An Interview with Venkataraman L.N.
She calls herself a wordsmith. Journalist, editor, prolific award-winning children’s author and workshop resource person. Benita Sen is comfortable in several avatars simultaneously. And so, while she edits a magazine, she writes fiction, fact, text and activity books for children and young people and conducts online and in-person workshops to pass on what she knows. She’s a committed voluntarist, planting trees and shrubs, and trying to help animals in distress. Why? Because she believes in giving back to life a little of what she has been given. She conducts online and in-person workshops for teachers, parents, students on storytelling, creative writing, forms of literature, specific authors, values, handicrafts, gardening, even cursive writing. Why? Because she believes life is a relay race. Pass the baton on rather than hang on to it to run the race alone.
Her children’s books have won consistently at contests. Two were gifted by the publisher to then – POTUS Barack Obama during his visit to India. Yakity Yak was nominated for the Vodafone Crossword Book Awards and also to the Nami Book Fest. Her folder of unpublished work is full of promising thoughts, just waiting for a suitable outlet.
“Children and young people bring out the best in me.“Benita Sen
Benita Sen’s Life Story
It is a great honor with immense pleasure to introduce Benita Sen – not just for her achievements in writing but for her personality as a whole – as a wonderful, caring and simple human being. The love one gives to every living being and the humility despite achievements and knowledge sums up a person’s worth. One such esteemed person who leads it as a living example is Benita Sen. Her day begins with care for the birds and pets. Much of her ideas are inspired by her connect with them. She has rescued several animals from injury and distress. Nature writing is one of her key strengths. Animals and birds follow their natural cycles in harmony with nature. The endeavor for humans towards spiritual upliftment lies in being in harmony with nature and the universal rhythms. As a nature lover, Benita is blessed with the best elements towards that harmony.
She is a prolific author, with more than 40 books to her credit. As a journalist, her work in association with leading publishers, magazines, journals, newspapers, educational organizations, government etc. makes her a writer with a wide range of experience in the elements of literature, spanning all genres. For a person who tries to understand the language of birds and animals, connecting with a child’s world would be natural. True to that, Benita has written several award-winning books for children spanning themes of nature, nutrition and values. Her deep connect and care for nature reflects in her writing. She brings her wisdom, knowledge and creativity to children through various educational workshops. Her focused interest areas in environment, health and values make her the best placed in intention as well as virtue for impactful outcomes in children’s education and development.
It is a boon indeed for children and the world of literature to relish the wonderful books by Benita. Her love for nature and the belief in ‘living for giving’ are worth emulating and truly inspiring.
Benita Sen’s Profile Summary
|Occupation||Award-winning author, journalist, translator, storyteller, workshop organizer, environmental resource person|
Julia Donaldson’s Monkey Puzzle: translated from English into Bangla on being commissioned by Pan Macmillan and AWIC.
Published by: OUP, Penguin RandomHouse India, Scholastic, Harper Collins, Powerkids Pr, Katha, Pratham, Children’s Book Trust, Bharati Bhawan P&D, Rupa & Co.
Editing reports, documents, journals, books for a variety of clients including National Institute of Open Schooling (Min of HRD Government of India), Planning Commission, UNDP, NGOs like Nature Forever Society. Editing B2B and B2C magazines, journals, websites and newspapers across age groups from child readers to professionals. Verticals include: health, lifestyle, environment, Young Adults, children, industry.
Workshops for students:
Storytelling, value education, history and environment
Benita’s Wisdom in Threes
Describe yourself in three words
Define life in three words
- Relay race
Three things which have been your greatest source of inspiration
- Goodness: Perhaps that’s why I enjoy the company of dogs and plants. Purity of intent in others makes me take stock of myself and improve myself. I constantly feel the need to be a better person, to be kinder, to be gentler, but I’m nowhere near what I intend to be.
