the story. What really happened when Alexander T. Wolf met the three pigs?

Suggested age: 6+

dorothy must die

Dorothy Must Die by Danielle Paige

As soon as I read the title, I knew I wanted to read the book (I haven’t managed to find a copy yet). It speaks of an Oz where the Good Witches are up to no good, the Wicked Witches may be the good guys, and Dorothy has gone on a power trip and taken over the kingdom.

Suggested age: 12+

alice in deadlandAlice in Deadland by Mainak Dhar

Alice in Wonderland is one of my favourite books. While I’m ambivalent about zombies, I love the idea of mixing the undead with Lewis Carroll’s crazy world. It’s the first book in the Alice in Deadland series.

Suggested age: 13+


Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Seth Grahame-Smith and Jane Austen, Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters by Ben H. Winters and Jane Austen. Yes. You’re welcome.

Rhyme and Reason: The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett

Rhyme and Reason is where the excerpts I enjoy, from books I’m currently reading, come to live.

The Secret Garden has been on my to-read list for a very long time, and on my tablet since last November. I started reading it earlier this week on the train back home from a weekend in Goa. The only reason I got around to it was because I had already finished the book I was carrying (Money for Nothing by P. G. Wodehouse) on the same train ride and had nothing else to read. And I’m so glad I had this book because I’m absolutely loving it. It has just the right balance of childlike wonder, gentle storytelling, magical descriptions, and a couple of kids who have to deal with the consequences of their spoiled brattiness, and are thus hugely interesting characters. This scene in particular made me laugh because of the way the main character and original brat, Mary, refuses to let her cousin (and new brat-in-chief), Colin, get his way as he’s accustomed to. You can read the book on Project Gutenberg here.

the secret garden

She thought it was the middle of the night when she was awakened by such dreadful sounds that she jumped out of bed in an instant. What was it—what was it? The next minute she felt quite sure she knew. Doors were opened and shut and there were hurrying feet in the corridors and some one was crying and screaming at the same time, screaming and crying in a horrible way.

“It’s Colin,” she said. “He’s having one of those tantrums the nurse called hysterics. How awful it sounds.”

As she listened to the sobbing screams she did not wonder that people were so frightened that they gave him his own way in everything rather than hear them. She put her hands over her ears and felt sick and shivering.

“I don’t know what to do. I don’t know what to do,” she kept saying. “I can’t bear it.”

Once she wondered if he would stop if she dared go to him and then she remembered how he had driven her out of the room and thought that perhaps the sight of her might make him worse. Even when she pressed her hands more tightly over her ears she could not keep the awful sounds out. She hated them so and was so terrified by them that suddenly they began to make her angry and she felt as if she should like to fly into a tantrum herself and frighten him as he was frightening her. She was not used to any one’s tempers but her own. She took her hands from her ears and sprang up and stamped her foot.

“He ought to be stopped! Somebody ought to make him stop! Somebody ought to beat him!” she cried out.

Just then she heard feet almost running down the corridor and her door opened and the nurse came in. She was not laughing now by any means. She even looked rather pale.

“He’s worked himself into hysterics,” she said in a great hurry. “He’ll do himself harm. No one can do anything with him. You come and try, like a good child. He likes you.”

“He turned me out of the room this morning,” said Mary, stamping her foot with excitement.

The stamp rather pleased the nurse. The truth was that she had been afraid she might find Mary crying and hiding her head under the bed-clothes.

“That’s right,” she said. “You’re in the right humor. You go and scold him. Give him something new to think of. Do go, child, as quick as ever you can.”

It was not until afterward that Mary realized that the thing had been funny as well as dreadful—that it was funny that all the grown-up people were so frightened that they came to a little girl just because they guessed she was almost as bad as Colin himself.

She flew along the corridor and the nearer she got to the screams the higher her temper mounted. She felt quite wicked by the time she reached the door. She slapped it open with her hand and ran across the room to the four-posted bed.

“You stop!” she almost shouted. “You stop! I hate you! Everybody hates you! I wish everybody would run out of the house and let you scream yourself to death! You will scream yourself to death in a minute, and I wish you would!” A nice sympathetic child could neither have thought nor said such things, but it just happened that the shock of hearing them was the best possible thing for this hysterical boy whom no one had ever dared to restrain or contradict.

He had been lying on his face beating his pillow with his hands and he actually almost jumped around, he turned so quickly at the sound of the furious little voice. His face looked dreadful, white and red and swollen, and he was gasping and choking; but savage little Mary did not care an atom.

“If you scream another scream,” she said, “I’ll scream too—and I can scream louder than you can and I’ll frighten you, I’ll frighten you!”

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett