The power of storytelling


Geeta Dharmarajan loves writing for children. She received the Padma Shri in 2012 for her work in literature and education. She was named ‘frugal innovator’ by the Millennium Alliance, set up by the governments of India and the US; and co-winner of Business Standard Social Entrepreneur of the year for 2018. An award-winning writer for children and adults, she has over 30 years of professional experience having served at the India Today Group of Companies, The University of Pennsylvania and INTACH, before Katha.

1. What or who motivated you to start ‘Katha’? Kindly elaborate.


I had been working with the Pennsylvania Gazette at The University of Pennsylvania in the US, and had just returned to India. Upon returning, I joined INTACH as a Director of Education. I was also working with Avvai Home, an orphanage. Through these roles, I interacted with children and teachers, and got to know the kind of issues and challenges that they face.


Later, my husband was transferred to Delhi, and so we moved cities. In some of Delhi areas, the plight of children was awful. Being a writer, I offered something to ignite the minds and the imagination of the children. It was around 1988 that I came across a poster, which said that close to 400 children were dying every day, due to diarrhoea. When I asked a few people how I could help, they asked me what I had in mind. Since I had already been writing on science-related matters, I brought out Tamasha! – a health awareness and environment magazine. The magazine started reaching the children in the slums, and the kids there started enjoying the stories because of the simple language of the stories. As I was also working with UNICEF around that time, the funding from them was helping me with this project, and ‘Katha’, slowly but surely, came into being.


2. How did ‘Katha’ get its name?


I used to go to the town hall every day to get the organisation registered. I ran around for 9 to 10 months for this, and every time I went there, the man at the desk refused to accept any of the names that we suggested. He had a problem with the ‘a’ or ‘the’ in the names. It was disappointing since my father – a Sanskrit scholar – and I had selected beautiful names for the society, and yet all of them were rejected.

One day, I just walked in, and said that the name was going to be ‘Katha’. And serendipitously, we were registered on 08th of September, which is World Literacy Day!

So, Tamasha! and Katha have set the tone and culture for all the work that we have been doing all these years.


3. Tell us a little more about Katha...


When Katha started, I wanted to do translations. I am fluent in both English and Tamil, and there was a rich repertoire of stories in different Indian languages that I wanted to bring to a wide audience. Also, when I was in the US, I saw a huge number of translations that were available in any shop, wherever you went. So I thought: if we could have the best of literature available in India, we as a nation could go beyond the language barriers and cultural divisions. I felt and still feel that stories and storytelling can be great unifiers through which people forget their differences, understand one another, and come together.

As I did not know all the Indian languages, I was looking for editors. Finally, it took close to 3 years for the first set of Katha stories to come out. But as soon as they were out, they did extremely well. We had to go for a reprint to ensure that enough copies were available. The Economic Times then said, “…a special and unique moment in Indian publishing history…” This is the way we started!


For us, at Katha, whatever we do and whomever we work with – be it children or teachers, the quality of our work and interactions is extremely important. This is something that I have learned from my mother, and my childhood days, where precision – even in drawing rangolis in front of the house – was very important. Katha just started out with me, and now, we are a team of about 130.


4. There are programmes for women and teacher trainings that you do. How did it all begin?


When the Tamasha! magazine went out, UNICEF liked it and shared it with the Delhi Government, and the officials liked it too. The Municipal Corporation in Delhi bought a few copies. When I went to meet the Commissioner, he spoke to me about their newly constructed building, and asked me if I wanted to start a school there. I was a little hesitant as I had never run a school before. But he liked my ideas, and he persuaded me to start a school. They wanted 5 schools in different constituencies, and they encouraged me to start one school. This was how Katha Lab School started in 1990.

At the beginning, we did not get enough enrolment. I had to think on my feet. I realised that you would have to be disruptive every moment when you are starting a non-profit school. We thought: if the women started earning, children would not be forced to earn for the family. That is how our women programmes were started. They started with cooking and embroidery programmes and teachers’ education.


By 1994, we had grown to 1600 children. The women we had trained were doing really well. By 2008, when we did a survey, we found out that the women were earning 10 times their prior family income. And when it came to children, the drop-out rates reduced, and some of our students had gone on to do their college education. Today, 80% of our children reach the tertiary education stage, and many are working in reputed companies, have businesses of their own or have joined the administrative services.


