A decade of chasing the stars with the Taranauts

Roopa Pai, the author of the Taranauts, the eight-book sci-fi-fantasy-adventure series that went on to become India’s first-ever original and complete series for children in English for its age group, shares her tryst with the Taranauts. This year, Taranauts celebrates ten years of existence.

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Exactly ten years ago, a phone call from someone I hadn’t heard from in a very long time changed my life in a million different ways. The caller was Vatsala Kaul-Banerjee, my first editor, whom I had worked under as a wannabe children’s journalist and writer at the iconic and beloved Target magazine. Vatsala was calling to tell me that she had just taken over as Publishing Director of Children’s Books at the newly-established Indian arm of a reputed UK publishing house (whose name no one quite knew how to pronounce) – Hachette.

That was the genesis of Taranauts, the eight-book sci-fi-fantasy-adventure series that went on to become India’s first-ever original and complete series for children in English for its age group. By the time the eighth book came out in 2013, Taranauts had won large numbers of fervent young fans across the country, who waited for the release of each new book in the series with great excitement, eagerly took part in contests (whose winning entries were showcased in the following book), sent in dozens of ideas for future books, amused (and flummoxed!) their parents by speaking to them in Taratongue (the language of Mithya, the universe in which the books were located), and read the books over and over – in bed, at school, in the park, on the toilet!

Some fans – they called themselves TaraNUTS – were more passionate than others. One of them cosplayed Tufan, one of the three Taranauts, at Comic Con 2013. Two sisters wrote a song for Dana Suntana, the biggest pop-star of Mithya, and sang and recorded it themselves (so that Dana would know exactly how it was meant to be sung). One little girl’s parents brought her from Mumbai to Bengaluru because she wanted so badly to be part of the launch of the final book in the series. A pair of twins, now 15, came to meet me at the Bookaroo children’s litfest in Delhi a month ago simply to beg me to write a sequel to the Taranauts series, in which the Taranauts are now teenagers; another, a talented artist, also 15, imagined and sketched Zvala as a teen in great detail – that beautiful sketch now stands on my bookshelf, warming my heart every day.

Adults were equally enthusiastic about Taranauts. The very first book in the series The Quest for the Shyn Emeralds was shortlisted for the inaugural Crossword Award for Children’s Writing. It also went on to be prescribed as a supplementary English reader in two schools. At least five Literature graduates over the years have based their entire PhDs, or a part of them, on the series; the most recent one is currently underway at the Vidya Prabodhini College in Porvorim, Goa. Dozens of NRI parents wrote in, declaring that the Taranauts series was the first ‘Indian’ one they had found that engaged their children’s interest and imagination just as well as ‘foreign’ books did. The great Ruskin Bond declared that words in Taratongue – words made up from a mix of English and Indian-language words (for instance, ‘morphoroop’ is Taratongue for shape-shifter) – were wonderfully appropriate and should make it to dictionaries!

The Indian media spoke of the books in glowing terms in their reviews. Dads and moms wrote in, saying they enjoyed the books almost as much as their kids did, remarking about the ‘inside stuff’ that their children might not get – for instance, the fact that Taranauts so often referenced India (Mithyakos, the people of Mithya, speak many different languages); on one of the worlds, there is a quasi caste system; some episodes draw from the Indian epics; and so on.

Looking back, I am not sure what exactly it was about the books that made them so popular, so beloved. Was it the fact that the three Taranauts – Zvala, Zarpa and Tufan – were apparently ordinary mithyakins (children of Mithya), each with an embarrassing, socially-unpopular trait/habit (Zvala the nerdy radiates heat and turns bright red when stressed, Zarpa the athlete lisps terribly and is unable to keep to her track during races, Tufan the animal-whisperer sends things around him flying when he’s mad) who discovered within themselves the extraordinary powers of courage, determination, talent, teamwork and compassion when they had to think about the welfare of people other than themselves? Was it because the ‘hero’ – Emperaza Shoon Ya – and the ‘villain’ – his twin brother Shaap Azur – were particularly compelling?

Was it because the books were packed with riddles and ciphers – word puzzles, logic puzzles, number puzzles – that challenged young readers’ minds as much as the other parts of the stories engaged their emotions? Was it because readers could identify with one or all of the Taranauts – or because the constant competitive tension between the two superstars of the team – Zvala and Tufan – and the mature balancing act of the natural team leader Zarpa, was so familiar to them from their own social circles?

It could have been any (or none) of these. Personally, though, I like to believe that what tilted the balance in favour of the Taranauts was the fact that the philosophy of the books is very ‘Indian’ in spirit – there are no ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’ in Mithya, or indeed, in any other world, there are only people who make right and wrong choices, and then have to deal with the consequences of those choices. That philosophy is encapsulated in the very last paragraph of the very last book – ‘And Zvala understands. There is a Shoon Ya in each of us, she thinks, and a Shaap Azur. Who we are is who we choose to be.’

It takes faith for both writer and publisher in the Indian market to stick to a series, come what may. But we did, bringing out each with a gorgeous superbly finished cover, the colour of the ‘world’ it was set in. And the books continue to be printed and available, now also in a perky little slipcase. This year, Taranauts celebrates ten years of existence. I have written many other books in the years since the series ended, and am proud of all of them, but Taranauts remains my first-born, and will always have a very special place in my heart. I hope the adventures and self-doubt and failures and triumphs of Zvala, Zarpa and Tufan will speak to and delight many more young readers in the years to come.

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