An Overview of Indian Children's Literature in English

Radhika Menon, Managing Editor, Tulika Publishers
From a paper presented at a conference organised by National Book Trust at Trivandrum, 2000

'No one needs to be ashamed to say that children's literature is didactic literature. Its intention is to make our children better, to instil noble ideals in them and to lovingly mould them into men and women of character.' 
– from an article on Indian children's literature.

'Children's fiction is the imaginative creation of a cultural space in which writers find ways of exploring what they want to say to – and about – children: an arena in which children and adults can engage in various kinds of shared and dynamic discourse.' 
– from a Professor of English Literature in England.

These two quotations quite clearly define children's books from India and abroad. For an overview of children's literature in English from India, it is essential to understand and analyse this huge gap in perception. I will attempt to do this through my own involvement with children's books: as a reader first, then as teacher and parent, and finally as publisher and editor.           My experiences as a young reader are unfortunately confined to books from the West as I belong to a generation that grew up reading, or rather devouring, Enid Blyton's Famous Five mysteries and Richmal Crompton's Williams, later graduating to Sudden, Capt W. E. Jones' Biggles, Perry Mason, Agatha Christie, Georgette Heyer and of course the ubiquitous Mills and Boon romances. I say 'unfortunately' only to express my deep regret at not being able to read books in any Indian language, but my world of English books was a precious one, even if many of the books themselves had or have little literary merit.

          I see the experience of being able to accept and enjoy the unfamiliar, western world of these books as an affirmation of India's plurality — our multicultural, multilingual diversity that sits so lightly on our shoulders when the rest of the world seems burdened and confused by it. As a publisher today I fail to comprehend what publishers and librarians and teachers in the western world mean when they say that their children will not understand the 'unknown and the unfamiliar' world of Indian books.

          I am constantly amazed at the references to India as the 'cradle of children's literature' with two oft-repeated explanations for this — our rich oral traditions and the Panchatantra. Yes, like all ancient cultures, India too has its wonderful storytelling traditions. In most Indian families, stories were, as A.K. Ramanujan puts it so delightfully, 'just a grandmother away'. But all this is part of a glorious past and there it has remained.

          How much of the rich metaphor and imagery, the original approach and sophisticated structure of the oral and written tradition is reflected in retellings and adaptations? Yes, many are competently written, some well-written. But none 'dare' capture the spirit of these stories. I use the word 'dare' because if these stories are rewritten using the techniques, forms and structures of the oral or original telling, they would upset many of our pre-conceived notions about children's stories. Yet, the 'dare' would have taken the stories closer to those original, unfettered experiences, much like children's conversations and play. Haven't you noticed how children live in several worlds at once? How they shift from the everyday to the imaginary and back again?

          The Panchatantra, we all know, were stories told by Vishnusharma to three young princes as part of their instruction on intelligent living. I was struck by the observation made by Swapna Dutta in an article in Writer and Illustrator that the princes were 'no goody-goody, innocent youngsters but spoilt brats who are already young adults', quite worldly-wise and knowledgeable about bribes, pay-offs, courtesans, extra-marital affairs, liaisons and so on. A perfect take-off point for addressing our young teens like Vishnusharma did so many years ago, using the stories with all their wit and wisdom. Vishnusharma's was a practical and unsentimental approach to life, an approach that would appeal to teenagers. The man himself was said to have been a twinkle-eyed 80-year-old whom teenagers, I'm sure, would have loved to indulge! Gautam Bhatia, rewrote these stories as the multi-layered, complex Punchtantra for adults. But adaptations for children are so pared down to the bare pips that in most instances the Panchatantra quite literally loses its punch.

          Then again, take the structure of the original, as 'frame story' with several stories set within. Stories within stories would be a fascinating way of telling them to children as they themselves use this format most naturally in their own storytelling.

