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‘This book for me is all about my own childhood musings on identity’

Tête à tête

A young girl does the Kathak on the pavement outside a café in Muswell Hill in London, oblivious of the traffic passing by. Bystanders, shoppers, friends stand around and watch her. Inside the shop window are colourful saris, a pair of pink Converse shoes, dolls, an embroidered kingfisher, a clay model of a cow and exotic trinkets that Sita Brahmachari, the award-winning children’s author, has carefully placed around. The objects create a trail — it’s a direct link to her latest book Jasmine Skies which is being launched at the venue.

“The cow was made by my friend Sarah,” Brahmachari tells me. “And the café is owned by her,” she adds brightly. Suddenly it seems the most natural thing to do: organise your book launch in your local deli and turn a little patch of North London into Calcutta for a day.

I have arrived early so we can chat before the crowds come in. Brahmachari is busy putting the finishing touches to the decoration, checking the sound system and getting a kaleidoscope of images of Calcutta rolling on a makeshift screen behind the counter. Images of New Market and yellow taxis on crowded streets roll by.

“The kingfisher is the symbol of this book,” she says pointing to the bright blue bird made from recycled fabric (also, incidentally, by Sarah) in the window. “It was my father’s favourite bird.”

The memory of her father, Dr Amal Krishna Brahmachari, a Calcutta doctor who moved to England, is important to Brahmachari. It is what has taken her to the city with Jasmine Skies, a coming-of-age story of love, separation, secrets and the search for one’s roots. The book is a sequel to Artichoke Hearts, her debut novel, which snapped up the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize last year and was shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal, another literary award, putting Brahmachari on the coveted list of popular children’s authors in Britain.

Her father arrived in England in the 1950s and was among the first lot of doctors from India who laid the basis of the National Health Service. “He met my mother [Freda] in Yorkshire and they got married. It was one of the early mixed-race marriages and the people in the village still remember the Indian doctor and the nurse,” she adds.

“My father was a big influence on me,” she adds. He died in 2008 — before she published her award-winning first book. “It was very emotional for me when I won the award as he would have been so proud of me.” Tucked among the window decorations is a 1959 black-and-white photograph of her father feeding the pigeons at Trafalgar Square.

Sita was born in Derby in 1966. One of four children, her childhood was spent in the scenic surroundings of the Lake District and in Shropshire. The shy and retreating girl, who learnt to read very late (at age 10), liked nothing better than curling up with her books, once she got started. She met her future husband, Leo, in university in Bristol while studying English.

After university, she worked with children in schools in theatre education. She began writing after the death of her mother-in-law, the artist Rosie Harrison, in 2005. Sita had known Harrison since she was 19 and had been very close to her. “I wanted my children to know about this special relationship.” Artichoke Hearts was inspired by the artist, who put up a spirited fight against cancer.

Brahmachari, whose favourite books include works by Roald Dahl, Jamila Gavin, Lewis Carroll, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and Ted Hughes, believes there can be no compromise when writing for children. “They will switch off if the story doesn’t engage them,” she says.

While Artichoke Hearts is set in London and tells the story of a young Asian girl — Mira Levenson — and her relationship with her bohemian grandmother who is dying of cancer, Jasmine Skies takes Mira to Calcutta to meet her cousin, Priya, and visit the city where her grandfather lived. Both books are loosely based on Brahmachari’s own family. Jasmine Skies is inspired by her father, her cousin, Jhuma (“a fabulous dancer”) and her late aunt Mira (Jhuma’s mother) from whom her character gets her name.

So how important was it to take Mira to Calcutta in search of the house in Doctor’s Lane?

“It was very important for me,” Brahmachari replies. “This book for me is all about my own childhood musings on identity. I often wondered as a child how different my cousins’ lives were to my own. I also wondered about my father’s own childhood.”

Then, some years ago, when she created an installation that toured with the Royal Shakespeare Company production of Midnight’s Children, she interviewed her father about his memories of the Partition. “I recorded his voice and this recording is something I treasure. After he died it made me wish I had asked him many more stories about his childhood in Calcutta. I think that’s why it felt important to me for Mira to trace her grandfather’s footsteps back to the streets where he grew up.”

Brahmachari first went to Calcutta for an extended family trip at the age of 13. She remembers visiting the family house in Taltola, meeting her grandmother and being struck by the warmth of her family and her cousins. “I met my paternal grandmother only once but my memories of her are very distinct and distilled.”

What saddens Brahmachari is that she can only manage a few phrases in Bengali. Her father worked long hours and had no time to teach them. And though she misses the fine nuances of Bengali literature and poetry that he would have enjoyed, she was pleasantly surprised to find that she could follow quite a bit of Bengali when it was spoken.

She remembers that as a young teen, she was struck by the colours and energy of Calcutta. “You are not prepared for it. Even as you drive from the airport, a whole new world hits you,” she says. When she returned in 2008 after her father’s death, she found the same liveliness. It was then that Brahmachari decided to write about the city, weaving in memories with the story of an antique cupboard full of saris, each carefully hand-woven and with a tale to tell.

Brahmachari found that while in Calcutta, she could not stop taking photographs — much as her character Mira does in the book. “I was quite obsessed with snapping photos of many random scenes that have found their way into Jasmine Skies,” she says. She also photographed some crumbling houses with grand doors — which went on to become the backdrop for her book.

“I thought of the edifice of the derelict house as a perfect metaphor for a time that was passing... a metaphor for change and grief. I wanted Mira to appreciate something of the old world and the old house, and to be able to stand in the places where her grandfather had been as a child.”

Back in London, buzzing from her India trip, she reached out to her cousin Jhuma, who quickly became her Calcutta consultant. Jhuma was also the inspiration for the character of Mira’s cousin, Priya. In the book Priya is a Kathak dancer and a Dubstep DJ, working out of derelict houses in old Calcutta.

Leaving nothing to chance, Brahmachari turned to well-known BBC DJ Nihal Arthanayake for help in researching her character’s musical influences. Getting the wrong playlist for the teenage characters in the book would simply not be kosher.

Brahmachari’s new book leaves you convinced that there will be a sequel. She laughs when I mention it, but playfully says “never say never” in a way which means she’s probably writing it now. A little bird at the launch told me that it may be set in Lake District, where her mother is from. After all, Mira’s journey would hardly be complete without a visit to the Lakes. The trilogy beckons.