This is storyteller Anushka Ravishankar’s favourite anecdote. She is on a train from Chennai to Thiruvananthapuram when, as usual, the young man across her asks her what she does for a living.
“I write children’s books.”
“So you write books that teach children something.”
“No. I write books that are fun to read.”
“What is the point of a children’s book that doesn’t teach something?”
“Children love to read for fun too. I do.”
This fraught exchange continues with the young man growing increasingly confused. Light dawns on him finally and he sits back, relieved: “Now I understand. You write fun books for children so they learn to read, so they can finally read books that teach them something.”
For long, children’s writing in English in India was a bleak landscape where morals had to be driven home and lessons taught that life is a serious, punishing business. As a child, sci-fi writer Vandana Singh says she seriously believed that interesting things only happened to foreigners. How else did you explain the fact that only sunshine children in Enid Blytons were cycling off on adventures, wolfing down butter scones and holding midnight feasts?
Thankfully, Singh and Ravishankar haven’t let their experiences dampen their spirits. Singh’s Younguncle series for Young Zubaan/Puffin is perhaps the only Indian children’s title with the dubious honour of being pirated for the pavement buyer. Two more books about the zany, but infinitely wise, uncle of three small-town children—whose mother Only Speaks in Capital Letters—are sitting in the head of this physics teacher at a Boston college. They are among the most eagerly awaited titles from Young Zubaan/Puffin.
Ravishankar’s Moin and the Monster was one of Puffin’s favourites last year, selling 4,500 copies in a year.
These are happy reading times for eight- to 12-year-olds who like to be surprised with local flavour in their books. Riding the amazing wave of Harry Potter’s success, a whole jumble of original Indian books for children—science fantasy, pure fantasy, city stories, adventure stories, grim stories, girlie adventures and boy larks—are waiting to crash the market over the next few months.
“There are lots of cool new things happening in Indian kid lit. Payal Dhar, Vandana Singh, Samit Basu, Sarnath Banerjee—they are revolutionizing the writing scene in India,” says Virginia-based computer scientist Anil Menon, whose science fiction romp, The Beast with Nine Billion Feet, will reach the market by April-May.
It would be brash to presume that they will sweep Harry Potter, Goosebumps or Captain Underpants off the shelves. After all, the last Potter book sold 1 lakh copies on the first day and the next one (due in July) is expected to sell around 1.6 lakh copies on day one. So far, except for Ruskin Bond, few Indian authors have had a big following. A big hit sells around 5,000 copies. But books by the new brigade of writers will put an end to the drought of original Indian books for pleasure reading.
Science fiction and fantasy lead the pack. Apart from Menon’s book, three others are in the queue: Payal Dhar’s sequel to her first book The Key to Chaos, Sonia Chandrachud’s Potion of Eternity and a Puffin collection of stories about the alternate world of computing.
Urban stories, both realistic and creative, include Vani Subramaniam’s Girl Power, Ranjit Lal’s Battle for Number 19, Sirish Rao’s The London Jungle Book and Ravishankar’s To Market, To Market. Deepa Agarwal’s Caravan to Tibet, anthologies such as Favourite Tales for Girls and Favourite Tales for Boys, and Vinita Coelho’s Dungeon Tales are the forthcoming titles in the adventure category.
Kalpana Swaminathan and Ishrat Syed, whose Nyagrodha, The Ficus Chronicles did a distinctive retelling of the Panchatantra, are planning the next four instalments of the book.
Young Zubaan’s commissioning editor Anita Roy believes that intelligent authors have finally broken the old mould about writing for children. “There is this thinking that if we are writing for kids, we have to write childish; that you have to filter content and think deeply about the words that can be used for children. This is not true at all. And the fact that children have responded well to ‘different’ books proves that,” she says.
There is recognition too that children should know what is happening around them—the darker corners of life, the tough issues—but all put into an effortless format like Dhar’s sci-fi book, which, Roy says, is not “star warry”, but also talks about the problems of growing up. Lal’s book The Battle for Number 19 is an adventure story set during the 1984 riots in Delhi. And Caravan to Tibet talks of a Kumaoni boy’s adventures on a mountain trail.
“What makes these new stories special is that they take children seriously. They are not preachy or condescending and they are written well. Many people think that writing for children is easy—you just put in a simple storyline, maybe add magic and a couple of platitudes, and give them a happy ending. But, children can detect fraud better than most grown-ups,” says Singh.
She rarely stints on using multi-syllabic words if they fit the story better because she finds that children are intelligent enough to figure out the meaning from the context.
Children themselves don’t usually complain about not having enough Indian books to read. They are content enough with interesting books, no matter what their origin. It is only later in life, as adults and parents, that readers feel the lack of material they could connect with. Singh recalls that the best Indian books she read—and which clearly influenced her writing—were the lurid Hindi pocket books full of daayans and raksha sas.
“In English books I read as a child, there were no characters like me. Not only did Indians not exist in these stories, but everyone was white. When I came to the US, one of the things I realized was how very interesting India and Indians are. Even going to the sabzi market in India, such an everyday thing I’ve done thousands of times, is so interesting. I wished then that as a child I had read stories, especially imaginative fiction, in which there had been people like me,” she says.
Menon recalls being disturbed reading adventure books where, typically, a villain kicks over a statue of a deity and his Hindu sidekick gibbers in fright. “That sort of thing made me very uncomfortable, but I didn’t understand why till I was about 15,” he recalls.
