Roshen Dalal (born 1952) is an Indian writer of books for adults and children on the history of India and its religions. Excerpts from her interview at the WIC India Dehradun Community Literature Festival 2017.
When was it that you realized that it’s writing that you want to do as a profession?
I wanted to be a writer right from childhood, but then became more interested in academics and research. Apart from a few book reviews and articles I did not write for the general public. Later, out of an interest in the philosophy of J Krishnamurti, I taught for some time in Rishi Valley School. I realised there were not many books on history for young people, and thought of writing one. My first book, now called the Puffin History of India Vol.1 was published in 1997, and still has steady sales twenty years later. It was after the success of my second book, and the request of the publisher for a third, that I became a full-time writer in 2005.
How is writing about the history of the world for children as children seem to be more interested in fantasy?I think children are also fascinated by history. One just has to introduce them to different aspects of the subject.
Your books have comprehensive information in them. How did you congregate so much information and how much time did it take?
I keep reading and researching from libraries and online books, and at the same time adding to my own personal library. I have a natural fascination for information of all kinds! It takes me between six months and two years to write one book, but preliminary material for the book may have been collected earlier.
Can you share some stories about people you met while researching your books?
I share some ideas with friends and get their feedback, but on the whole I work on my own.
What is your writing Kryptonite?
I like to go into everything in as much depth as possible. I may read two or more books, and write just one para based on them. I am therefore, often rather slow.
Out of your books, which one is your favorite and why?
It is a difficult question, but I think my two encyclopaedic books Religions of India: A Concise Guide to Nine Major Faiths, and Hinduism: An Alphabetical Guide, are my favourites, as writing them allowed me to explore my deep interest in religion and philosophy. In fact, I would like to expand on some aspects of those books.
What do you think most characterizes your writing?
Simplicity. On the whole, I try to make complex topics simple and accessible.
I am sure you often hear from your readers? What kinds of things do they say?
Yes I do hear from readers. Almost all the messages and mails, as well as reviews posted are positive and encourage me to continue writing. Recently a young person from India wrote that he had not read any history since Class X, and wanted to read some ‘but all the books seemed too daunting.’ Then he wrote, ‘Firstly, not only have your books facilitated me to get back into the topic of Indian history but also made it a joy to read about….Secondly I want to thank you for reigniting my interest in the very act of reading. I wish you the very best and again just want to thank you for writing these books. The amount of knowledge and research that must have gone into writing them, makes me think they are a landmark literary achievement not just a work of reference’.
For my book on the Vedas I recently received feedback from Australia and Mauritius. Part of the message from Australia said ‘First of all thank you for compiling so much information from so many sources into such an easy follow format’. The elderly gentleman from Mauritius wrote, ‘I really enjoyed reading your book, The Vedas, and would very much like to share some thoughts with you’, and went on to express his thoughts in another email.
If you didn’t write, what would you do for work?
I have been a researcher, teacher, and editor. I would choose one of these occupations.
What do you feel about literature festivals? How important they are to writers?
I am sure literature festivals are important. Personally, however, I prefer to spend time on reading and writing rather than attending literary festivals. The festivals organised by WIC India Dehradun are among the few that I have attended.
What would you suggest to aspiring writers who wish to choose history as their writing subject?
To start with one should have a love of history, have done extensive research, and should be up to date with new research, trends and approaches. For instance, no reputed historian today would write a sentence like ‘Christopher Columbus discovered America’, that used to be written in the old days. It is a statement that is both inaccurate and misleading.
Share with us some stories from your childhood in Mussoorie and Dehradun. How is it to be another inspiring writer with Ruskin Bond to be from this beautiful city amidst hills?
Though born in Mussoorie, very few years of my childhood were spent in Mussoorie-Dehradun. What I liked best was walking in the forests, watching the animals and birds, and appreciating the wild flowers, trees and grass, as well as the thunderstorms and the rushing sound of approaching rain.
You have pets in your home. So are they your first love or writing a book is?
I have rescued some animals and do my best for them. I spend time with them and would never neglect them. I would like to do more for animal welfare, but writing is my first love.
Any message that you would like to share.
I don’t think I have any profound message to share. I would like to tell youngsters to never give up, whether they aspire to be writers, or anything else.