“Each of us has to think about the changes we’re going to make for the environment”

In Zyrus the Virus (Tulika books, 2020), a sci-fi take on the COVID-19 pandemic, acclaimed writer and naturalist Zai Whitaker turns the tables and gives us a viral view of things! Her trademark humour brings on the chuckles, but beneath it are environmental issues rooted in the reality of today (and tomorrow). 

In this conversation with Daniya, Whitaker talks about her book; the process of writing for children; life amidst the pandemic; the urgency to respond to the environmental crisis and much more.

Image courtesy Tulika Books

Daniya Rahman (DR): What compelled you to write Zyrus the Virus? What kind of responses has the book garnered?

Zai Whitaker (ZW): It is a very natural subject for an environmental writer to choose… because the virus is throwing out all the important environmental messages that naturalists have been shouting out all along but not one of the "top dogs" listened. Now, because of the terrible damage being caused by Covid-19, they will…hopefully. The response has been encouraging but it's still early days. Hopefully the children of our decision-makers will read it, and convince their parents to do something….fast! There isn't much time to sit around doing nothing. 

DR: You wrote this book in seven weeks! How does that feel? What was the urgency behind finishing the book so quickly?

ZW: Well one urgency was that I felt I had the time, because of the lockdown… little knowing that it would continue, and continue, and continue. In any case it's a small, short book so seven weeks was more than enough. I certainly wanted to finish it, and have children reading it, while the pandemic was still going on. It's the appropriate background to read it in. 

DR: Writing for kids, you have to not only educate but also entertain in order to retain their attention. Could you talk about this process of writing for children?

ZW: Yes this is an important balance one has to keep. It's one of the most difficult things to do as a children's writer, because it's so tempting to go overboard with the "moral lessons". In this case I made a very conscious decision that the seed of the book was going to be the story, and the characters, and I gave some thought to the personality of each of the main players.   

DR: The book not only talks about the virus, but also, very subtly, points out other things that us humans are guilty of. "…they had mountains of stuff they didn’t really need…Yes, Earth had become Dearth, because the Dearthians focused on this sort of stuff, and trashed up their sentials: their water, air, soil, forests…", you write. How important is it that now, more than ever, we talk about the elephant in the room: Environmental issues and measures to save our planet?

ZW: Well there are in fact many elephants in the room, not just one, and unless we take heed they're going to take over and Earth will be Dearth. We know what the issues are but apart from the people in power, all of us, each of us, has to think very clearly and carefully about the changes we're going to make. I have this picture in my mind, of families reading the book together and creating their own list of resolutions towards Earth-healing. These would include less or no plastic, pressing local officials and politicians to take appropriate action, buying less, learning more about climate change and being responsible Earthians.  

DR: I personally feel that illustrations play an important role in Children's books. Could you tell us more about this process?

ZW: I agree; and am extremely grateful to Niloufer for having accepted this project even though it was a very busy time for her.

DR: How has life been amidst the pandemic? Do you plan on writing more books on the pandemic?

ZW: I'm lucky to have been "locked up" in the beautiful Croc Bank campus, with its large trees…not to mention the large animals as well. My older son is here with me which I'm so grateful for. There is some Croc Bank related work to be done every day, even though there are no visitors; mainly fundraising so we can keep the animals well fed and looked after, and our staff as well. I try to write a little every day, and do a mandatory hour of reading from one of the classics… currently Moby Dick.   

DR: How do you feel about events like book launches etc going online? Zyrus the Virus was also launched online. Do you think going online, limits accessibility or is it on the contrary?

ZW: Well I'm not from the online generation at all; email came in when I was in my mid-thirties. Of course one has had to get used to the dramatic transition, because there's no other way now of communicating. And the virus has really accentuated this; it's Zoom or nothing. Not my comfort zone but am doing the best I can and sometimes making pretty silly mistakes. But I better get used to it because it's here to stay.

The following is an excerpt from Zai's book, Zyrus the Virus:

This is an excerpt from Zyrus the Virus written by Zai Whitaker, with illustrations by Niloufer Wadia and published by Tulika Books. Republished here with permission from the author.
Zai Whitaker grew up in Mumbai, in a family of naturalists. She now lives and works at the Madras Crocodile Bank near Chennai, which she helped set up more than 40 years ago. She is the author of several books including the award-winning Salim Mamoo and Me (Tulika books).
Niloufer Wadia has done illustrations for several books including Kanna Panna, When Bholu Came Back and The Adventures of the Humongoose Family, published by Tulika books.