Publishers trace the increasing acceptance of original Indian works to the knock-on effect of the changes in Indian adult literature and, of course, the undeniable boost children’s publishing got with Harry Potter.
“The growth of this market is still at a nascent stage. Some authors have made a dent, but most shelf space is still taken up by foreign titles,” says Puffin’s commissioning editor Vatsala Kaul. “Our budgets are still small; we can’t have a publicity blast and have half the success story Potter books did.”
Even today, Indian books find themselves in the least visible corners of bookshops, with no, or very few, attempts to draw the child in with interesting display. A large part of the children’s section will also be swamped by toys and gadgets.
Chennai-based Tara Books, which brings out painstakingly illustrated original works for children, has for long been fighting the distribution battle. Ironically, the rights of over 75% of its titles are bought by overseas publishers. “In no other country will you find local authors pushed into a small niche. They are always the best displayed section and our authors deserve to be recognized. But for that they need to be seen and the fact is that whenever they are seen they are bought. Price is not an issue at all any more; after all, a good Indian book costs pretty much the same as pizza,” says Gita Wolf, founder, Tara.
In most stores, the Indian section of the children’s corner is flooded with folk stories, Panchatantra, retold epics and Amar Chitra Katha compendiums. Contemporary writing rarely gets noticeable shelf space.
Oxford Bookstore in Mumbai says a quarter of its space is devoted to children. Of this, about four racks are devoted to Indian books, again mostly Panchatantra and folk stories, told and retold.
“We do have entire lines for successful authors like Bond, Ravishankar and Sudha Murthy. And any new book is always well displayed. But books like Panchatantra are available in larger numbers than modern authors,” says a store spokesman.
Parents, like authors, complain of the low-visibility of new Indian authors.
“I simply don’t get to hear of new authors. There are no reviews, no obvious displays. We just browse and buy—mostly American and English authors,” says Ipsita Baruah, mother of 12-year-old Troyee, who is currently nose-deep in Inkheart by Cornelia Funke, which is prominently displayed in the racks at bookstores.
It is true that there was a noticeable dearth of talent in the market. As Kaul at Puffin points out, there is a small ring of good authors who publishers share between themselves. Ravishankar, who is now associate editor with Scholastic, agrees. “The fact is that we have very little contemporary writing in India for children. We need lots more books from Indian authors,” she says.
Publishers are making some effort to change the bleak image Indian books seem to be stuck with. Puffin is putting in a gaming book with Caravan to Tibet, which allows the child to choose his/her own plot and redo a favourite section.
Young Zubaan is introducing a three-page teaser to lure readers into the next adventure of Maya, Dhar’s 12-year-old heroine who straddles the real and alternate world. Scholastic runs book clubs in schools.
HarperCollins, which has not done much children’s literature yet, is optimistic enough about the trend to plan the leap next year. Says CEO P.M. Sukumar: “When I was at Penguin, we had relaunched Puffin after Potter sold in phenomenal numbers. I wasn’t sure that the wave could keep up, but with authors such as Singh, Lal and Ravishankar and their success, the market is now more assured about original children’s literature.”
Vetal meets vampire
Forget the endless telling and retelling of folk tales, here is some sparkling, fun writing for children
Here is fantasia for children spiced up with Indian flavours
The year is 2040 AD. The future has finally arrived, bits and pieces of it anyway. Ageing has just become an option.
If that sounds like the start of a sci-fi book, where characters have names like Hwgarth and Klung who inhabit desolate cityscapes in faraway galaxies, guess again. Anil Menon’s The Beast with Nine Billion Feet is set in Pune, where 13-year-old Tara lives, manages to get lost and meets a very ugly tree, two odd new friends called Razia and Francis, and has an even odder mother, Mandira. Menon, a computer scientist, is heavily into gaming and his characters switch between the real and alternate world.
Finally, Indian children are getting to read homegrown science fiction. Three books are in the market already. Scholastic’s two anthologies, 7 and Mustachioed Maharishi, and Payal Dhar’s A Shadow of Eternity are already in the bookstores. Other titles by authors such as Dhar and Sonia Chandrachud are on their way.
“Science fiction-fantasy (SFF) is a difficult genre. It needs a lot of hard work to create a believable alternate world that can draw in a reader. But it can have immense appeal for children who have rich imaginations,” says Anita Roy of Young Zubaan.
Scholastic used several tested and untested writers in 7 and Mustachioed Maharaja. Among the known names were Samit Basu, Vandana Singh and Anil Menon. First timers included Chennai-based writer Anshumani Rudra and IITian Kaushik Vishwanathan. It is too early to gauge if the gamble paid off, but Scholastic is happy with the results.
Dhar’s first book was about Maya Subramaniam, aged 12, an extraordinary child with an alternate identity. The book is popular enough among children to warrant a trilogy. The second book will bring the next instalment of her bizarre adventures. Chandrachud’s book, due next November, is a laugh riot about a vampire allergic to blood, a vetal son, and a Tantrik wife. As Vandana Singh points out, the rich fund of fantasy stories inherited from the past is a fertile ground to plant SFF stories. “My choice of imaginative literature is probably influenced by my early reading of those wildly exciting Hindi fantasy stories,” she says.
Menon agrees, pointing to Karna’s story. “Separated brothers, motherly sacrifices, cursed destinies, violent clashes, a major rape scene.... it’s practically a 1970s Hindi movie. But it’s also a deeply emotional story in which the participant can savour a variety of complex emotions. Nobody ever forgets that tale.”