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On inspiration and art: Author and illustrator of Topi Rockets from Thumba

Menaka Raman’s fascinating book about the launch of India’s first ever rocket, Topi Rockets From Thumba, has charmingly beautiful illustrations made by Annada Menon.

In a delightful chat, the duo shared about their ideas, inspirations, and experiences of writing and illustrating the book.


Questions for Menaka Raman, Author


What inspired you choose this theme and instance from history?

The iconic photograph of the two scientists pushing the nose cone of the rocket on the back of a bicycle the starting point of this book for me. I just found something so moving about the image and when I started reading the story behind it I was hooked. I had to no more!

Topi Rockets from Thumba
Topi Rockets from Thumba || Menaka Raman, Annada Menon, Illustrator

What research went into writing this book?

So much research! This was my first attempt at creative nonfiction and I was so nervous. I wanted to make sure I got all the facts straight and the timelines right. Plus, the more I read about Dr. Sarabhai and the amazing team of scientists behind this historic moment, the greater a sense of responsibility I felt I wanted to convey what Dr Sarabhai was like, why people were so drawn to him and of course his infectious enthusiasm. My starting point was Amrita Shah’s biography of Dr Sarabhai and then I went on to read Lavanya Karthik and Shamim Padamsee’s children’s biography of Dr APJ Kalam, ISRO A Personal History by R.Aravamudan and From Fishing Hamlet to Red Planet by Dr. UR Manoranjan Rao. Articles, papers and interviews with people who worked at ISRO were all key to my research. I also wanted to get things like the names of the characters right, so I reached out to friends for help and advice on that!

Of course at the end of it all I had so much research notes that I had to decide what to keep in the story! That was hard!

How did you decide to compare the ‘nose cone’ of rocket with ‘topi dosa’?

When I first saw the photograph of the nose cone on the cycle, it really struck me ‘Wow! This looks like a topi doas!’ I must have been hungry at the time!

Are you planning to write another book on similar theme?

I would absolutely love to! Now that I’ve had a taste of it, my antennae are up for other great stories like this!


Questions for Annada Menon, Illustrator


What intrigued you about the story of Topi Rockets from Thumba at first? What made you illustrate it?

When I was offered to illustrate for the book I already was in the zone of being intrigued by the topic of outer space. I follow and have also read a book by the astronaut Chris Hadfield. He increased my curiosity of space and to this day does. Though I was aware of Dr. Sarabhai , I didn’t know details of his endeavours. His story and drawing it from the perspective of Mary, the charatcer in the book, was a lovely way to celebrate his work. I guess apart from that the idea of drawing rockets excited me. It poked the child in me to have fun on the journey of illustrating the book.

How did you finalise the style of art for this book? What other styles were your options?

This was actually finalised with the help of my art director, Antra. We actually wanted to go for a very textured yet slightly detailed approach to the illustrations. I like that the book has 2 spreads that are based on Mary’s imagination. The pages consist of what a rocket would like according to Mary to how a rocket is fighting a storm. I had to make sure these pages stood out from the raw look of the other pages to show the simplistic environment of Thumba. I actually didn’t ponder over too many style options. From the author to the editor, they wanted some of my existing approaches if drawing to flow into it. Hence I just went with my gut to execute it.

How different or similar was the first draft to the final version?

Well, the ideas from 90% of the sketch / draft stage were carried forward to the final stage. I think anything that changed while illustrating are mostly the technical aspects of the book. Since it is a STEM book we had to make sure scientific elements were accurate . I also had to make sure that the people of Thumba and the place itself looked close to what it may have been during the 1960s . There aren’t too many image references to these from the mentioned time. The tricky part is most of these images are black and white so representing or reimagining them in color was a fun experience.

What do you think is special about the illustrations in this book?

I actually don’t know if this a ‘blow one’s own trumpet’ kind of question (chuckles). Well, I guess what I can say about the illustration that it has been drawn with a lot of innocence and curiosity. The book is meant to subtly introduce a child to the beauty of space and a brief introduction to Dr. Sarabhai’s contribution to India’s space program. Since it is a light read the illustrations are meant to compliment the same. Also, in a subtle way the illustrations are an ode to nature’s elements water, earth , wind and fire (3 elements depicting Thumba and 1 depicting a rocket). I guess for me these little things make it special.