          The other very fascinating feature that emerges while tracing the history of the Panchatantra are the various styles of illustrations that accompanied the text: from cave paintings to rock-cut panels from classical miniatures to folk Nepali. A massive rock-cut panel shows an ascetic as the central figure, with the intensity of his tapas conveyed by the entire world of animals and birds witnessing the scene. Another ascetic is shown doing the Suryanamaskara. It is a very sombre picture showing the serious business of the ascetics – except that there is a cat in a corner standing on its hind legs imitating the ascetic with a few unconcerned mice playing nearby. What a wonderfully funny, detailed, sophisticated picture for a story!

          What I would like to stress is that the fabulist nature of the stories has never been exploited by our illustrators. None of the illustrations in retellings today use the visual medium as they did so many thousands of years ago – maybe the text did not inspire enough. And that is my point: that for a nation that gave the world the Panchatantra, we have failed to produce a truly contemporary Panchatantra or, in a manner of speaking, Panchatantras. Classics are adapted over and over again, each writer and illustrator drawing inspiration from the original and enriching it further with their own style and imagination. But there's nothing new.

          The rich oral story tradition that we keep harking back to has suffered the same fate in the hundreds of adaptations that we have for children. A.K. Ramanujan says South Indian stories were mealtime rather than bedtime stories: 'Associated with relaxed, loving figures, with sleep and food, the tales were formative influences and hypnotic.. We were trying hard to keep our eyes open by the time we came to the end of the story and the meal, which were timed to coincide.' This is an experience many of us share as listeners and tellers. Wouldn't it be challenging to a writer if he or she could think of ways of capturing this hypnotic quality with the written word — maybe with repetitions, gentle sounds? When retelling these stories, we often change qualities intrinsic to them, the sense of fantasy, of improbability, of fun, even of the wicked or wickedly funny. I am not questioning the writer's freedom to adapt and change, but when this is done with an understanding of the original, when writers let the original guide and inspire them, they truly carry forward the ancient storyteller's legacy.

          My intention here is not to list and describe all the books that have been published. My concern is why Indian children's literature in English has failed to set trends or even just make a mark. Why haven't we been able to take the best from children's literature in English and the best from our narrative and folk traditions to produce a literature that is truly distinctive? Stories from different regions and in different languages — whether classical, regional or ethnic — are replete with songs, verses, proverbs and riddles. Using these and experimenting with them would surely have opened up a whole new way of writing for children, rooted yet free.

          Writing cannot be discussed in isolation when discussing children's books. Illustrations are equally part of the book, the story. Illustrators more than writers for children, have created styles that are distinctive, using elements, motifs, colours both traditional and contemporary, to create styles of their own. Mickey Patel, Pulak Biswas, Badri Narayan, to name a few, are truly world class in spite of their books often being handicapped by poor production. The golden age of picture books in Britain is associated with new standards of accuracy in colour printing. Yet we in India choose to ignore how dependent picture book illustrations are on printing techniques and quality.

          I think writers particularly those writing in English, have to carry the baggage of writing in accepted ways and styles for children much more than illustrators. If we have not been able to produce many more exciting picture books than we have, the blame lies entirely with publishers and editors who see illustrations as secondary, pictures as accompanying text and no more, unless they are specifically picture books for 3-6 year-olds. This pre-occupation with the written word is not surprising in a country where books for children are seen as necessary only for improving reading, writing skills and general knowledge.

          Borrowing from African-American literature, we can classify children's books as socially-conscious, melting pot and culturally relevant. This sounds bland but is useful. Socially conscious books are those that are didactic, lacking in believable plot and characterisation, and frequently reinforcing the very stereotypes they hope to overcome and worse, creating a new set of stereotypes. The melting pot book focuses on the universal ignoring subcultural differences. The culturally relevant book holds the greatest promise of presenting realistic images both in words and pictures to young audiences.

          If we look at books published post-independence with the Children's Book Trust (CBT) taking the lead in the 1950's, the National Book Trust (NBT) in the 1970's, IBH and Thompson Press being the other early entrants, they fall into these three categories with the fewest in the culturally relevant category. Yet the last type present real images to children reflecting their own realities in language, style, plot, characterisation or setting. Gifted writers like Sankara Pillai, Arup Kumar Dutta, Poile Sen Gupta, Paro Anand, Swapna Dutta, Sandhya Rao, Vayu Naidu, Zai Whitaker, Kalpana Swaminathan have written books whose narrative voices are strong and distinctive and have created books with imaginative integrity. Books that are enjoyed both by children and adults.