- Honesty: As Shakespeare wrote, “To thine own self be true.” Honesty in others is sometimes difficult to face, because they hold up a mirror to you and you suddenly see your warts, but I’d rather have the honest around me than the dishonest. I find it difficult to pretend or lie. You can tell by my face if I don’t like someone or something.
- Nature: As they say, everyone wants to stand in the shade of a tree but very few want to plant a tree. Nature inspires me to introspect. I try to help in whatever little way I can, collecting seedlings from near a tree and nurturing them for a year, then planting them in the ground. I’ve never kept count, but over the years, the tally must be hundreds of trees and scores of bushes and hedges. From childhood, nesting birds have made me wonder how I can help them. So, every day, our home sets out clean water and food for them. No surprise then, that the natural world is an integral part of my writing. My books What Did Nepo Do With A Sari? and One Lonely Tiger, the story Wish The Went Whoosh, and almost every bit of fiction I’ve written is inspired by my close association with plants and other animals. Nature is not just magnanimous. It can be frightening in its fury. But that is what life is about.
Three challenges you faced in life
- Health: I have always been frail. I have to be cautious about where I go, what I do, what I eat. I’ve accepted that as a reality in my life and work around it.
- Constant moves: Being an army wife, I gave up jobs and moved every few years because I chose family over career. However, the tough part was the fact that I’ve focused, since childhood on being a professional since I come from a family of working women. Even my grandmother was a professional. So, in spite of the moves, I never gave up on my conviction that one must work professionally to give back to society. Finding a suitable job in the new station was never easy. I have been unemployed for months for this reason and I know how much it can eat into your confidence. Even in the online age, editors and people whom I know professionally have told me they are happy to have me back in Delhi NCR because we can work together again. I don’t understand that thought because wherever I may be, I have been working right through and I respect deadlines.
- Introvert: It took me most of my life to understand that I am an introvert. Before that, I would beat myself up for not approaching editors and publishers for more work or for not arguing my case over a manuscript. A librarian I didn’t know once called me up and gave me very sage advice for which I am grateful, although I have not been able to follow it. She pointed out that my online presence is dismal. It’s so full of animals that need to be rescued or rehomed that she was doubtful if the account belonged to an author. A bookstore manager once told me about an author who would visit regularly and place her books at the entrance. She told me it surprised her that I never promoted my book when I visited the store to browse or for their workshops. An editor I was speaking with over the phone because she called me, told me she was tiring of people demanding lunch meetings. She couldn’t believe I turned down a lunch with her. There are several editors I’ve worked with but never met in person. I prefer to work in my own magical world, and then send the manuscript to a few editors over email. If they don’t reply, I may send a few reminders and perhaps a phone call or two. Beyond that, I move on to my next assignment. I’m not judging anyone, least myself, because my mantra is, to each her own. Work is important, but it cannot make me uncomfortable or make me do what is not intrinsically me.
Three ideas to build resilience to face challenges
- Activity: This may be relevant only to me, but though I have health issues and am frail, I find strength and hope in regular physical activity. I work around the house, regular walks are important and I miss the gym workouts that Covid has greatly reduced. My professional work is sedentary, so I enjoy hours with plants, feeding neighborhood animals and watering distressed plants in the locality.
- Reading: It gives me strength. Given a choice, I would read biography rather than fiction because I love to get inspired by real people. My favorite books are animal biographies or biographies of people interacting with other animals, like Elephant Whisperer.
- Perspective: I’m not much of a traveler, but one journey to the hills changed my life. We were going to Sikkim, where my husband was posted, and the bus stopped. I looked down the valley and up again at the hill on the other side. The landscape was dotted with houses, their tin roofs gleaming in the sun. A lone kite circled over them languorously, piggybacking on air currents. I realized, each home there had its own joys, sorrows, anxieties, challenges. Each one believed that her or his fear or sorrow was the worst or the biggest. But who is to decide? What if you asked the kite to decide? Whenever possible, I try to be the kite looking down at my own home, and that gives me perspective. Talking of perspective, I find that problems seem worse after dark. By next morning, they seem less severe. So, I try not to take major decisions till I have slept over the situation.
