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For: Debu Majumdar’s Writings and Videos on his books

I answer below some questions from my readers:

What is Bo in Bo-Tree House?

My books are published by Bo-Tree House, so during my book signings, several people have asked me what Bo means.

Bo-tree is short for Bodhi tree, a common tree in India and South Asia. It is the tree under which Siddhartha Gautama Buddha received enlightenment 2600 years ago and made the tree famous. The small publishing company that published this book draws inspiration from this triumph of one man and is established on the image of this ancient but still flourishing Bodhi tree. I have been to the spot under the Bo-tree where the Buddha sat and meditated. Its heart-shaped leaves have inspired me all my life. I couldn’t but include a line in the Viku and the Elephant story that says:

“Tired and hungry, he [Viku] sat down under a large Bodhi tree with heart-shaped leaves.”

The Bo-tree is very special to me. It is a tree of awakening and I hope Viku books will inspire many children to search for knowledge and truth.

How old is Viku:

I was telling Viku’s story to a group of children and parents in a camp out in Kamas, Utah. It was late morning on a warm day and we sat in a shady grove. I finished the first chapter and the children asked several questions and they answered some themselves. When I was about to start the second chapter, a young mother asked, “How old is Viku?” She was in a hurry – she had to leave to catch a plane. She wanted to have this information so she could later explain the story well to her daughter.

Debu Majumdar telling Viku story to children and parents (Kamas Campout, Utah, July 24, 2011)

The thing is that I deliberately didn’t mention Viku’s age in the book. He was 11 years old in my mind, but I didn’t write it. Viku is a hero and I wished that anyone who reads the book or hears the story would like to associate himself or herself with Viku. Age will spoil the association. The book is meant for a wide age group from 4 year-olds to 11. If you are five, it is hard to fancy being eleven. However, you can always imagine that the hero is just like you, certainly of your age, and in fact the hero is you. This way all, even the adults, can imagine they are Viku as they read the story. This makes reading a book fascinating.

One reviewer of “Viku and the Elephant,” Susan Seefeldt, from Fairbanks, Alaska has written that “In addition to showing the friendship, loyalty, and bravery involved in Viku’s relationship with the elephants, the story gives the reader a chance to vicariously fulfill a dream that a fair number of children might have (including myself, now as an adult and as a child). Who wouldn’t love to have an elephant for a best friend, who lowers his trunk down specifically so you can climb up and ride around on him? And who listens to you, the child, and not the grown-ups! Whereas Horton, Dumbo, and Babar (lovable as they may be) are elephants one might want to befriend, one does not encounter them in their natural habitats, so there is always an element of the unreal lurking in the background. This heightens the vicarious experience of the reader.”

The young mother agreed with my idea (that Viku is of the age of the young-at-heart reader) and satisfied, she left for Germany with a new book in her hand.

From A Writer’s blog

July 26, 2011

Compassion in Viku Books:

Last Thursday at the Whinery, two good friends and I were discussing compassion in Buddhism. What does compassion mean when your partner, companion, or friend does something that hurts you? You wish to punch him and throw him out of your life. What would the Dalai Lama advise us here?

I thought of my book, Viku and the Elephant, which embodies ideas from Buddhism. In the story the zoo guards were ready to shoot an old elephant, but against the cautions and shouts of the people, Viku boldly walked toward the supposedly-rogue elephant. He could see that the elephant was not mad; he was only distraught for some reason. He talked with him in his special sign language that only elephants understand, calmed him down and saved him. This was Viku’s compassion. Others were only willing to let the elephant be killed to solve a problem – without understanding it. We often do the same thing in our daily life, with our family and friends, and in politics. We mistake someone’s words as directly hitting us in a bad way, but the person didn’t probably mean that at all. We interpret the words in our image not in his image. We react lacking a deep understanding of compassion.

Viku did what Gautama Buddha had preached. Viku was compassionate on two levels: he simply didn’t go to the elephant to be compassionate and stand before him to protect him so the police will have to kill him first; he understood that there is a deeper cause for the elephant’s behavior. To understand compassion we have to walk in the other person’s shoes. Compassion is not simply doing something to make one happy or ignoring bad behavior or actions, or offering your other cheek; it has an intellectual part to it. Only when you understand the reasons and the situation of the other individual, can you truly be compassionate. Superficial, emotional actions may arise from compassion, but that may not solve a problem.

So when your friend hurts you, be bold and have a chat with him, tell him your feelings and if he remains the same, you may need to move on to grow in your own life. It will be painful and that way you are also taking on his suffering, but this will be compassion.

The Dalai Lama wrote In “The Essence of the Heart Sutra”:

“According to Buddhism, compassion is an aspiration, a state of mind, wanting others to be free from suffering. It’s not passive – it’s not empathy alone – but rather an empathetic altruism that actively strives to free others from suffering. Genuine compassion must have both wisdom and loving kindness. That is to say, one must understand the nature of the suffering from which we wish to free others (this is wisdom), and one must experience deep intimacy and empathy with other sentient beings (this is loving kindness).”

12 July 2011

Why the boy, a friend of elephants, is not named Ganesh?

My friend Kristen Gazaway, who is jokingly writing on Facebook about running for the U.S. President as an independent candidate, has asked me why I didn’t name the boy in my children’s stories Ganesh. Ganesh or Ganesha is very well known in India as the elephant-headed god. He is worshiped by Hindus at the beginning of all ceremonies because he is the god of success. Hindus pay homage to Ganesh first in every worship service, before businessmen open their shops, and before starting a journey.