Lighten your soul—Love, forgive, bless

With our birth begins our life cycle and it ends with our death. We all are transitory beings. We can own nothing on Earth on a permanent basis. When we understand that all relationships, situations, sufferings, and emotions are perishable, we realise that the only conquest useful to us is our own mind. The real and only worthwhile journey is into our selves and our soul, for our soul is our greatest guru. When we understand our own soul, we understand all souls. They are all one. The Power of Purity aims to familiarise us with the nuances of our lives and to remind us to steer away from the illusions that the world offers.

Here’s an excerpt from the book in which the author introduces us to a way of life that will help us become aware of ourselves and elevate our soul.


Front Cover of The Power of Purity
The Power of Purity || Mohanji

Bless all. It will make you serene and light. Blessing expands you. It makes you light. When we bless all the people we like and all the people we do not like, we truly become the perfect expression of the Almighty. His true expression is unconditional love. When we remove all hatred and fear from our mind, we become an embodiment of love. Love expands. Love makes our life enjoyable. When we express sincere gratitude to all the objects and beings that helped our existence on Earth, we become universal. Once we understand the true relevance of the food that we have consumed so far, the houses that sheltered us, the books that gave us knowledge, our parents and our teachers, and, above all, the element of divinity that sustained us, we will be filled with humility and deep gratitude. Most of our vital functions, including respiration, circulation, digestion, heartbeat and even sleep, for that matter, are controlled by our subconscious mind. All these things are working in perfect synchronization because our conscious mind has nothing to do with it. We are given the time, space, intellect and situation to act out our inherent traits. What do we have in our control? Why do we blame others? Why do we entertain guilt at all? What is there to be afraid of? All experiences have been lessons. We could not have changed anything. So what else can we do, except express unconditional love and compassion? What else can we do but bless everybody and everything? When we realize that we are not really the one who does everything, we will see our ego getting nullified and our doership getting dissolved. We will then operate in perfect awareness and gratitude.

God is within us. God is to be loved, not feared. The soul element that fuels our existence is the God within all of us. God, the one who generates, operates and dissolves. Hence, all of us possess the same god element. No one is inferior nor superior to anyone. Some evolved higher through rigorous practices, contemplation and meditation. Through lifetimes of efforts, they attained higher awareness. That’s all. In principle, all are one and the same. The same soul element fuels the existence of all living beings, which includes plants and animals. Just like the same electricity is used to operate various equipment, the same soul operates various bodies, and some of them are human.

All of us are temporary custodians of a body, of money and possessions. It is the same with relationships. Everything is temporary. Everything has a definite longevity. There is no room for egocentric expressions, if we digest this truth. All we can do is forgive everything. Bless everything.


To understand your consciousness, the meaning of life, and the various facets of existence, read Mohanji’s The Power of Purity.

What attracted Usha Narayanan to Mythological Stories?

