A Lockdown Diary 

Many languages, many voices, many stories… Lockdown blues turned into a digital campaign that took on a life of its own – June 2020 

A Lockdown Diary 

Meghaa Gupta, Manager: Rights and Business Development, Tulika Publishers 

“A coronavirus has made its way,
Around the earth so doctors say,
It makes us sick – we don’t want it to stay,
What can you do, so it will GO AWAY?”

 Featuring multilingual online readings of Divya Thomas’s Go Away Coronavirus!by actors Kalki Koechlin in English, Suhasini Maniratnam in Tamil, Shriya Pilgaonkar in Hindi, with more languages to come, June is set to heat up Tulika’s ongoing Many Languages... Many Voices... Many Stories... campaign. 

But to rewind... Our  bookstore had been shut, sales – both online and offline – had screeched to a halt, big orders had been cancelled, money owed to us wasn’t coming in… There was no stemming the tide of bad news that flowed in, in the days following the first announcement of the national lockdown. It would be an understatement to say that we, an independent children’s publisher, were worried by all the uncertainties. 

Yet, with schools closed and children locked down at home, it seemed like there was no better time to reach out to them. Digital appeared to be the only solution. So far, our digital partners – like Getlitt and Chie Media – had been resigned to the fact that monetising digital was a slow process. But things were changing during the lockdown and the number of customers was going up. 

On the other hand, there was a deluge of free digital content from different publishers everywhere. However, we were reluctant to do this. Honestly, we couldn’t afford it. But what choice did we have? It was time for us to push ourselves to experiment and understand the constraints of digital publishing on our own.

 In a bid to keep children engaged, parents and teachers were looking for suitable activity books, and there was a huge demand for such titles. So, we began by releasing free online editions ofour Thumb-Thumb Books and activities based on them. After many reprints in various languages, this series had been out-of-print for some time and we thought this was also a good way of reviving it. These ‘Booktivities’ soon caught on. Even schools were using them!

 The encouraging response prompted us to try retailing e-versions of some of our other activity-based books at a nominal price, through our website. But the response was disappointing, to say the least. It confirmed what we had always believed about children’s

e-books – they don’t sell as well as printed books, and people are reluctant to pay for them notwithstanding affordability.

 Even as we experimented with ‘Booktivities’ and digital sales, authors, illustrators and translators had started sending us videos of readings across Indianlanguages and DIY artwork. We began to put these up on our website.

Slowly, our homepage started buzzing with digital content. It was a small but exciting beginning to a campaign that extended our tagline ‘Many Languages… Many Voices...’ to include ‘Many Stories...’ – to bring fun, reassurance and hope to children grappling with the sudden change in their lives.  

 A monster manuscript

Our publishing schedule had been derailed. Printers were closed and the funding crunch meant that every paisa counted. This had a direct impact on our publishing list for the year. We had to review it with a ruthless eye in the wake of the pandemic.

Yet, there I was – a writer working in publishing – and I had a manuscript. I knew that new books were probably out of the question at the moment, but when has this ever come in the way of the writerly urge!

It was on a particularly unsettling evening that I wrote my story, The Monster at the Window – the tale of a child overwhelmed by the sense of danger lurking outside. His dread comes alive in his drawing of a monster outside his window. But, as the days go by, he slowly comes to the realisation that the world outside his window may have changed but not everything is monstrous. 

Wondering what might come of it, I sent it to my publisher, Radhika Menon. Having worked at Tulika for seven years I knew the exacting editorial review it would need to pass. Two days later I got the email that keeps the beating heart of all writers going – an acceptance. The story was not COVID-specific, but it painted a picture of the times.

However, there would be no book. Not even an e-version. Publishing a picture book – even an e-version – would take much too long. Timeliness was the need of the hour. So, The Monster at the Windowwas going to be a free storytelling video helmed by the internationally acclaimed storyteller Jeeva Raghunath. The narration would be interspersed by a bit of simple animation. Tulika had taken tentative steps into the post-COVID world of publishing where innovation propped by digitisation seemed like the only way to be.