Three essential things needed to achieve success
I don’t consider myself successful in the traditional sense of the word, so I don’t know how to answer this one. Nevertheless, I suggest some tips for the young readers.
- Discuss with yourself (first and last) what you mean by success. Note that down. For me, for instance, success would be to become a better, kinder person. Discuss with your parents what they believe you should aim for. Note that down also.
- Compare the two lists. If they differ vastly, have a chat with your parents on your goals. Remember, it is not your goals versus their goals but your benchmarks AND theirs. Can the two lists be made compatible? Your parents will perhaps tell you how.
- Remind yourself that success, for many people, could be having enough rather than plenty. Just because we differ in our goals does not mean one is less or more important than the other person. I sincerely aim at better health because that is the true wealth. I believe, if you have reasonable health, you can study better, work harder, help others more and tick off the other goals on your list.
Top three practices and habits you would advise to young students
- Discipline: I’ve heard several creative people brag that creativity needs no discipline. Perhaps not for them. Discipline may differ from profession to profession, person to person. For me, discipline does not mean, marching to drumbeats. It means, I follow a routine. I think about work regularly. I take notes whenever I come across something interesting. I need to write every day, otherwise I lose courage and I lose faith in my abilities. I conduct workshops and teaching sessions regularly. When I conduct a session or workshop, I plan it scrupulously. My slides have to be in order, they must look encouraging and be full of facts because attention spans are not that long. I believe life is a relay race and no one should have to reinvent the wheel. So, I conduct workshops on a variety of topics for children and adults. I cannot waste the participants’ time only because I am under-prepared. It’s painstaking work but the feedback is my fuel. At a recent short story workshop, one child wrote: “The best workshop I ever attended.” Another child wrote: “I loved it. For the first time I really felt like writing a story with pleasure. First class.” After a craft workshop, one participant wrote: “The workshop proved to be a turning point in my life.” What more could I ask for?
- Routine: For me, routine is important. I believe in the circadian rhythm although I have burnt the midnight oil for years to meet a deadline and when I was pushing two simultaneous assignments. I haven’t studied chronobiology but I feel and function best when I am up early. My writing and my workshops are a part of who I am, so I like some sort of routine in all that I do. Regular writing apart, I also believe in a daily routine like making my bed first thing in the morning (I mention this only because I realize today that many of us don’t), not letting the dishes pile up, leaving a clean home to wake up to or return to. So, find your own routine that gives you peace and inspires you to work better. Clutter upsets me, so now I am a conscious minimalist and I declutter my e-files as regularly as I declutter the home. Several young authors have asked me how I overcome writer’s block. I don’t know a universal answer. But I tell them it is important to focus on what you want to do, and beaver on.
- Sincerity: Like honesty (above), sincerity is important to me, not just in personal relationships but also in professional work. I believe, whatever you do, do it well or not at all. I’ve been told so many times, in a critical tone, “You’re too sincere.” I don’t know how to change that or if I’d want to. Writing is a lonesome, concentrated activity. It’s you and your thoughts. I cannot write in the midst of a raucous party. I need some solitude. One of the best children’s writers has told me, she locks the door to her room when she’s writing. No calls. No doorbells. No vendors. I multi-task a little more than that because I have to, but she and I are on the same boat.
WATCH BENITA SEN LIVE OVER A WARM VIDEO Conversation
FOR DEEPER INSIGHTS
Benita Sen’s Awards and Recognition
- Her children’s books have been presented by the publisher to then – POTUS, Barack Obama.
- A dozen of her stories have been awarded prizes by Children’s Book Trust.
- Fact books include Polar Creatures, were mentioned by Ohio State University as “An excellent source for individual reading and research.”
- Text books published in India include: Environmental science, English (The Magic Carpet books 1 and 2) and Value Education (Bright Hearts).
- Has been interviewed by leading educational sites and media houses.