Roopa Pai is one of India's foremost authors of children's books. Her works include the 8- part Taranauts series, The Gita: For Children, What if The Earth Stopped Spinning? And 24 Other Mysteries of Science, So You Want To Know About Economics and My Space My Body Starring Taka Dimi.
Her latest offering is Ready! 99 Must Have Skills for the World Conquering Teenager (And Almost Teenager) is written for the teenager who interacts and connects with the world in new ways. The book is written in her quintessential informal but well-researched and articulate style. A teenager who spends time doing the tasks enumerated in the book by collaborating with their squad will come out feeling more confident about themselves and fully able to what else...conquer the world! Not unlike a chrysalis emerging from the pupa.
What prompted you to write Ready! 99 Must- Have Skills for the World Conquering Teenager (And Almost Teenager)?
The original idea actually came from Thomas Abraham, Managing Director at Hachette India. He had been a Scout growing up, I think, and had always wanted Hachette to do a life skills book inspired by the Scouts and Guides movement, but in a contemporary context. My editor Vatsala Kaul-Banerjee asked me to start thinking about it - she felt I would be able to do justice to it. The idea of doing something around the Scouts and Guides movement got me excited as well - I had been a Bulbul and a Girl Guide for some years while I was growing up, and my family was full of people who had been part of The Bharat Scouts and Guides and led the movement as District Commissioners all over Karnataka. And that was how the seed for Ready! was planted.
Has the idea for this book been on your mind for a while? How long did it take for this book to take shape in your mind and then to actual writing?
So as I said, I was familiar with the Scouts and Guides movement, but I knew little about its founder other than his name. The first thing that I did once I had agreed to do this project, therefore, was to begin reading about him. What I discovered fascinated me - British war-hero B-P had been an extraordinary man. His wonderfully child-like sense of wonder, curiosity, and adventure, keenly tempered by a deep and unequivocal sense of duty and loyalty to himself, his regiment, his community and his country, totally endeared him to me - I wanted to be B-P when I grew up! In fact, I wanted EVERYONE to be B-P when they grew up, especially all the kids I knew (and didn't know). I was inspired to write a book that would appeal to and be relevant to today's teenagers, which was based on some key concepts of the Scouts movement - like the merit badges and challenges and stuff. It would be a book in which the spirit of B-P and his movement were kept vibrantly alive, and the values that were so dear to him - self-reliance, cheerfulness, resourcefulness, curiosity, taking joy in the natural world - were upheld (because those are classic and timeless), but the specifics would change.
The Scouts and Guides movement plays a prominent role in the book? Could you elaborate why? The Bharat Scouts and Guides seems to have fallen out of favour among middle-class urban India and disappeared from urban Indian schools, and that's a shame - it was such a fun 'club' to stay back at school for! I remember the excitement of wearing the uniform.It was dark blue and cinched at the waist with a thick leather belt and signature fleur-de-lis buckle, and had a hank of rope, neatly rolled, hanging from a mini-carabiner off its side. The light-blue neck-kerchief was fastened with a most interesting piece of equipment called a woggle at the throat and hung down the back in a neat triangle. I wore it each Tuesday with such pride because it made us stand out from all the other kids wearing the standard school uniform.
We had to take a pledge, there was a salute, we had Scout songs and jamborees to go to and a Good Deed book in which we recorded each day's good deed, and there were all these exciting badges to be won and then handed over to Mom to sew onto the uniform. It gave you a sense of fraternity and community - we'd be called out in the assembly to demonstrate first-aid moves to the rest of the school or asked to be traffic wardens on the street outside at school-leaving time.
It made me feel special in a very different way from being a class topper or being part of the team that won the Dumb Charades event at an inter-school contest. This was more visible, and it was deeper and nobler somehow, and it WASN'T about me, but being part of an international organisation very 'visibly' (the uniform ensured that).
The thing was, I hadn't thought about Guiding at all until the idea for this book came up. Then it all came back in a rush. My husband was a President Scout, basically the highest thing you can achieve as an Indian Scout, and so called because the President of India himself used to pin the medal on to your chest then. He began to recall the excitement of it as well. I felt really bad that our kids hadn't been part of anything like this - they do many many things that we could not have dreamt of, but being part of an international organisation - and one that you did not have to be clever or good at sport or anything to qualify for, it was open to anyone who wanted to have a go - is not one of them. And that's why I was very very happy to have the opportunity to create a framework for kids to learn some skills that I thought were essential for them.
Why do you think teenagers need the skills discussed in the book? (to eat right, listen fully, be a good observer)
One of the coolest things I discovered while reading the Bhagavad Gita as research for my book 'The Gita For Children' was its insistence that everything, anything can be mastered through disciplined practice, even making the right choices. That means you have a greater chance of mastering a skill the earlier in life you begin working on it. Personally, I would be in awe of any adult that had the 99 skills I've listed in the book - and so, I suspect, would most other people. So why not increase your chances of being at least half that adult, by starting work on some of those skills while you are still in your teens? Teenage is SUCH a great time of one's life. Sure there is the pressure of board exams and the desperate need to be considered cool by peers of both sexes, but apart from that, it is the season of infinite possibility. The world is your oyster, you can be anything you want to be, you are standing on the edge of what promises to be a grand adventure. It is also a time of great idealism - you feel you can change the world! Without the crushing responsibility of having to earn a living for yourself or for someone else, you have all the me-time you want, too. It makes it a perfect time of life to pick up skills and cultivate habits that will stand you in good stead through the rest of your life.
