Dr Siri – In conversation with Atreya Sarma U

Dr Siri
Dr Siri is a prolific poet and writer, mainly for children. A dentist by qualification, she has been fully drawn into creative literature and service to the differently abled section of children. In recognition of her contribution to the field of children’s literature, the Telangana government feted her with the ‘Vishishta Mahila Puraskar’ for 2018. Some of her books have been translated into Hindi, Urdu and Tamil; and the translations into Marathi, Sanskrit, English, Kannada, and Koya are in press. With a view to acquainting the readers with her literary endeavours and philanthropic bent of mind, AtreyaSarma, Chief Editor of Muse India, engages her in the following conversation. 

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U Atreya Sarma

Atreya Sarma U (ATREYA): Dr Siri, you’ve a very large output of children’s stories and also poems, during your literary journey. How many of your stories and poems have been published so far? How many books you have published so far? How could you produce such a massive output considering that you are young yourself?

Dr Siri (SIRI): Thank you. Among my works, over 200 of poems, 200 crosswords, 200 stories for children, 20 stories for adults, besides lyrics for children, reviews, articles, and translations have been published.

My playlet ‘Urishiksha’ (Death Sentence) has been broadcast by the All India Radio (AIR). About 300 of my children’s stories have been featured in the animation form in the Lollipop App. The App also contains the simplified stories for children I did from the Mahabharata as well as four of my lyrics composed for and sung by children. I have also penned the title song for the Lollipop App.

ATREYA: Why have you chosen children’s literature as your main writing activity? Who or what factors have motivated you into it? And what do you want to achieve through it?

SIRI: Right from the beginning, be it in the surroundings of my home or wherever I go, I find a number of children around me. To many people, children are those with their conspicuously endearing smiles and naughtiness. But children have their other side too. Their minds simmer with a maze of unexpressed fears, troubles, doubts and questions. But unlike the adults, they can’t speak out their minds. All the same, they churn up the unvoiced reflections in their minds to find out the answers, and, in the process, they turn them into questions and raise them before the elders. And most of the elders laugh away such questions as crazy ones.  But certainly, they are not crazy questions, and I have realised this only after heartily and affectionately interacting the children.

In fact, the stories I have created are meant to answer such questions popping from the minds of children. It is only the children and their questions that have made me a children’s writer. Whatever I have written – lyrics, crosswords, stories, playlets – it owes it to the children themselves and is meant only for them.

Children are like saplings. If we nurture them well, they will grow up like strong and sturdy trees. And the entire world happily lives under the canopy of such trees. If this has to turn into a reality, children should be brought up in a happy and healthy environment.

It’s not just the physical but the mental health that would cultivate good values of life. If children have to excel our generation and be a torchbearer to the next generation with clarity and conviction, we have to put them on a path of holistic progress and values. And the path I have chosen is literature, since literature has the ability to influence humans and their way of thinking. Most importantly, the impact that stories and lyrics create on children is enormous and abiding. That’s why, ever since the dawn of human civilisation, the art of telling stories to children has become an integral part and parcel of every culture in the world.

If the literary output I have been creating is able to spark off the positive feelings in our children even to a little extent and help them at least step ahead, I feel that my mission has been fulfilled, and that itself will be my greatest achievement. 

ATREYA: At what age did you get into writing? And who are the people who encouraged you to your satisfaction?

SIRI: When I was ten, my father spoke to me about Sarojini Naidu and mentioned that she penned her first book when she was just twelve. It made an indelible imprint on my mind, and I began writing ever since. But at that age, I didn’t know what constituted a “writing” – what should be written about, or how it should be written. Yet, I went ahead with my writing activity, letting out my thoughts in the words that I knew. When I entered my eighth grade, I showed some of them to my teachers, and they commented, “You’ve written well. There is meaning and rhythm in what you’ve written. And it’s readable. Now write them down on the blackboard, so that everyone can read them out.”

The compliments from the teachers encouraged me, and writing has become my breath ever since. And I have benefited a lot by the advice, guidance and appreciation received from many other elders like – noted film actor and writer Ravi Kondala Rao who read through all my works; ‘Padma Shri’ recipient KC Sivasankaran (famous illustrator for the Chandamama monthly); renowned film lyricist and ‘Padma Shri’ recipient Sirivennela Seetharama Sastry; well-known writer Kalipatnam Rama Rao; and film writer Esukapalli Mohana Rao. Especially, veteran Ravi Kondala Rao volunteered to be my benign guru, and illumined me on various aspects of literature with a fatherly affection.

