A computer engineer from Bengaluru, married to an IIT-IIM alumnus and having travelled and lived around the world with him – from Delhi and Mumbai to New York, London and Orlando – the last thing Roopa Pai would have imagined in her youth was becoming an authority on the Bhagavad Gita, Vedas and Upanishads, and writing books about them.
But that indeed is where life has led her, and as usually happens when you walk with gods, there is a dollop of divine support along the way. “I grew up reading Enid Blyton, and imagined that only British children had a good childhood and my own – with family picnics that featured lemon rice instead of scones – was somehow sucky,” laughs the 48-year-old Bengaluru-based children’s books author.
“Then I came across Target [Indian comics], and loved it. I began to dream of creating a parallel universe which wasn’t India but where all the references were Indian,” narrates Roopa, who first began writing books for children 26 years ago.
It so happened that a books editor at Hachette, Vatsala Kaul Banerjee, was all set to play Krishna to Roopa’s Arjuna. “She pulls my chariot,” jokes Roopa, narrating how, a decade ago, Vatsala convinced Roopa to write an eight-book series of science fiction for kids, called Taranauts, and Roopa was able to fulfil her dream of an alternative desi universe, replete with ‘samchoris’ (samosas + kachoris) and a villain called Morphoroop (roop is Hindi for appearance).
After the four-year project ended, the scientific-minded Roopa wrote an entertaining science book for kids, What If Earth Stopped Spinning? (2014) And then Vatsala asked her a question which changed her life.
“What about a Gita for children?”
It was the last thing Roopa would have imagined. “Who said the Gita is for children?” she asked her editor. “And what credibility do I have in this matter?”
She continued making excuses for six months until Vatsala finally asked her to get a copy of the Gita for herself, and check it out.
“I went to my husband’s aunt for help. She explained it all to me with mind-maps for each chapter,” recalls Roopa, who is mother of a 22-year-old daughter and a 17-year-old son. “I realised that the Gita is a conversation between two best friends. Yes, I can explain that to kids.”
Roopa became hooked to the sacred Hindu scripture. Blessed with the ability to make difficult subjects easy to understand for kids, she found the writing process joyful and uplifting. But unsure about herself even at the end, she had the manuscript sent to Indian economist, author, bureaucrat and Indologist Bibek Debroy.
“Within days, he returned it saying, ‘This must be published.’ I sighed with relief,” she says. Coming from a man who had translated the unabridged Mahabharata from Sanskrit to English in 10 volumes and 2.25 million words, she decided her little effort may not have been so bad after all.
It was rather good, in fact. The Gita for Children went on to sell over 75,000 copies, and continues to be on top of the charts for children’s books four years down the line.
After a couple of more children’s books, one on economics, Roopa went on to write The Vedas and Upanishads for Children, which came out earlier this year. Putting heavy, esoteric philosophy into bite-sized bits of light-hearted wisdom is surely a gift bestowed on her by the millions of Hindu gods in the heavens, and even adults keep the book handy for divine instruction on days they face earthly dilemmas.
“It’s the best compliment ever that adults too love reading these books,” smiles Roopa, who no doubt gets it often. “That’s my deepest desire – to have parents and kids read these books together.”
Writing about duty, destiny and dharma has changed the knowledge-seeking Roopa in many ways. “I used to read crime thrillers earlier, now I’ve switched to spiritual books. I’ve started listening to discourses, especially by Swami Sarvapriyananda and Sri M, and now people send me videos and links that they think I will like. It’s a virtuous cycle, and it’s nothing I’ve ever done before,” she admits.
It has also changed her world view. “The Upanishads themselves leave so many things open-ended; they embrace multiple points of view. The only rule is that there are no rules – but that only makes it more difficult for each one must find the truth for herself. There are no shortcuts,” she says.
She dismisses modern-day debates on who the Aryans were. “How does it matter? Those who are secure about the truth have no need to argue. Studying the scriptures has changed me. It’s made me less judgemental, and more at peace with diverse ideas and viewpoints. Instead, I keep asking myself, who am I?”
Mindfulness is a quality one must work on, avers Roopa, but it is one that also comes with a caveat. “Yes, it’s empowering to be aware of your actions, but it’s also terrifying because now you must take responsibility for all the consequences as well,” she explains.
Our religion is certainly not for the faint of heart.
The most lasting relationship Roopa has developed is one with the god within. “The reflective life is a good thing to practise. Krishna says, keep practising – have 100 percent focus on your effort, and have zero percent expectation of the outcome. Arjuna is symbolic of the seeker and Krishna of his gut or his psychiatrist. You won’t trust your Krishna unless you have years of deep friendship with Him, and trust Him enough to place all dilemmas in His hands. If you live a reflective life, your dharma becomes clearer,” says Roopa, who recommends Yuval Noah Harari’s hard-hitting 21 Lessons for the 21st Century to understand human behaviour.
Roopa’s own new book, From Leeches to Slug Glue (Puffin) takes her back to the world of science, narrating the history of medicine for kids. “I’m much more comfortable with kids than adults. The Indian publishing industry wants its authors to be performers; that’s not fair!” she complains jokingly.
I ask her what knowledge she’d want to leave her child readers as legacy. She goes sombre for a moment. “Aham brahmasmi. You’re not a speck in the cosmos; you contain the entire cosmos within you. Don’t ever feel helpless. You can be god,” she says kindly. That’s a lesson even grownups need to hear.
First published as the cover story of eShe’s November 2019 issue
Syndicated to CNBCTV18