5. What is the curriculum that goes into teaching children in your schools?


Speaking of curriculum, what we needed was a holistic model at development while overcoming poverty. When you are working with children in poverty, and you know that you re looking to disrupting poverty, you have to think: ‘what kind of knowledge do we need for this?’ From this question, I developed the teachers’ education programme and the right content. The content had to be exciting for children, and something that would allow them to dream and think of a career path. The content had to be page-turning for them to read till the last page. So, to teach them reading, we had to train our teachers who themselves came from the slums. We never used textbooks. We experimented with different methods. We used stories and storybooks. Everything we needed to teach the children came from the stories. Even now, we teach mathematics, history, geography and science through stories. This is what made the difference.


6. What is the ‘StoryPedagogy’ that is used as a learning tool in Katha?


In 1992, I set up what I called the ‘Katha Relevant Education for All-round Development’. I realised that, in slums, unless the education provided was relevant to the child, they would not come to school. And most of them would help their families in small household chores to earn money. While teaching concepts, such as the maatras did not matter to the children, stories that were told – mattered the most. That was how StoryPedagogy was born. The stories became important. Using relevant, contextual and engaging stories enabled the children to think within the classroom space, and to ask questions. We led our children to think and imagine of how things could be different through the stories we brought to our classrooms.


I would develop a story for the whole year which the teachers would use to teach the different subjects. The stories involved history, mathematics, geography and all other subjects within the storyline. For example, if the story was about Queen Razia of Delhi, the math classes would involve learning about the distance and length of the tunnels built by her, cooking classes would involve asking children about the kind of cuisine that was prevalent at the time, etc.

For the child, it would be unique as there were no bells that rang and told them to go to the next class and forget the previous one. All the learning was experienced as a flow. There was integration of knowledge through the stories. From 2008, we have been focussing on the topic of climate change so that our children are aware of it as a global problem.


7. You have translated many books. How can one retain the essence of the original text after translation?


I believe that the story is in the silences and not in the words. Stories are beyond the sentences and paragraphs. Unless you understand what is in the mind of the author, you will not be able to do a translation which is true to the story. For example, people say ‘I know language A and language B, so I can translate’. But the important question is: Do you know the culture where the languages are used? Unless a person is able to invest the time and energy to understand the culture, the translation will never be true to the original.


Another important aspect is that you should be a reader. You cannot be a translator or even a writer if you are not a reader. While reading, I get into the literary language and I know how to express myself in fewer words.


I think translation involves entering into the spirit of what the writer has written and understanding what was running through the writer’s mind when she or he was writing the story. Translation is also about being the conduit between the writer and the reader.

If I am completely with the writer, I will not please the readers. But if I completely go with the readers, I am not being true to the writer and the story.

All said, it has been a huge experience for me – 33 years and counting of translating experience, to be precise!


8. Today, apart from textbooks, most children hardly read books. How can non-academic reading habits be inculcated in children?


To begin with, I think you need to experience the ‘joy’ of reading. That is what is important. But what is it that brings the joy of reading? A good book always gives children the joy of reading. Getting a child hooked on to reading a book – the very first time – might be difficult. But once it is done, we have achieved our goal.

But to understand the problem at a wider and deeper level – we have to understand that the problem exists in different forms.


To draw from our own experience – given our work with the government schools under the School Quality Enhancement Programme, we have shown that within a year, the children and the school can become the best in the district. This is about the children in government schools and the children in poverty that we are talking about, and who have a hunger for knowledge. These children want to do better and want to do well in life. For them, reading is a challenge of a different order. They have no access to a book-rich environment, no place where they can go and read, and they hardly receive family or community support even if they want to read. This is a systemic problem and it is not about the child’s lack of interest in reading.


When you look at elite schools, there is lack of interest because parents do not read. I cannot get my child to read if I am not reading. If I do not have a book at home and if they never see me reading, why should they read? And how can I expect my child to do something that I myself will not do? I think it is not the child who has to change. It is we, as adults, as teachers and parents, who have to change our own ways to help children be what they want to be.


9. Your message for educators and teachers…


My message is very simple: Just be yourself and enjoy your time with children. Have fun with them, and they will learn. Learning is something that happens when children and teachers are enjoying the interaction and the process. When we become too serious about teaching and learning, the joy is no longer there; not for children or for teachers.

We should laugh more, smile more, be kind, say something nice to the child encouragingly for the little things they do. And finally, we have to be ‘awesome’!

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