August 1, 2001
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A girl, a book, and some magic

Sonia Chopra

When Manjusha Pawagi was growing up in Toronto, she read at least one book a day. This was easy to do because she lived in a house full of books and had parents who loved reading.

Manjusha PawagiTwo years ago, when Pawagi started on her debut novel, she drew on her own experiences of being an Indian girl growing up in a house full of books and bookworms.

But Meena, the protagonist of her book, is diametrically opposed to her own character.

She is The Girl Who Hated Books.

Until the day she has a magical experience with them.

The book, which has been translated into 11 languages, is now being made into a cartoon film by the National Film Board of Canada.

The book is selling well, Pawagi says, because it has a timeless appeal. But "I never expected it would be so well received, be all sold out and be printed in so many languages", says the 34-year-old lawyer for the Children's Aid Society in Toronto.

The protagonist in her book just happens to be of Indian origin. After mentioning the fact once, Pawagi does not dwell on ethnicity or race.

"Once there was a girl named Meena. If you looked up her name in a book, you would find it means 'fish' in Sanskrit. But Meena didn't know that because she never looked up anything, anywhere. She hated to read and she hated books," it starts.

Like Pawagi's home, Meena's house is filled with books. They are on bookshelves, on bedside tables, on dressers, in drawers, desks, closets, cupboards, chests, stacked on chairs and crammed into the fireplace.

One day, Meena's parents were working in the garden while she was busy fixing herself a big bowl of cereal.

Suddenly, she hears the desperate meows of her cat Max. Upon investigation, she finds him stuck on top of the tallest stack of books in the house.

It was the earliest collection of books bought for Meena.

"At the bottom were big shiny picture books from when she was a baby. In the middle were alphabet books and nursery rhymes, at the top were fairy tales and adventure stories. They were all covered in dust."

While climbing up the stack of books to rescue the cat, Meena loses her balance, and the books go flying.

"Out of pages, people and animals started falling out and tumbling to the ground. They dropped one on top of the other, scattering books and toppling the chair. There were princes, princesses, fairies, frogs, a wolf, three pigs and a troll on a log. Humpty Dumpty, Mother Goose, Peter Rabbit."

As the characters from the various books crowd around, howling and screaming to get back into their books, Meena has an idea. She picks up a book and starts reading.

The effect is magical. Soothed, the animals and people clamour around her, and when she reads the books each one belongs to, they return to the books, leaving Meena lonely but surrounded by books which contain the stories of these characters.

Suddenly, she has evolved into a reader, a book lover.

The absence of the parents from the story is deliberate. "I want the child to make the discovery. They have to go through the experience, just like the children in The Cat in the Hat" (a series by Dr Zeuss, which used engaging stories and outrageous illustrations to impart basic reading skills to children).

Pawagi spent four months writing, testing and perfecting her text by reading aloud.

Speaking about her work as a lawyer, she says, "I work to protect children and ensure they are in a safe environment."

Her next book is also about an Indian girl who wants piano lessons, but her parents oppose her because she isn't studying hard enough. She also wants to work on a book on foster care for children.

Born in Amravati, Maharashtra, Pawagi was three when her family migrated to Toronto. Her father Bhaskar Pawagi is a retired tool engineer and her mother Asha is a research scientist.

After obtaining a bachelor's degree in English from the University of Western Ontario, the would-be writer went on to earn a master's in journalism from Stanford University. Upon graduation, she spent four months working for the Associated Press at St Louis, Missouri.

But she soon became homesick and returned to Toronto, where she got a part-time job at Toronto's CBC radio programme called Talking Books where she still discusses books. She also earned a degree in law at the University of Toronto.

In April, Pawagi married British-born Simon Farley, who shares her passion for reading and children. He is hoping to get a job as a teacher and spends his time volunteering at children's school. They plan to raise children who love books as well.

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