I also owe my gratitude to my parents, siblings, husband, mother-in-law, and friends whose support has been steadfast and solid all the while.

ATREYA: You are a dental doctor by qualification, but are you doing your practice? If you have to choose between dental profession and children’s literature, what would you prefer?

SIRI: The dental profession and the art of writing are independent of each other, and either of them is important and distinguished in its own way. But if should prefer only one of them, I would certainly vote for children’s literature.

ATREYA: Your writing is in Telugu, your mother tongue. It’s a stark reality that for many years Telugu language has come to be neglected as a medium of study or creative expression. As a result, the standards of Telugu have been declining. And so is the interest in reading of Telugu books plummeting on a downward slope. It has become a fashion to routinely adulterate Telugu with English words, whether called for or not, as a kind of craze or fashion. Under such circumstances, how is the demand for Telugu books in general and especially yours? And what should be done, in your view, to promote the study of Telugu among the Telugu people? There are alarm bells signalling that Telugu would disappear before long from the scene of languages. What do you have to say about it?

SIRI: What you say is not far off the truth. Somehow, when it comes to the question of our association with English language, we tend to feel a sense of false prestige. And when it comes to our mother tongue, we tend to belittle it and as if speaking in Telugu is a waste or offence. Our attitude needs to change and we should realise the importance of adoring our mother, mother tongue and motherland. The fancy for English has certainly brought down the number of readers in Telugu, but only to some extent and not wholly.

We may be reading and speaking in several languages, but the way our mind-cum-heart resonates when we speak and read in our own mother tongue, the vibes that come out are quite distinct. We feel a sense of closeness and ineffable intimacy. This type of alchemy and love of mother tongue promotes the popularity of Telugu literature. Luckily, still there are a good number of Telugu lovers and readers, and it is precisely this factor that has made my books, like those by many others, popular enough. The lion’s share of my literary creation goes out to children, and it’s encouraging for me that they hold my books dear to their heart.

I don’t agree that Telugu is going to be extinct. I do believe that the flag of Telugu language is going to fly high for the reason that during the last four years, hundreds of children have put pen to paper and come out with thousands of their works. As many as 300 books have come out of the hands of children below 15 years of age. It’s certainly a silver lining for our cute, sweet Telugu language. So, where’s the question of Telugu disappearing from the scene?

ATREYA: You have been conducting writing workshops for children. Please share your experiences – how many workshops you have conducted? At how many places? How many children have partaken so far in them? How many of them have turned into good writers? Who have been cooperating with you in this welcome venture? And how do you feel about all this exercise?

SIRI: I have been taking part in the writing workshop for children and teaching them the techniques of creative writing for the last ten years. Some of these workshops were organised by me with the support of the schools concerned. And I served as a resource person in the workshops conducted by organisations like the Telangana Sahitya Akademi, Dr Madabhushi Rangacharya Smaraka Samiti, and Rangineni Trust. For two years during the time of the Corona pandemic, I participated in the online workshops convened by many literary organisations.

Hundreds of children have taken part in the workshops. And about 200 of them have turned into good published writers, and besides penning poems and stories, some of them have brought out even Satakams, a posy of one hundred or slightly more metrical poems, mostly of ethical values.

What’s the use of children writing stories? Many ask this question. Here I’d like to share a relevant experience. A few years ago, I organised a writing workshop in a government school in a village. About 200 children joined it, and I held a competition in story writing. The winner was a girl, eight years old. I walked down to congratulate her. But she didn’t utter a word despite my continued persuasion. After reading her story, I felt that either her mom or dad or maternal granny or paternal grandma or grandpas must have been telling her stories every day.

Noticing my vain attempts at making the girl open her mouth, the headmaster approached me and said, “Madam, this girl hardly speaks to anyone. Her father had passed away, and her mother is ill. The girl doesn’t have anyone except her mom. As soon as the school closes for the day, she runs out to find some chore or the other to eke out a few rupees for survival. On every holiday, she works as a farmhand. The little one keeps all the pain to herself, not sharing it with anyone. We know all these things, because we are a first-hand witness. We too have tried our best to make her open up.

Though she is not forthcoming, she never neglects her studies. She is very intelligent. The quality of her story must have proved it to you. 

Unable to contain my empathy and sympathy for her, I said, “My darling, I am like your elder sister. Won’t you please share your suffering with me?”

“That’s why I’ve written the story,” the girl muttered.