Having the elephant head and the body of a human, Ganesh should understand elephants extremely well, which is what the boy in the story does. Why didn’t I then name him after Ganesh? Viku is an ordinary boy in a poor laborer family. I could say that they would not think of naming their son after a god. Here people would not usually name a son after Jesus although there is no barrier to that. But that is not true in India and in some Spanish cultures. Indians often name their children after gods and goddesses. However, I think, subconsciously the mythological story of how Ganesh received his elephant head stopped me. Let me tell you a gist of the legend.

While the great god, Lord Shiva, was away, with her divine power his wife, the goddess mother of the world, created a handsome son for company. She asked him to guard the house and not let anyone in until she was done with her bath. In the mean time and without any notice, Lord Shiva showed up at the door and wanted to come in, but her son, Ganesh, guarded the door. Shiva didn’t recognize Ganesh and was naturally annoyed at the impudent boy and asked for entrance again. Ganesh told him his mother had ordered him to guard the door and he would not let anyone in so long as he was alive. At this Shiva became so angry that he chopped off Ganesh’s head and barged in to the house. When the goddess mother saw what Shiva had done, she was very angry and demanded that Shiva restore her son’s life. In order to placate his angry wife, Shiva asked his attendant to get the head of a living being immediately – whoever he could find first. The attendant met an elephant and brought its head to Shiva. Shiva then restored the boy’s life with the elephant’s head and, to make up for the mess he had created, gave Ganesh the blessing that he would be revered as the god who removes obstacles and be worshiped first – before all other gods. That is why all Hindu worship services begin with prayers to Ganesh.

This is a tall story and I wanted to write a simple tale of an ordinary boy. So the thought did not occur to me to associate my little boy with the important god of India who also happens to be the patron deity of all writers.

How Viku got his name:

During the announcement of publication of my children’s story, “Viku and the Elephant,” at the Idaho Falls Public Library, Matthew, a 4th grader, asked me how I came up with the name Viku. It was a very good question. I was surprised by his wonderful courage at a gathering where there were many adults: teachers, a principal of an elementary school, the librarian, several writers, parents, friends, even my aquatic aerobics instructor, and a few other children and grandchildren that accompanied them. I have known Matthew for two years; he is a quiet, intelligent boy with large dreamy eyes. His question was a true delight.
In India, most people have two names – one is called the good name, a name they get when they have their first solid-food, a special ceremony known as Annaprasan at the age of nine months to a year old.  This name becomes their official name. Traditionally, Indians do not give an official name to a child at birth, as is done in the West. This is because in the olden days many children died early in life. All children, however, get a nickname, and often are called by that name for the rest of their lives. My twin sister’s nickname is Chhobi (“picture”), because she was a beautiful baby, and I was called Lattu (a “spinning top”). You can imagine why they called me “spinning top,” something that goes round and round – I must have been a very busy little boy. The formal names – the good names – are often big, heavy, serious, and difficult to pronounce and used mostly in official papers, and, for many, not so much in everyday life.
Viku didn’t have a good name. I didn’t even imagine a good name for him. He was Viku in my mind as soon as he was born and remained so.
Matthew sent me back to my childhood when I first heard about a legendary King named Vikram. Vikram is a Sanskrit word, meaning “brave.” He was a wise king – valorous and magnanimous, and he willingly faced dangers in order to save his subjects. You may have read or heard of the book Vikram and the Vampire, which describes many of his adventures.
Like Jeffrey becomes Jeff, Viku is a nickname that comes from Vikram. In India the “u” sound serves the same purpose as the ee or y sound serves in the west (Cathy, Scotty, etc.). Vik could also be his name from Vikram, but that did not sound Indian and to me, Viku is more affectionate.
So, Viku in the story got his name from Vikram, the great king. Therefore, expect Viku to be brave and a very good person like King Vikram. Now you read the story and tell me if he is.

Sacredness in Viku and the Elephant:

My children’s book Viku and the Elephant has emphasized sacredness of graveyards more than once.

“That’s their sacred place,” Viku said, “You must not go there!”  

The story also talks about, although very gently and casually, the idea of acceptance of death. “When an elephant grows old and knows that his time has come, he says goodbye to his family and friends and goes there. It is a sacred place for elephants.”

This says three things: (1) death is inevitable for all – humans and other creatures, (2) death should not be feared but accepted as part of life, and (3) other beings, such as elephants, could have a sacred place for their dead.

Graveyards are the final resting places of the deceased – whether animals or human beings. These are extraordinary places and shouldn’t be disturbed, taken advantage of or looted. As you read the book, you will find that, even as a young boy, Viku shows great respect for graveyards. Viku’s words also reflect my thinking. I feel sad when robbers steal from graveyards or researchers go deliberately to excavate ancient tombs as if these things of the old culture don’t mean anything anymore. Displaying items from tombs in museums as objects of curiosity has a bad ring to it.

How do you teach children what is sacred? Sacred is something of great veneration. Usually it has some connection to the past, to some events of significance or a place where wisdom was found. To many it has some connection to divinity, coming from their religion. It is a place that makes you automatically quiet and introspective and lets you think of your own life in a broader perspective.

Different religions have different views about what happens after death. We are not discussing that here. What we are concerned with is the memorial place where one’s loved one’s remains or their ashes are kept. For most, this is a sacred place, a place of remembrance and continuity in their lives. That is how these places become holy and should remain so. After Gautama Buddha’s death, his body was cremated and the ashes were distributed to many who built Stupas (memorial structures) around his remains. These Stupas became holy places – places of pilgrimage.

Even though I wrote the book, I am always moved when I read these lines. I hope through Viku and Haatee’s story the children will find some feeling of what sacred is.

From A Writer’s Blog

August 3, 2011


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