Author Maya Chandrasekaran talks about Cadet No.1's tales of grit and determination of women in the armed forces
Cadet No. 1 introduces readers to Wg Cdr Dr V Ramanan, Major Priya Jhingan and the all-woman crew of Navika Sagar Parikrama aboard INSV Tarini
There are hundreds of untold (and possibly) lost stories out there of amazing, pioneering women, blazing paths in their ways. As authors and storytellers, our job is to try and unearth these stories and showcase them,” says author Maya Chandrasekaran. With Cadet No.1 — And other amazing women in the armed forces, illustrated by Meera Naidu — Maya does just that by introducing readers to Wg Cdr Dr V Ramanan, Major Priya Jhingan and the all-woman crew of Navika Sagar Parikrama aboard INSV Tarini.
A common thread that ties the lives of these women together is their passion and determination. Where there was no clear road, they made their own, Maya notes. Each time, one of these women made it to the armed forces, a new chapter on equality was written — be it getting commissioned into the armed forces, or recruiting women in the army, or allowing a band of women to circumnavigate the world.
It all started for Maya after listening to the stories of her grand-aunt, Vijayam mami. All that this Carnatic music-loving mami, who gave many concerts on All India Radio, wanted was to serve people. Soon, she became the first woman in the Indian Air Force. When Maya wanted to tell her story, it snowballed into an anthology — of women in the Defence — for young adults. “Meera and I had already been working for a while on the first story in the book, Officer 4971, when we were introduced to the editorial team at HarperCollins. We have always wanted the stories to have a wide reach and were very excited at the possibility of partnering with them on this book,” she says.
Adding that extra zing of excitement to this book are Meera’s illustrations — in the form of diary entries, blogs and images. Being the daughter of an army officer, Meera was excited to bring the story of this often-unknown life.
Tell us about working with each other.
MC: Meera is a dear, old friend whose design aesthetic I’ve always admired. The moment I decided to write Cadet No.1 as a book for tweens, I asked Meera to partner with me on illustrations. It was clear to me early on that the art and illustrations in the book would be equally critical to conveying the story and mood. Although we had never worked together before, we quickly developed an easy rhythm. What helped enormously was having a deep implicit trust in each other and a strong alignment on the vision of the book.
MN: I’ve always known Maya to be a dedicated and organised person, and so her remarkable drive helped steer the entire process. Our discussions rarely centred around certain givens. We were always in agreement that the text of the book was what set the tone for the illustrations; very early on, we landed on first-person narratives and the wildly varying styles. The meat of our discussions was most often ensuring that the tone of the text and the illustrations proceeded in tandem.
How did you round in on these personalities?
MC: Wg Cdr Vijayalakshmi Ramanan was the starting point for this book; she is a cousin of my grandmother’s. Initially, I was intrigued by her life and achievements, but very quickly, I got drawn into researching other pioneering women in the armed forces. There are dozens of inspirational women and stories, but the women in these stories (Major Priya Jhingan, Lt. Cdr. Vartika Joshi, Lt Cdr Pratibha Jamwal, Lt Cdr P. Swathi, Lt Aishwarya Boddapati, Lt S Vijaya Devi and Lt Payal Gupta) stood out to some extent for the amazing sense of adventure, grit and passion they showed.
Are there any fascinating anecdotes that didn’t make it to the book?
MC: There were many, but one that stands out is about Wg Cdr Dr Ramanan. She was fiercely independent and learnt how to drive a car at 14 (in 1938). This was unusual for a woman of her times. But equally fascinating is the fact that she continued to drive into her 80s, often taking her car, an Austin 8, around Bengaluru as she continued to practice medicine.
Could you walk us through the research process?
MC: Wherever possible I did primary research and was lucky enough to spend several hours chatting with Maj Jhingan and Wg Cdr Dr Ramanan (before she passed away last year). In addition, both Meera and I reached out to others who would be able to share a sense of the context and ethos of the armed forces. And of course, I did extensive reading and research based on existing public materials — interviews, newspaper articles, even a documentary. The research process itself was fascinating, constantly revealing new inspirations and characters (including Rajalakshmi Sehgal, Veeramangai Velu Nachiyar, Rani Abbakka and Jeannne Baret).
MN: The ideation, planning and placement of each image were entirely driven by the text it was meant to illustrate. We tried to ensure that almost every page had a hand-drawn element on it. The next step was to see if a good quality image was available that could serve as a guide for the realistic images. The guidelines given by the publisher’s design team were very helpful; they helped me ensure that all the images were print-ready in the correct resolution and size.
Unlike most illustrated books, there is a range of styles seen in Cadet 01 — detailed pencil sketches sit next to quick pen and ink doodles and hand-written diary pages and letters. I kept the portraits as detailed and realistic as I could. There is a lot of layering seen in the portraits — this helped add layers of information to the image. For example, I researched the hometowns of the crew of Tarini and added those details to their portraits. The more casual drawings were used to illustrate events and incidents.
Wherever I could, I tried to add some humour and whimsy to the doodles. The sutra that ties the sections of the book together is the first-person narratives in the form of handwritten pages from a journal, handwritten letters, and blog posts. I used various sources to try and understand the period-specific form these would take. I read my father’s journal written when he was a schoolboy, I went through my father-in-law’s old letters, I took photographs of a letter being held and read. I tried to make the handwriting change with the age of the protagonist.
Was illustrating real-life incidents challenging?
MN: It was a challenging process for me. The illustrations are all black and white, not usually what we associate with books for children. I put in a lot of effort into making them interesting and tried to add textures and layers to the detailed works that would make them stand out. I wouldn’t have been able to find the right direction without the help of my friend Priya Kuriyan. I am deeply grateful for the guidance and feedback she gave me. Having one of the best illustrators holding your hand and taking you through the process is a privilege.