Reading | Twilight generation12 min read . Updated: 17 Mar 2013, 05:41 PM IST
It's going to be a big year for Indian young-adult writing in English. But are readers interested?
It's going to be a big year for Indian young-adult writing in English. But are readers interested?
There’s nothing like class IX gossip. It’s all about crushes, anger, politics—it’s fabulous." This was Anuja Chauhan, one of India’s best-loved storytellers, speaking at the launch of Nova, Scholastic India’s young-adult (YA) imprint, at the World Book Fair in Delhi last month.
Life between the ages of 13 and 19, when one is technically a YA, is exciting, if messy. In these years, children start becoming grown-ups, teenagers sulk like children, and parents do not “get it". It must be notoriously difficult to woo this twilight generation away from video games, social media and cellphones to the more reclusive pleasures of reading. But English-language publishers in India are trying.
In January, Rupa Publications flagged off its children’s and YA list, Red Turtle, followed by Scholastic’s Nova in February. Penguin Books India (PBI) will kick off Inked, its exclusive YA imprint, in April. Nobody wants to be left behind, though the market for YA books by Indians writing in English remains more Y than A. “It’s a very young genre in India," says M. Venkatesh, co-founder of Bookaroo, the children’s litfest. “It’s unrealistic to expect a global best-seller from Indian authors straight off."
If YAs in India are reading at all, they are mostly enamoured with teenage wizards, wimpy kids, vampire slayers (or lovers), and futuristic fantasies that have set best-seller lists in the West ablaze. “The domestic scene is deluged with imports. Competing against that itself is a huge challenge," admits Sohini Mitra, who runs Puffin, the children’s list at PBI. Ask almost any YA reader of English books in India, and indigenous authors are hardly ever mentioned with the same sort of fanfare as their Western counterparts.
Chauhan, who has “three YAs at home", says her children are more into books by Western authors. Her eldest daughter, Niharika, 17, has made her way through Enid Blyton, J.K. Rowling, Agatha Christie, and recently loved Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca. Among Indian writers, she had to study Paro Anand’s books in school, which, one assumes, takes away half the pleasure of reading for fun. She also mentions Salman Rushdie’s Haroun And the Sea of Stories and its sequel, Luka And the Fire of Life—both written by the author for his young sons, though their appeal crossed over to older readers—as books she enjoyed while growing up.
Niharika’s siblings, Nayantara, 14, and Daivik, 11, also mention Percy Jackson with approval; Daivik and his friends, on the brink of qualifying as YAs, prefer action-hero Percy Jackson to Harry Potter, a thought that crushes 20-year-old Tithi Mukherjee, who has just become a proper adult, having devoured the Potter books in high school.
Some YAs take their reading seriously. Fourteen-year-old Tara Anand is on Goodreads, follows book reviewers on YouTube, and collects author signatures. Her tastes vary from Stephenie Meyer to Maureen Johnson to John Green, whose The Fault in Our Stars, a love story between two YA cancer patients, created an uproar in the West. “I don’t see why people of my age shouldn’t read the book," says Tara. “I know parents who don’t worry about their children watching Grey’s Anatomy, but will not let them read The Fault in Our Stars."
Clearly, Indian YA writing in English has to grow up a lot.
A small pool of home-grown talent, headed by the venerable Ruskin Bond, continues to enjoy a loyal following, but an Indian Harry Potter or Percy Jackson is nowhere in sight. We asked publishers and editors about this, and the primary grumble, across the board, was about the challenge of reaching target readers.
“Retail and marketing are the major hurdles," says Sayoni Basu of Westland’s Duckbill Books, echoing a complaint common to publishers. “YA books should ideally be put in the adult as well as the children’s sections in book stores, to give equal weight to the Y and the A. But this seldom happens in India."
Poor display and unsure positioning are but the tip of the iceberg. Although a few chain book stores have started making the YA category more visible to potential customers, their difficulty in pitching this segment remains more conceptual than logistical. It boils down to the question: How are YA people perceived, socially and culturally, in this country?
“In India, we have child readers and we have adult readers," says Vatsala Kaul-Banerjee of Hachette India. “But YA is an iffy category because that’s the space where readers have the most diversions. They are easily lost to the Internet and peer group activity." Young children tend to be more susceptible to the charms of a good old yarn than 13- to 19-year-olds, who are going through emotional, hormonal and intellectual churn during these years. “Ever tried being fascinating to a 15-year-old?" Kaul-Banerjee says.