          A lot of the children's books which fall into the socially-conscious and melting pot categories are impoverished in form, language and content. Format and formula (pre-school, folktale, adventure story, science fiction) are the focus rather than individual content and style; all elements are in place — simple text, morals or lessons, cute twists in the socially conscious kind and politically correct, homogenised text in the melting pot kind.

          There is a fourth category: books written not specifically for children but which would be enjoyed by them. Here we would find the Panchatantra, the Jataka tales, Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan and many of the popular folk stories and nursery rhymes of the world. The works of writers such as Sukumar Ray, Satyajit Ray, Rabindranath Tagore, R. K. Narayan, Ashokamitran, Basheer (in regional languages), Salman Rushdie, Vikram Seth, Ruskin Bond talk to readers, young and old at different levels, in different voices. This only reinforces the point that a good book is a good book, never mind for whom. And that's how classics come to be.

          Another observation is that the standard of books in English in terms of written content, illustrations, production and design is superior to that of books in Indian languages. Even reading up what little is available about children's literature in regional languages and English, reveals phases of vibrancy in Indian language publishing that is totally missing in English publishing. For one, it has has a much longer history, even if much of it is oral. Like all indigenous literatures, there is an intrinsic integrity and rootedness in the texts. C.S. Lewis has said that "writing a children's story is the best art-form for something you have to say" and it seems many well-known writers explored this art form in their own languages — names such as Amir Khusro, Mirza Ghalib, Mohd Iqbal, Dr Zakir Hussain and Qudsia Zaidi in Urdu, Prem Chand in Hindi, Rabindranath Tagore, Upendrakishore Roychowdhury, Sukumar Ray, Satyajit Ray, Ashapurna Debi and Mahasweta Devi in Bengali, K.P. Kesava Menon, M. T. Vasudevan Nair in Malayalam, T. P. Kailasam in Kannada and a host of others.

          And they were not writing just stories, there was poetry, drama, non-fiction, travelogues, nature writing – all of this and more! Amir Khusro composed riddles in verse in the 14th century; Syed Imtiaz Ali wrote a collection of funny stories, Chacha Chakkan, in Urdu; Bilathi Visesham by K.P. Kesava Menon is a travelogue for children published in the early 1950s; who doesn't know the Bengali Aabol Taabol, nonsense verse; there are school stories; there is a hilarious version of an episode from the Ramayana – Lakshmaner Shaktishel – in Bengali by Sukumar Ray published in the 1920s-30s; Bobanum Moliyum a comic strip in Malayalam; plays in Marathi by Vijay Tendulkar and Sai Paranjape . . . It is quite overwhelming. Publishing in English has not produced this range and vibrancy.

          The work in Hindi of the late Safdar Hashmi, Arvind Gupta and Subir Shukla is truly contemporary in content and style. But unfortunately this seems to have happened in spurts and there is today no real, sustained effort to innovate and explore further. Whether in English or in other Indian languages, the attitude of publishers, editors, teachers and parents is that children's books are necessary for acquiring reading and writing skills and no more.

          Does this have something to do with the status of children's literature? That no demands really are made on writers, publishers, parents to make available to children books that challenge them? In any case, if the status of children's literature in India is to be judged by the amount of critical scholarship on it, it is very clear the status is very low indeed. There is neither debate nor discussion nor even critical evaluation of children's books, be it in English or in Indian languages.

