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Is it a book? Is it a game? Anshumani Ruddra helps the reader find some answers

In Anshumani Ruddra’s latest book, The Enemy of My Enemy, assassin agent PRD Jhabvala’s high-priority mission gets stalled when he gets cornered by a Godzilla-like lizard. What happens next? Does Jhabvala battle the lizard or does he run for his life? In most conventional books, that’s a decision the author would make. But in Ruddra’s multi-player gamebook, it’s the readers who decide how the story should move forward.

Gamebooks, said Ruddra, are stories that allow readers at several points in the narrative to make choices about how the plot should proceed. “Each storyline has multiple endings,” said Ruddra. “The reader’s choice makes the character win or lose, live or die.” Ruddra, who has written several short stories for children, has ensured that there are plenty of twists and turns in his gamebook. Here, Jhabvala is working on an important case: the Earth has stopped rotating on its axis and the sun is stuck above Japan. His quest can take him to South Africa, Antarctica or Japan, depending on the reader’s choices. “

As a genre, gamebooks are quite old in the West,” said Ruddra. “They fall under the category of Choose Your Own Adventure.” Though they’re still a novelty in India, it isn’t as if they haven’t been available here before. In the late ’80s, gamebooks based on the Nancy Drew detective series by Carolyn Keene and the Hardy Boys series by Franklin W Dixon could be found in stores. As a kid, Ruddra read fantasy-based, Dungeons & Dragons-variety gamebooks and GI Joe adventures. “The GI Joe books were slim volumes of 70 to 80 pages each,” he recalled. “But in that many pages you had some 20 stories. Each time you read the book, you came up with something new.”

Ruddra has added a twist to the conventional gamebook format by making it possible for children to read it with their friends or siblings. Kids can split into teams and become Jhabvala’s “spirit guide”. One side becomes the Knights of Order whose job is to find a peaceful resolution to a problem. The other team takes on the mantle of the Crusaders of Chaos, who are out to cause more mayhem. Ruddra, who is now working on a sequel to the book, wants to encourage reading as a group activity. “When we were kids, my friends and I used to read together,” he said. “Not everyone had a copy of Tintin or Asterix, so we’d huddle together and read the comic. It was fun.”

A chemical engineer from Chennai’s Indian Institute of Technology, Ruddra is a big fan of Japanese anime and manga comics. The influences are visible in his book. Samurais and Japanese gangsters rub shoulders with androids and djinns. Ruddra has plenty of surprises in the plot, with some choices leading to an unpredictable, brutal end.

“It took me six months to plan the book’s structure and only three weeks to write it,” said Ruddra, who frequently conducts writing workshops for schools and Prithvi Summertime in Mumbai. “I worked out many beginnings, endings and middles. Since it had to be a multi-player format, it took me time to figure out the structure. Usually, the reader has to make the hero win, but here I had to make it possible for him to lose.”

Ruddra gets his niece and nephew to listen to his stories as he writes them. They don’t mind the sudden diversions and multiple endings. “We think that if it isn’t a linear narrative, they will get confused,” he said. “Kids are sharp, you tell them a haphazard story and they will still get it. For them, it’s normal for the hero to stop suddenly in the middle of a quest to eat a popsicle.”

Anshumani Ruddra’s The Enemy of My Enemy, Scholastic, R90
Ages 10+

 By Bijal Vachharajani on August 07 2009

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