Finally, on May 9, the video was released across our social media handles. Within a day, it amassed nearly a thousand views. A storyteller in Taiwan even made a Taiwanese version!

More stories… more languages…

The illustrated e-book, Go Away, Coronavirus, written in verse by Divya Thomas had been going viral over the internet, when the author wrote to us. She was drawn to our multilingual publishing programme and wanted us to publish her book in translation. The video format had worked well for The Monster at the Window and we decided that this would be our publishing format even for Divya’s book.

Translating verse is an exciting exercise. It pours new life into the original version, moulding it with the quirks of each language. So, what you get is the same idea conveyed through a very different lens. The process of reviewing the translatability of the text and coming up with suitable names to do the translation was creatively stimulating. 

Our plans became even more ambitious – we were going to try and get popular names from the entertainment industry to do the read aloudin the various languages. The future may have looked bleak, but suddenly, we were spotting new possibilities.

Joining hands with our collaborator Appalam Chappalm, we were delighted to get actors Kalki Koechlin to do the English reading, Suhasini Maniratnam for the Tamil and Shriya Pilgaonkar for the Hindi. With their enormous talent, they transformed each reading and made it their own. More languages and exciting voices are to follow. 

Working with the actors made us realise that it was not just about getting big names. It was also about bringing to children a heightened sensibility to words and their magic, and to orality which adds to the reading experience – qualities so central to picture books.

Lockdown creativity!

The acclaimed naturalist and writer Zai Whitaker has written several books for us. In the midst of the tense lockdown she sent us a manuscript, Zyrus the Virus, that made us chuckle and laugh.

Yes, Earth had become Dearth, because the stupid Dearthians focused on this sort of stuff, and trashed up their sentials: their water, air, soil and forests. (Virule and Corona sentials were simpler: just hordes of hosts, and the Dearthians provided plenty.)

So now the Dearthians lived in near-emptiness, like living in a tree without leaves and branches. Or in a house without a roof. News was, they had water they couldn’t drink, air they couldn’t breathe, and soil they couldn’t use. Great going! But the Coronas were down there, fixing it, by teaching them a lesson. Hopefully it would work. “It’d better,” said his mind, “or the Virulii will starve, and go extinct!”  “Well, er, Coronas too, don’t forget,” added his brain.

People everywhere are worried about the virus, but what if the virus is worried about us? What if it wants us to preserve our planet and our lives – so it doesn’t lose its own? After all, humans make the best hosts!

With this unique spin, we were sure that the story would appeal to young readers looking for fresh and funny perspectives on the truth of our times. We decided to return to the familiar fold of publishing. We edited the text in consultation with Zai and got the talented Niloufer Wadia to work on the illustrations. Zyrus the Virus is in the final stages of production and we will be releasing it as an e-book shortly. For us, it will also be an acid test of whether readers would be willing to pay for an original e-book by a very popular author.

The three stories that we’ve worked on during the lockdown – The Monster at the Window, Go Away Coronavirus! and Zyrus the Virus – are very different from each other. But together, they gently deconstruct for children various facets of the world we live in.

Many collaborations

Storytellers, teachers, librarians, enthusiastic parents… from the very beginning of the lockdown we had people writing in and seeking permission to read our books in various languages online. It was reassuring to see such an outpouring of support for our publishing. 

In the beginning of May, Mandovi Menon from Apalam Chapalam, a multilingual video storytelling channel on YouTube wrote to us. In collaboration with the child rights and protection NGO, Leher, their channel was reaching out to urban, underprivileged children navigating particularly overwhelming living conditions during the lockdown. Inclusivity and multilingualism have been the driving forces behind our decision to publish, and we had found a partner that subscribed to the same set of values. Content was curated and we decided to work together to find multiple prominent voices to helm the read aloud for Go Away Coronovirus! 

