Censorship, Taboos and Indian Children’s Publishing

“The taboo-ridden, historically-perpetuated myth of the goody-goody child living in a black-and-white world is woefully outdated” – October 2020

 Censorship, Taboos and Indian Children’s Publishing

Meghaa Gupta, Manager: Rights and Business Development

for the Facebook group Bookwallis, October 2020

 In November 2019, censorship in Indian children’s literature in English took centre stage with the big blow-up over the picture book, The Art of Tying a Pug (Karadi Tales). Sections of the country’s Sikh population didn’t take too kindly to the humorous pun on ‘pug’, forcing the publisher to withdraw the book. Did the episode worry us? Definitely. Did it define the limits of what we could and could not publish? Definitely not!

 Censorship and taboos imposed on children’s books often stem from misplaced attitudes that command literature to guard children against what adults perceive as‘harsh realities’ – conveniently forgetting that children are growing up in the same world as the adults around them. It may be easy to muzzle the written word, but hard to control what children hear, what they witness or what’s shared with them in real life.

 Often, taboos are also culture specific. What might be OK in one culture might be censored in another. As a multilingual publisher, what surprises us is how in a culturally-diverse country like India, many of these taboos continue to be imposed and dictated by the dominant English language book market, promoting a restricted brand of multiculturalism.

 However, the taboo-ridden, historically-perpetuated myth of the goody-goody child living in a black-and-white world is woefully outdated. Children today are growing up in a rapidly-changing high-tech world where they are constantly exposed to conflicting and confusing messages about values and attitudes, with fewer outlets to make sense of these. In such a context, stories become even more crucial to their psychological education, helping them find narratives that articulate and contain, if not resolve, the various complicated feelings or situations they might be facing.

In line with such thinking, Indian children’s publishers have, for more than a decade, been boldly debunking taboos to publish not just paperbacks but even picture books, that have touched on everything from divorce (Just a Train Ride Away, Tulika, 2006), drug addiction (My Brother Tootoo, Tulika, 2010), homosexuality (Talking of Muskaan, Duckbill, 2014), sexual abuse (Smitten, Zubaan, 2012), female foeticide (Faces in the Water, Penguin India, 2010) terrorism (No Guns at My Son’s Funeral, IndiaInk, 2006), death (Gone Grandmother, Tulika, 2016, Boo! When My Sister Died, Pickle Yolk, 2017), land rights of adivasi communities (I Will Save My Land, Tulika, 2017, Year of the Weeds, Duckbill, 2018), caste (Bhimrao Ambedkar: The Boy Who Asked Why?, Tulika, 2015)and honour killings (The Hidden Palace Adventure: A Hate-Love Story, Talking Cub, 2019). Several anthologies, such as The Other: Stories of Differences (Talking Cub, 2018), Like Smoke (Penguin India, 2011) and Being Boys (Tulika, 2015) have also carried stories with a variety of difficult themes from communal divide to bullying and kids caught in conflict.

 At its heart, publishing is about conveying the plurality of ideas that make up any society. We believe that the only kind of ‘censorship’ that a majority of publishers subscribe to is assessing whether the writing does justice to the idea it’s trying to convey. In the hands of a talented writer, even the touchiest issues can be communicated with a sensitivity that opens the child’s mind in ways that more conventional books do not. For instance, religion has always been a tricky subject for publishers. Yet, one of Tulika’s bestselling picture books has been, When Ali became Bajrangbali. From Hanuman-worshippers to tree-huggers, the book has found fans everywhere! The ingenious writing by Devashish Makhija and the humorous illustrations by Priya Kuriyan manage to effortlessly convey so much in so little.

Apart from the writing, for particularly sensitive subjects, we also get manuscripts reviewed by external experts. In the past, we have declined manuscripts on topics like religion, sexuality, caste etc. mainly because the writing lacked conviction or was deeply biased, and never because they tackled a difficult theme.

 The relatively disorganised market for Indian children’s books, that largely lacks pervasive gatekeepers, has also been a bit of a blessing in terms of giving publishers the freedom to explore ‘difficult’ subjects with relative ease. Even if some people don’t approve of a book and refuse to buy it, the impact on sales is not as overpowering. Withdrawal of books because of censorship, and the economic fallout of this, is still an exception rather than a rule. Having said that, market considerations have never come in the way of publishing books that we believe in. Even in the midst of the economic challenges imposed by the pandemic, our publishing list for this year includes books that deal with unconventional and complicated themes.

At the end of the day, what makes a good book really boils down to how it connects with the reader. Anyone who has worked with children knows how naturally and easily they absorb what seems uncomfortable to adults. So, it is rather unfortunate that it is adults, who decide what children should read and impose taboos instead of encouraging children’s instinctive ability to live most comfortably with the diversities around them.

 Dissent and criticism are essential features of any democratic discourse on the creative choices made by publishers. They can be a source for vital feedback that improves the quality of literature. However, censorship that leads to the banning of books strangulates creative expression. So far, it has (thankfully!) not had a huge bearing on the decision to publish a book. Children’s literature would have missed many classics and bestsellers including Harry Potter and Captain Underpants, if censorship defined the books that children read!

 However, publishers need to be cautious of falling into the trap of promoting books that seek to forcefully open children’s eyes to the problems of society and human relationships. After all, the ­purpose of publishing is not debunking taboos but fostering a greater understanding of the world with all its vivid imperfections.