Kaul-Banerjee, who was associated with the iconic children’s magazine Target (1980-95) and edited Teens Today in the mid-1990s, says these periodicals could not be sustained due to insufficient advertising revenue. “With the emergence of cable TV, advertisers moved away. Also, in retrospect, I understand that Target was not meant to be cool in the hip, fashionable way. It was nerdy and geeky; that’s exactly where its coolness lay." At Hachette, two of her most successful titles have been Giti Chandra’s fantasy, The Fang of Summoning, and Arjun Rao’s coming-of-age novel, Third Best.
It’s difficult to find the right voice when writing for YAs. “Often, in the attempt to sound youthful and ‘cool’, the writing comes across as patronizing and stilted," says Anita Roy of Zubaan. “It’s that old chestnut, EPS (Embarrassing Parent Syndrome), which has dogged teenagers since parents realized that ‘hot’ may not refer to temperature and that ‘chick’ is not a freshly hatched domestic fowl."
Neelini Sarkar of HarperCollins India agrees, “The YA reader is discerning, and deeply cares about what he or she is reading, it’s not just about being trendy and cool." At the other end of the spectrum are writers who make YAs want to run a mile away the moment a “good" book is suggested to them by adults. In between come YA writers like Shivani Mishra (the 16-year-old author of The Legends of Mitsk) or Anshuman Mohan (who wrote Potato Chips at 13) who have dared to disturb the smug universe of adult writers.
“I find most books by Indian writers either too childish or too preachy for teenagers," says Sanya. “Reading for pleasure is still underrated in this country," adds Basu. With some schools making reading a part of co-curricular activities, things seem to be changing though. Niharika, who attends Vasant Valley School, says she manages to read widely thanks to her school library. Maybe the trouble with Indian YA writing is more fundamental?
“It’s not easy to find great manuscripts across the board—adventure, action, humour, horror," says Ameya Nagarajan, who is in charge of Inked. “In the West, YA went on to range expansion, whereas in India it became a fad rather than a trend," Kaul-Banerjee adds. Vaishali Mathur, mother of Sanya and Rhea, and in charge of PBI’s commercial fiction list, agrees: “The YA industry in the West is more integrated with TV and film tie-ins, which help create strong brands."
“I don’t think anyone actually knows what ‘Young India’—whatever that entity might look like—wants to read," says Roy. Obviously, like anywhere else in the world, young people in India are a mixed bag. “Some might only want to read comics, others might find fiction a crashing bore and want exciting books about science and mathematics." Until recently, Roy adds, Indian publishing for young people was dominated by “an unhealthy monoculture of self-improving moral tales" that is now being replaced by unconventional narratives.
Two of the best-selling YA titles at PBI, both published last year, are non-fiction. MBA at 16, by management guru Subroto Bagchi, is a manual telling young people how to be great entrepreneurs. Bagchi not only used case studies to substantiate his points but also wrote about 31 real teenagers who explore the world of business. The English edition of the book has sold 16,000 copies so far. Mitra, who is in charge of PBI, says it worked so well because “these are themes that find resonance with today’s generation". The other big hit, badminton star Saina Nehwal’s autobiography Playing to Win, has sold over 10,000 copies of the English edition till date.
These numbers look embarrassingly modest compared with, say, Scholastic’s The Hunger Games series, which sold over 100,000 copies in India. Publishers of Indian YA writing agree that a sales history of 8,000-10,000 qualifies as a success, if not a best-seller. There is unanimous optimism though that the market is poised to grow over the next few years.
“I think the best thing about YA books is that one can write about sensitive issues that are considered taboo," says Mitra. “Children’s books are wary of exploring these because of parental control over what very young people get to read."
One of the more unusual YA books to have come out of the PBI stable, Ranjit Lal’s Faces in the Water, dealt with female infanticide through a ghost story. It went on to win the Vodafone Crossword Book Award for Children’s Literature in 2010. Another novel by Lal, Smitten, published by Zubaan last year, takes a hard look at sexual abuse within the family, while also managing to tell a love story. Sanya says that she found Payal Dhar’s books, which often deal with gender and sexuality, arresting.
Certain topics may not go down well with parents, but publishers like Arpita Das of Yoda Press are more than willing to take the wager. “If I ever get into YA publishing, I will focus on books that look at sexuality and the body," she says. But obviously it is not just the right cause that carries a book through. “In the end, it’s Lal’s writing that holds the readers," says Roy.