One inspired idea was followed by another. In association with the Chennai boutique Azurina, the author Divya decided to make comfortable, reusable face masks for children, based on her book, available through her websiteFifty per cent of the proceeds from the sales will go to Leher.   

Meanwhile, we received another rather unexpected proposal from Preeti Vasudevan, Founder and Artistic Director at the New-York based performing arts collaborative, Thresh. She wanted our stories for The Red Curtain Project, an initiative that they began during the pandemic to share the wisdom of stories, both ancient and modern, and bring people together through universal truths and experiences. Tulika’s stories offered the perfect opportunity, she said. These performances enabled growth, literacy, togetherness and healthy dialogue instead of frustration and aggression. It is this vision that drew us to the project. 

Preeti already had a few themes in mind, the first of which was children’s wisdom. Our title, Munna and the Maharaja by Fawzia Gilani Williams seemed to be a perfect fit. When the videowas released on May 7, we were all in for a treat.

Gestures, rhythms and storytelling techniques of Bharatantayam, set against narration, original music and illustrations by the acclaimed illustrator Tom Lynch, made for a captivating and refreshing watch. Since then, we’ve been working together on more such exciting, collaborative book projects and in the coming weeks, more videos will be going up as part of our digital campaign. 

Starry Voices 

Our tryst with celebrities had in fact started even before the Go Away Coronavirus! readings. Each book has its own fate and one never knows where and with whom a copy lands up. In April, we received an email from Ranga Shankara, a popular theatre institution in Bangalore that was holding an online theatre festival for children. We were pleasantly surprised to learn that the National award-winning film actress and director, Revathy, wanted to read aloud the Tamil edition of her favourite Tulika title The Rooster and the Sun as part of this.

Soon afterwards, Revathy surprised us even more when she expressed her desire to read aloud a few more of our books. On Mother’s Day, she read Nandini Nayar’s hugely popular book, What Did You See?in English, followed by other delightful readings. More recently, actor, Thalaivasan Vijay read Christy Shoba Sudhir’s Little Anbuin Tamil.Revathywill be doing more readings inTamil and Malayalam soon.

A video fest

The visual medium is a powerful way to reach an audience and videos have been a popular promotional tool for publishers across the spectrum. With Zoom sessions, publishing seminars and discussions on YouTube, there has been no dearth of options for viewers. Tulika’s ‘Many Languages… Many Voices... Many Stories...’ campaign on the other hand, has featured an exciting array of storytelling and book reading videos to catch attention and draw children into the world of stories.

When we look back, we find that it has been an outcome of serendipitous email encounters with like-minded partners, actors, writers, poets and lyricists, as well as the support of our authors, illustrators and translators.

Launched towards the end of March, it has gained a steady audience over the weeks. Working with videos was different from regular publishing, but it came with its own pressures. The time crunch and deadlines were nerve wracking. Videos were shot almost overnight and then had to be edited with visuals from books, promptly promoted on social media, and put up in a way that avoided close clashes with the other videos! The rewards have been heartening.

Beginning June, the lockdown has been relaxed. The bookstore has opened and online sales have resumed. While the big orders and the money owed is yet to come in, we find that the campaign has led to a steady stream of orders for our books across the eight Indian languages – Hindi, Tamil, Malayalam, Kannada, Telugu, Marathi, Gujarati and Bengali – in which we publish. This has not happened with such regularity before!

The anxiety from the initial days of the lockdown has gradually transformed into a cautious optimism as we look forward to a very happening June. The weather may be getting hotter but so are our video offerings!

Next year, we celebrate 25 years of Tulika. This period will most likely go down as one of the most challenging phases, not just for us but for many others in publishing. Yet, the coming together of this tremendous online campaign from the bleakness of the lockdown would probably be one ofour most gratifying achievements. It has breathed new life into our tagline, Many Languages… Many Voices… and pushed our regional language books firmly into the limelight.