In another workshop in 2017, I happened to hear the same type of heart-wrenching words coming out of one Sugandhi. There is a gap in their ages and in their life stories, but the flow of tears was the same. To wipe away the tears, to be brave and resolute, both of them chose the same medium – and it is literature.

Now let’s go back to another workshop in 2019. I asked one of the participants, “What expectations made you attend this workshop?”

“I’d like my father to give up drinking and take care of the family he has been neglecting? I feel that that the story I am going to write should bring about the change in him. But I don’t know how to write a story; that’s why I am here,” said the boy.

And he did write the story, and it not only got him the prize but also changed his father for good.

When he was receiving the prize, his mom said, “Madam, I had tried my best to bring my husband to his senses, but I failed. But my sonny has written just one story, and with that he has saved our entire family,” wiping her tears.

I have come across countless experiences like these. The background of each story penned by such children is too big and intense for one’s imagination. The writing workshops are meant not only to identify and tap the children’s creativity but also help them pour out their sufferings, thoughts and emotions so that they could develop a sound personality. And I feel so blessed to be a part of such transformative workshops.

ATREYA: Not limiting yourself to story writing, you’ve been into social service – succouring the needy and ‘disabled’ children. How do you get time and funds for it? At how many places and how many children you have helped so far? Are there any individuals or NGOs that are standing by you?

SIRI: Once, I happened to read about the visually disabled in a magazine. After reading through the piece, I felt that it was beyond one’s imagination to grasp the difficulties and sufferings of the blind lot. This intense angst has made me to do my bit for their cause. As part of this, I have been into narrating stories to them, and teach them dancing. Likewise, I have been visiting the schools for the deaf and telling stories to them.

ATREYA: It’s very touching that you’ve produced audio books for the visually disadvantaged children. How many such books you have brought out? What is the readers’ response? And what is your experience in this line of activity?

SIRI: I have brought out 6 audio books containing 250 stories for the benefit of the blind children and the cooperation I have received from the LV Prasad Eye Institute is very solid. The books have been made available for free to all the schools for the blind in both the Telugu states, and all the children who have listened to the stories, have felt happy. And the most delightful thing is, some of them have begun to write their own stories.

ATREYA: Now let’s go back to your own childhood. Do you have anything special to share from your childhood – from preschool to SSC (X Grade) – that could have served as the seed of your chosen literary activity? And where did you have your school education?

SIRI: When I was a sixth grader, my parents and I were going in an autorickshaw.

At an intersection, the traffic light turned red, and we had to halt. There was another autorickshaw beside ours. Father spotted the passenger in it, and said, “Siri, do you know who he is? He is a very great writer, and the lyrics he penned have been a source of inspiration to many. He is Dr C Narayana Reddy!” He went on.  “An ailment that sometime a physician can’t cure, can be cured by a poet through his healing words. That’s the uniqueness of creative writing and of the words that make it. An ideal writer should not only read the works of others but also stimulate others to read his/her own work. Then only, you’ll impart value to the syllables. So, try to understand this and emulate this idea.”

My father’s words sowed the seeds of literature in me at that impressionable age. And my education up to Intermediate took place at my native town, Miryalaguda on the banks of the Krishna district. I did my BDS at Khammam.

ATREYA: Do you have any interests other than children’s literature? If so, what are they?

SIRI: Besides reading books, I am interested in sculpture and dancing. I have used stone and plaster for my sculptures and presented them to many interested people. As for dancing, I have self-learnt the semi-classical, folk and contemporary forms, and taught them to many blind children and helped them perform in their school programmes.  

ATREYA: It’s quite well known that despite your stellar achievements, you’re are way too modest, never wanting to get into the limelight. Yet, if the society gets to know of the recognitions that have come your way and the ideal life you have been leading with healthy stories for children, it would serve as a source of inspiration to many. So please tell us the prestigious awards you have won so far.

SIRI: In recognition of my efforts in the field of children’s literature, I received the ‘Vishishta Mahila Puraskar’ for 2018. And I have the privilege of being felicitated by many a literary and cultural organisation.

ATREYA: Are there any personalities in the field of children’s Telugu literature that have created a strong influence on you?

SIRI: Rather than personalities or individuals, there is a magazine that has left a profound influence on me. It’s the Chandamama monthly, the most popular children’s magazine published in almost all the Indian languages including Telugu.

ATREYA: And what are the current writing projects or workshops or service programmes that you have listed out for yourself?

SIRI: I am right now translating some books for the National Book Trust of India (NBT), besides readying my own books for print. I am also planning a few writing workshops for children.


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