Usha Narayanan, author of Prem Purana, has donned many hats, before becoming a successful full-time author. In her glorious career, she has dabbled with genres like thriller and romance, before turning to mythology. Her works Pradyumna: Son of Krishna and The Secret of God’s Son have been praised as ‘Indian mythology at its fiercest and finest’. 
Her latest book, Prem Purana is about stories of love and extraordinary devotion found in Hindu mythology. On the launch of the book we asked her what about the mythological stories attracted her to write about them.
Here’s what she had to say.
The idea of writing mythological love stories was born during a conversation with my editor Vaishali Mathur at the Jaipur Literature Festival when she suggested that I should combine my strengths in writing mythology and romance. At that point, I was busy with The Secret of God’s Son and it was only after it was completed that I could think seriously think about this. I knew that our epics and Puranas focused more on the battle between good and evil, with heroic gods and fearsome demons confronting one another. Only a few love stories were widely known, such as the one of Kama shooting his arrow of love at ascetic Shiva, or of Arjuna winning Draupadi’s hand at her swayamvara.
I began my quest by re-reading all the ancient lore with an eye to discovering tales of the heart. As always, when writing mythological fiction, I wished to focus on untold stories, using my imagination to bring alive minor characters or lesser-known aspects of major ones. The first character who caught my eye was Ganesha. We think of him as the lovable elephant-headed god with a fondness for modakas. But who did he marry? People in the south of India swear that he is single, but others state vociferously that he is married. The images in temples show him either alone or with a wife or two. What are their names? Some say Siddhi and Riddhi, while others think their names are Siddhi and Buddhi. That was enough intrigue to stimulate my mind!
Another interesting layer to the story is the idea that Buddhi, Siddhi and Riddhi represent intellect, spiritual power and prosperity. As their names are merely mentioned in passing in most Puranas, I could give full rein to my imagination in portraying them. I endowed the three with distinct characteristics and showed Ganesha wooing them in different ways, according to their particular likes and dislikes. My Riddhi is sprightly, Buddhi is silent and deep, and Siddhi is fierce and opposed to the very idea of marriage! Their stories span three realms and four yugas, shedding light on many engaging aspects of Ganesha, the first among the gods. To add to the appeal, I discovered that in Bengal, during Durga Puja, Ganesha even has a banana bride!
I think readers will enjoy seeing Gajamukha in a refreshing new light in Ganesha’s Brides, the first of the three stories in Prem Purana.  
“Siddhi watched as more and more arrows struck Ganesha, causing blood to flow like a flood. Was he ready to meet death rather than forsake his promise to her? Would he sacrifice everything for the sake of his love?”
For the second story, Mandodari, my inspiration came from the Ramayana. Ravana was Brahma’s great grandson on his father’s side and an asura prince on his mother’s. Choosing to follow the asura path, he pillaged heaven and earth, ravished women and abducted Rama’s wife Sita. What I found of interest was not his war with Rama, but his relationship with his wife Mandodari. How did she react to all this? Did she protest or did she submit silently to his actions? What was her background? Did the rakshasa love her? And the most exciting question of all―did Mandodari come face to face with Sita, the woman she regarded as the instrument of doom that would bring down Lanka?
I found no answers in the commonly available texts where Mandodari features in a mere two or three scenes. Fortunately, however, there are many Ramayana versions available. I followed the uncommon trails, used my imagination and fleshed out the queen’s character, placing her emotions at the centre of the narrative. The story also reveals startling new facets of Ravana’s character and motivations. I think Mandodari, with all its twists and turns, will be riveting and revelatory to readers.
“‘Snatching a woman by force or stealth is not an act of valour, Ravana. She is not an object of lust or a means to settle scores with your enemy,’ said Mandodari, her voice loud and clear. She would speak the truth regardless of consequences. It was a risk she had to take for Ravana and her people.”
After delving into the lives of a merry god and a dire rakshasa, it was time to move to the human plane, with the story of King Nala and Princess Damayanti. She turned down the gods who courted her at her swayamvara and chose Nala as her husband. Though she chose love over immortality, Nala was driven by his own demons and abandoned her in a dangerous forest. Damayanti struggled to survive the perils that confronted her at every turn, but forged forward regardless. She did not give up hope and devised various stratagems to reclaim her happiness.
I was fascinated by her strength and also by the magical swan that plays a key role as the messenger of love. I named the swan Gagana, meaning sky or heaven, and created a charming and audacious companion to Damayanti. The Kali demon, who plays a major role in my previous books, Pradyumna: Son of Krishna and The Secret of God’s Son, is the enemy that Nala and his queen must confront. How can a mortal pair combat the power of the demon who reigns over a dark yuga that signals the end of the world? Love, loss, hope and despair form the chequered background of this poetic tale.
“‘Majestic Ashoka, whose name signifies one who destroys grief . . . Free me from pain and unite me once more with my Nala!’ cried Damayanti, sinking to her knees under a soaring Ashoka tree. Alas, the tree made no answer and all she could hear was the wind rustling among the leaves.”
A major part of my excitement in writing these stories came from the opportunity to focus attention on the women in our epics who are often sidelined. We often find that a woman is regarded as a prize to be won, someone who is forced to watch quietly while her husband makes disastrous decisions. However, the heroines in Prem Purana are central to the action. They are strong, independent thinkers who inspire the males in their lives―god, asura or king―to do the right thing and live up to their responsibilities.
I hope readers enjoy reading these tales which provide a good mix of fervour and fury, heroism and heartbreak, set against a spectacular backdrop spanning heaven and earth.
Prem Purana Footer (1)

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