Insofar as nonsense literature makes sense, Anushka Ravishankar's latest book Ogd (with its echo of "Oz" and "Oh god", along with a mile-long subtitle to boot) should make readers, young and not-so-young, cackle every so often.
The protagonist of the story is a Messiah who is born in the kingdom of Ogd with her foot in the mouth—literally. It's an unenviable condition, causing all sorts of problems at home, school and in later life. Apart from subsisting on a diet of toenails, she looks like the "paisa worm", with its tail in its mouth. When it's time for her to attend school, she finds the benches ergonomically unsuited to exercise her birthright to suck her toes.
But nothing is as it should be in Ogd, especially the Messiah's teachings, which leaves her followers unsure of what's true and what's not. Is there a difference between a Mobius Strip and Band-Aid? Or are they two sides of the same thing? In which case, what is that thing? Such philosophical conundrums run through the story, which are going to tickle young readers' imagination and leave adults sighing about the horrid nest of misinformation the world is thrust into.
Apart from the squiggles and doodles that run through the book, there is also a delightful parody of the publishing industry, among other farcical milieus, feat. a miserably bitter critic and the Messiah's attempts at writing Rupi Kaur-like poems. In theory, nonsense should be the easiest thing to pull off (after all, so much of what gets published these days is not far from nonsense even when it doesn't intend to be so), but it requires a particularly brave leap of imagination for the writer (and her publisher) to actually pull off this feat.
We spoke to Ravishankar about the making of the book. Edited excerpts:
Why inspired you to write nonsense?
When I first read the nonsense of Lewis Carroll I felt like a duck who had found water. Somehow the idea of nonsense, especially Carroll's kind of nonsense, which revels in paradox and the subversion of language and logic, really appealed to me. So I started writing nonsense poems when I was in college. When I showed it to friends, they usually looked askance at me and went, 'Enh, what?' But that didn't deter me. Then, when I started writing for kids, I was lucky enough to find a publisher (Tara Books) who loved nonsense as much as I do, so I was able to write nonsense and get published.
Was it terribly difficult or easy to write this book?
Oh, very easy. I had been reading Douglas Hofstadter's Gödel, Escher and Bach, which talked about strange loops in music and art and mathematics; I've always had nonsense in my blood and in my brain; I've always loved mathematical paradoxes and silly poetry; so it all came together with a tremendous whoosh that became this book. It started off as a short story, which I wrote for the friend who lent me his typewriter on that condition. The beginning and end were part of the short story. But then it kind of grew in the middle.
Apart from the fact that many grown-ups are bound to love the book, who were your typical target readers?
I honestly never thought of a reader while writing this book. I think anyone, young or old, who enjoys wackiness would enjoy this book. Others will probably go 'Enh, what?' And that's a perfectly legitimate response, too.
Is creating a nonsense universe liberating or is it a scary free fall into the unknown?
A free fall into the unknown is always liberating. As long as you don't go thud at the end! But seriously, it's exhilarating to not be bound by logic or meaning, or sometimes even language, because in nonsense you're allowed to make up your own words. It's not easy, though, to find that balance between meaning and no-meaning. Complete gibberish is not nonsense, for instance. It's when you almost make sense, but actually don't, that it becomes nonsense.
How did the dig at writing, publishing, critics, and readers come about?
I was far far away from the world of publishing when I wrote that. I didn't know any publishers or critics. The book takes a dig at almost everything, so publishers and critics are just part of the list. They haven't been specially targeted, promise!
Does nonsense have to make sense?