English literature has always been her first love; mathematics came next. That is why, in spite of all the pressures on her to take up a ‘safer’ career option, she stuck to her love and chose the road less taken. And she has no regrets.
Khyrunnisa’s family, comprising her parents and seven siblings, settled down in Trivandrum, for her father believed that Trivandrum was the best place to provide the children with good education. Khyrunnisa did her schooling in Holy Angels Convent, undergraduate studies in All Saints College and postgraduate as well as M Phil. in University College, Trivandrum.
She vividly recalls her love for reading books from childhood – Richmal Crompton, Jerome K Jerome, Angela Brazil, Enid Blyton being some of her favourites then. “At home, everyone loved books. We even used to fight for them,”she says with a laugh.
All the reading helped her master the language, and English was, naturally, her favourite subject in school. It was Sister Elfrieda, her teacher in English and Mathematics in Holy Angels, who encouraged Khyrunnisa and nurtured her taste for books.
“Teachers influenced me a lot,” says Khyrunnisa.
It was yet another teacher, Sister Amata, the then Principal of All Saints College, who advised her to take up a course she liked rather than opt for the popular medicine or engineering courses. “You have to take responsibility when you decide to do something of your choice. Face the challenges and prove that you were right,” said the Principal to a young Khyrunnisa.
She eventually did this, getting the third rank for BA English Literature in Kerala University.
Another teacher who influenced her and fostered her love for the subject was Leela Subramoni, the Head of the English Dept at All Saints.
After completing her post graduation, Khyrunnisa went back to Holy Angels and later, to All Saints, to teach English, a job she enjoyed very much. Later on, she joined the Punjab National Bank as a Management Trainee. During her training, she travelled all over India – Chennai, Hyderabad, Nagpur, Delhi and Nazafgarh, being some of the places where she worked. However, rather than taking up a permanent job with PNB, she rejoined All Saints and has been with them since 1982. “I love teaching and I love my students. I guess I share a rapport with them,” she adds.
Khyrunnisa had never considered being a full fledged writer, though she used to take part in various writing competitions in school and college, thanks to her teachers. She has won many prizes and has written stories that were read out on AIR. But those were forgotten as years passed by and she grew busier with her teaching and her family.
Khyrunnisa with her husband Vijayakumar and a copy of ‘Howzzat Butterfingers’
“I spent most of my free time with my son. I used to make up stories for him as it was quite difficult to make him eat his food otherwise. Characters like Bluebottle, the policeman; Tommy, the fireman; Smiley and Minna, just popped out of nowhere doing all sorts of crazy things.”
One such creation of hers, Butterfingers, made it big when she won the second prize in Tinkle’s story writing competition for adults in 1996.
The turning point was when Prabha Nair, an Assistant Editor with Tinkle then, came down searching for her to let her know how well they all liked the story – ‘Butterfingers’ – and to see if the writer was “as bubbly as her story itself”.
Encouragement from Prabha got her to write several more prize winning short stories for the children’s magazine. During this time, Khyrunnisa was also writing a regular column on classics for the Indian Express and occasional articles for the Hindu, Outlook Traveller, Kerala Calling and other publications. Her stories continued to appear in Tinkle and some of her stories were published by Children’s Book Trust in anthologies. Unisun Publications brought out a volume of her prize winning stories.
It was finally in 2006 that her pet character Butterfingers got his break, when Luis Fernandes, the Editor of Tinkle, asked her to create a regular character for their magazine. She was introduced to Abhijeet Kini, a young illustrator, who gave form to Butterfingers, just the way she wanted it (apart from the auburn hair which she requested be made black). And together they gave India one of its most loved comic characters.
What she loves most about Butterfingers
“He is just another boy – adorable, clumsy, funny and nothing extraordinary. He is a character anyone could relate to, which makes him endearing to most of us.”
She gets her ideas for Butterfingers’ clumsy acts from daily life – be it her husband’s fall in the bathroom or her mistaking a plastic centipede for a real one. Any tiny bit can inspire her to make a plot around it and give it a humorous twist.
“Weaving a story for children is not easy. It needs clarity, should be interesting and it must capture and keep their attention. I don’t like talking down to people and my stories aren’t the preachy type. I just want children to be happy when they read my stories,” says she.
She also takes care to avoid any active evil, and when accused of being idealistic she says, “What’s wrong with being idealistic in books? I think reading should give joy and as long as my books do that, I’m happy.”
She loves children, especially young boys, for being the carefree and fun-loving selves they are, unlike grown-ups who forget to be genuine and are more often superficial. Humour is another thing one would find in abundance in the author’s writings. Though she has done a few serious pieces for adult readers, most prefer her light-hearted stories.
Her favourite reads?
PG Wodehouse, Bill Bryson, Rohinton Mistry and Marquez among others. Aravind Adiga’s ‘White Tiger’ was something else that she enjoyed reading. She read it because she wanted to know if all the criticism it attracted was warranted, and ended up liking the book.
Plans for the future?
“I want to write more Butterfingers novels and other stories, settle down here and get things published,” says the author with a childlike enthusiasm and joy.