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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.

Scientists, Mary, and topi rocket from Thumba

In this book about the launch of a rocket from Thumba, Menaka Raman’s story and characters are sure to tap on the creative nerves of young kids. The first time when Mary heard that a rocket will be a launched from Thumba, her excitement knew no bounds. She was bitten by an inquisitive bug and had a list of questions to find the answers of. She waited and hoped to see the rocket go up in Space every day.

Here’s an extract for those who, like Mary, are eager to know about India’s first ever rocket launch.


Topi Rockets from Thumba
Topi Rockets from Thumba || Menaka Raman

January 1963

Every morning, a rickety old bus would arrive in Thumba from Trivandrum and drop off a group of men.

Everyone would come out of their homes and shops, wondering what was inside the many boxes the men carried into the church, watching them as they cycled from here to there or walked together in pairs.

Mary watched too, but her friends at school did not care.

‘So what?’ said George Thomas.

‘Big deal!’ dismissed Thomas George.

‘Who cares?’ shrugged Shoshakutty.

‘I can launch a rocket all by myself!’ boasted Chacko.

‘Why does Dr Sarabhai need so many people to launch just one rocket then?’ Mary wondered.

One day, Mary and her amma were on their way to the market when she saw a car pulling up outside the church. She caught sight of a tall man unfolding himself from the back seat, and knew immediately who it was.

Mary ran right up to him once again.

‘Dr Sarabhai! When is the rocket going to be ready? Why is it taking so long? My friend Chacko can launch a rocket all by himself. Why do you need so many people?’

Dr Sarabhai’s eyes lit up.

‘Mary, you remind me of myself when I was your age. Always asking questions! Let me try and answer yours.’

It’s taking time because India’s friends from around the world are sending us things we need for the rocket launch. We have to wait for them to arrive and only then can we start to put things together. And I need the help of hundreds and hundreds of hands and minds to do it.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) of the United States is sending us a NIKE APACHE ROCKET. They are also training our scientists at their centres in America.

March 1963

Days, weeks and months came and went. Mary turned ten. Ouso made her ayala fry, Amma stitched her a new dress and her brother gifted her his old bicycle.

Some days, Mary would cycle by the church to see if she could catch sight of the rocket.

But there was no rocket.

Mary studied hard for her exams, praying they would not launch the rocket while she was writing her maths paper.

They didn’t.

She spent the summer holidays learning swimming in the lazy blue sea.


Mary celebrated Palm Sunday, Easter Friday and Onam.

Mary was disappointed.

But her friends at school were not.

Sometimes, Mary wished she was one of the pigeons that sat on the rafters high up on the ceiling of the church so that she could see what was happening inside.


September 1963

By now, Mary knew some of the serious men who worked in the church. She knew where they were from and what they ate for breakfast. She discovered they were not so serious after all. And since Dr Sarabhai wasn’t always there to answer her questions, she had started asking them instead.

Mary: What are the parts of a rocket?

Scientist 1: A rocket has four main parts: the nose cone, fins, rocket body and engine. The nose cone carries the main cargo or payload of the rocket.

Mary: How do you launch a rocket?

Scientist 2: Rockets burn fuel in the engine and this creates exhaust. The hot exhaust comes out very fast in one direction pushing the rocket in the opposite direction! WHOOSH!


To know the answers to Mary’s numerous questions about Space and rockets, read Topi Rockets from Thumba.

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