At the launch of Nova, Paro Anand, author of the acclaimed No Guns at My Son’s Funeral, a harrowing story of militancy in Kashmir, spoke about her experience of working with children living in difficult circumstances. “I hope I am not moralizing, but I do feel these children need their stories to be told." Priya Kapoor of Roli Books, who published No Guns, says: “The book deals with complicated emotions such as belonging, abandonment, desperation. But Anand is a master storyteller, that’s why her books are such a success with teenagers as well as adults."
Sayoni Basu, best known as the publisher of Samit Basu and Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan, also worked on Siddhartha Sarma’s The Grasshopper’s Run when she was with Scholastic. Set in the North-East, it traced an obscure slice of World War II history, and went on to win the first Crossword Award for children’s literature (2009) and a Sahitya Akademi Prize (2011). Currently published by Bloomsbury in the UK, it must be one of those rare YA books that has managed to travel from the East to the West.
Basu continues to be ambitious. This year, at Duckbill, she has published Mainak Dhar’s Zombie novels. A “paranormal romance", Facebook Phantom by 17-year-old Suzanne Sangi is coming up soon. There are also two novels about young people in conflict zones, set in Iraq and Afghanistan, respectively, dealing with the clash between Shias and Sunnis, and a collection of YA poetry by Adil Jussawalla.
Sudeshna Shome Ghosh of Red Turtle is also keen on taking chances. There’s Guns On My Red Earth, by first-time author Swati Sengupta, on her list. It recounts the trials of a child soldier who escapes from the heavily fortified Lalgarh police station in the heart of Maoist country. Inked includes a novel, Karma, about a Sikh teenage girl returning to Delhi from Canada after her mother’s death in 1984 and finding herself in the thick of the riots. “I am most excited about a wisecracking fantasy, Eliza Crewe’s Cracked, which is about a half-demon girl, somewhat like Buffy," says Nagarajan.
Nova features a murder mystery by Rahul Srivastava (What Happened to Regina That Night), two collections of short stories (one of them being an anthology of love stories), a novel called Ela, by Sampurna Chattarji, about a girl who discovers one day that she is adopted, and another one by Nandini Bajpai (Red Turban White Horse), which chronicles the adventures of 17-year-old Mini Kapoor as she plans a Big Fat Indian Wedding for her elder sister in the US.
From Zubaan’s YA list, Roy glowingly recommends debut author Mydhili Varma, whose book, My Sellotaped Heart, is a confessional journal of a young girl in a boarding school in south India and her (ultimately abortive) attempt to commit suicide. “Sounds grim—but it’s anything but!" she says.
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Her first novel, Heirs of Catriona, was published by Rupa last year as she turned 12.
‘I started writing it when I was 11, just for fun,’ says Anusha, who was inspired by her father, Ravi, a banker and writer, often called the John Grisham of banking in India.
An avid reader of Greek mythologies, Anusha writes about the adventures of two teenagers, Sara and Crystal, in the magical land of Catriona.
The first in a projected series, the book has already created ripples among YAs.
Shreya Mathur, 17
Shreya Mathur wanted to unwind before her board exams began, and thought the best way to do so would be to write a bit every day.
Soon enough, she had what looked like the chapters of a novel.
Once the exams were over, she put in some hard work, shared a few pages with an agent and before long, her first novel, But Ira Said, had been published by HarperCollins India in 2012.
Full of suspense and humour, it tells the story of a young girl with superpowers—of being able to predict exam questions.
An enviable gift that lands her in big trouble.
Shivani Mishra, 16
Shivani Mishra says she grew up surrounded by books.
Her mother is a big reader, and her teachers always encouraged creativity.
So it felt entirely natural to her to start writing at the age of 12.
The Legends of Mitsk: The Beginning of the End (2012) is an adventure story that revolves around two orphaned teenage siblings, Jake and Alex Brooke.
Shivani loves reading thrillers and historical fiction, though she is moving towards classics now.
Anshuman Mohan, 16
Anshuman Mohan was 13 when he wrote Potato Chips, a witty, wisecracking, coming-of-age novel that drew from his life at St Xavier’s Collegiate School in Kolkata.
Anshuman, who is also a Spell Bee enthusiast, drummer, swimmer and horse-rider, is writing his board exams.