As for the skills you've picked as examples in your question, my answers are - Why should teenagers eat right? No brainer. If they want to live long, healthy, happy and productive lives, that's a good place to start. Why should teenagers listen 'fully'? Because it is only when you listen to someone with your head and your heart that meaningful conversations can result, and such conversations are the basis of good, respectful relationships, which are key to a stable, happy adolescent – and adult–life. Why should teens be good observers? Why should ANYONE be a good observer? Because it is so much FUN! You are never bored because there is something to engage your interest and curiosity at every turn, you are discovering so many new things each day, and you can be Benedict Cumberbatch! Erm, Sherlock Holmes.
This is a question that treads the dangerous area of generalisation - what do you think of teenagers today? Do you think there are gaps and that there are critical skills that they can learn?
I can speak only for Indian teenagers, and I think they are very privileged to be teenagers at this point in India's history when India is emerging from all kinds of real and imagined shackles and truly coming into its own as a free, democratic and growing world economy and cultural soft-power .Thanks to the internet and the proliferation of information, an Indian teen today has exactly the same advantages and opportunities as any other teen from a far wealthier and more developed nation. All this has been offered to them on a platter, and they have risen to the unique challenges that all of it brings with great confidence, panache, style and hard work. They are meeting the world on their own terms, not changing themselves to fit in.Of course, there are gaps in their skills and knowledge, as there will always be with any generation of teenagers. The one thing I feel most strongly about is a lack of self-reliance, which is mostly our generation's fault. We keep making decisions for our children and selfishly keep them swaddled in cotton wool because we are so fearful about the big bad world out there, without realising that what we are really doing to them is crippling them for life.
Are the skills described in the book ones you wished you had learned as a teenager?
Yess! How did you guess?? :) :) I'm hoping other adults who see/read the book will feel the same and become committed to making sure they learn some of the skills they’ve missed.
How has the book been structured and why was it structured such? It seems to move from the self to ever-widening circles (family, country etc.)
Yes! I'm delighted you saw the pattern. That is exactly what was in my mind when I put down the structure. It basically stems from a very strong personal belief that everything begins with you. If you do not love and respect and accept yourself 100%, if you do not embrace your beauty and your blemishes equally, you can never do the same for anyone else. You have to love yourself before you can love and accept your family with all their quirks, and if you don't love your family, you will not be able to love your larger community, and so on. I believe love can only come from deep knowledge - otherwise, it will be a blind, fragile thing that will fall apart the moment it is challenged - which is why knowing yourself, your neighbourhood, your city, your country, and so on is so important. But it starts with knowing yourself.
The skills described in the book are all very detailed and instructive. How did you achieve that?
Thank you! Glad you think so! How did I achieve that? I guess I did not put anything down until I understood it well myself. I did a lot of research on each 'skill' and tried actually doing many of them too. When I wrote the instructions for a skill down, I did so as I understood it, without referring to the sources of my research. I suppose that's why they are so detailed - I was basically teaching myself.
Could you tell us about how you researched for the book?
The final 99 skills were arrived at after many iterations. The first effort was to create the sections. Would there be four or twenty? What would they each encompass? What were the REALLY important things that I felt a World- Conquering Teenager should know? (Actually, it all started with the name of the book. Right at the beginning, after weeks of brainstorming with myself, I came up with World-Conquering Teenager for my hero, and an ambitious 99 as the number of skills they should have. Everything else flowed from that.) Before I started doing any research, I had to dig deep into myself, introspect, think about people I admired and wonder what quality about them I admired, think about the skills that, according to me, were most often missing in the adults I knew, think about what I wished today's teenagers knew how to do, and so on.
Once I had done this, I made a list of the badges that were going to be up for grabs. I had decided on 24 - it sounded better than 25, somehow, in the same way, that 99 skills sounded better than 100. :) Then I put down 6-7 possible skills under each badge. Only THEN did I begin my research on each skill. As I went along, I fused two skills into one, or expanded one skill into several, depending on what the research threw up. I changed my mind sometimes on what was an ESSENTIAL skill and what merely useful. Eventually, the 99 skills were done.The one skill I had decided would be Skill 99 right at the start was a B-P -recommended skill, in its purest, most original form, without any tweaking from me - Do A Good Deed Every Day. It was part of my own Guiding life, so there was a bit of nostalgia in there as well.
The challenges in the book are fascinating. How did you arrive at these exercises?
Thank you! I'm proudest of the challenges. I thought up all, or almost all, of them myself.
What do you hope teenagers will take away from this book?
I hope they will be inspired to learn and do things they would not have thought interesting or useful - or cool or fun! - before. I hope they will see that learning to do things for oneself is a hugely empowering thing and an exciting life goal in itself. I hope they will have fun reading the book, and dream of taking on and cracking all the challenges in them, even if they only eventually complete a quarter of them. I hope they will think about what they read in it later in their teen and adult lives, and say to themselves - "That's what first got me thinking about this." :)
What can parents expect from this book?
I suspect parents will have a lot of fun reading this book too. I hope they will challenge themselves to master some of the suggested skills in it when they realise they don't have them. I hope they will be inspired to mentor a WoCoTeen Squad made up of their children and a couple of their children's friends and help them crack some or all of the challenges suggested in the book. And I really hope that we will have a couple of secret underground WoCoTeen Squads made up entirely of parents! :)