          Over the last three to four years, however, some dramatic changes have taken place in children's publishing We will see a lot of new trends, some welcome, many not so welcome. The entry of large multinationals like Scholastic, Dorling Kindersley, Disney and a host of American comic books/magazines and many waiting in the wings, will drastically change the economics of children's publishing. High-quality imported books will be available at such special prices that Indian publishers will be hard put to match them. Besides, foreign publishers are actively looking at publishing books specifically for the Indian market – given their production network and numbers this means higher standards of production and design, a welcome trend. Older and established publishing houses like Penguin, HarperCollins, Frank Brothers, Ratna Sagar, Orient Longman, Macmillan, Navneet and recent entrants like Neve, an imprint of BPI publications, are concentrating more on their children's books department. Sky Music, about four years old now, has burst on the scene with audio books, their USP being a strong Indian identity created through choice of stories, the music track and songs, and celebrity narrators — Naseeruddin Shah and Usha Uthup to name two. Theirs is a well-produced, well-packaged product backed by a well-thought out marketing strategy in India and abroad.

          Book clubs, book fairs and co-publications would all give children's book publishing a much-needed boost. But the dangers of market pressures lurk very real. As Michael Rosen has said, a highly competitive market insists on "....more titles, more authors, quick, quick, write, write, no time to edit, no time to rewrite, get it out, sell it, drop it, pulp it." The funny thing is, children's publishing in India finds itself in exactly this situation even when publishing in English is far from well-established. The market is fragmented, the school and/or public library network that is the mainstay of children's publishing in the developed countries is non-existent, children's books are completely marginalised in the media and the book market . . . how will we cope? Can we cope?

          From Tulika's experience I would confidently say, yes. The going is tough, but there is a challenging space for small independent houses like Katha, Tara Publishing and Tulika Publishers. They have entered the scene with a definite focus on the kind of books they want to publish. They are ready to experiment, take a chance, create a niche, step away from the conventional. Tara Publishing has a book called The Hungry Lion: it has been screenprinted on handmade paper, illustrated in the folk style, (it won the Alcuin Citation for Excellence in Book Design in Canada) and has seen German, Dutch and other editions. Another called Hen Sparrow Turns Purple by Gita Wolf is illustrated stunningly by Pulak Biswas (Plaque awarded at the Biennale of Illustrations at Bratislava) and is designed like a scroll. Tulika's Ekki Dokki, their best-selling title, is a simple story that throws up interesting issues and is illustrated in an intriguing, contemporary folk style by Ranjan De. And Land Was Born, a tribal story of creation from Tulika, has been brilliantly illustrated by Uma Krishnaswamy, adapting the original folk wall paintings. Clear instances of daring to innovate.

          Contemporary issues and stories too have been taken up by these publishers to talk about puppetry, leaves, the life of a boy growing up in a fishing community. They use photographs, collage, watercolour, they balance fact and fiction, they throw in humour, they translate, they use verse, they do bilingual texts..... Small publishers and others similar in approach/attitude offer a whole range of books from the pre-school to young adult level, both fiction and non-fiction, traditional and contemporary, offering different reading experiences at different levels.

          In a global culture there has to be a democratic balance in the exchange of books between nations especially for the young. The flow of children's books has always been from west to east. For a fair exchange, the books have to move in both directions. Although many of the books mentioned have been appreciated and lauded by publishers and distributors abroad, they fight shy of distributing them in their mainstream market or schools/libraries. There is a palpable block on their part to accepting anything that comes from a different culture. This block has to go and unless we work on it collectively, it may not for a long time.

          Speaking from Tulika's experience, which has been a difficult but learning one, I am convinced that we must produce books, both traditional and contemporary, that reflect the Indian reality in content, style, visuals and production. This is the voice that must speak to young readers everywhere because this is our voice, our language. Books born out of our particular multilingual, multicultural experience can and should be a strong voice in an increasingly multicultural world. Slowly, but definitely, these voices have begun to be heard in translation into German, Dutch, Swedish and so on. Equally the voices must cross State boundaries and be heard all over India, in the languages children know and read.

          At the conclusion of his essay on 50 years of Indian literature, Dr K. Satchidandan says: "The best of our writers now know that unless we realise Swaraj in ideas, our great country is doomed to die without an individual signature of her own while she signs in different scripts." Indian children's literature too needs an individual signature — to give our young readers images that offer them a sense of who they are and why they are part of a larger world than simply the one that surrounds them.