In my own voice: Who Needs Words?

Sandhya Rao, Senior Editor, Tulika Publishers
Paper presented in Nov 1998 at Baatein Bacchon Ki, the Readers and Writers Festival, UK

At work the other day, we were putting together an advertisement for our books. Lakshmi, our Girl Friday, took one look at it and said; "Oh, we are going to receive many manuscripts in response to this ad!" 

          Without having done a jot of research, Lakshmi managed to hone in on the one major feature of children's literature in English, at least in India: more and more people are writing for children. So much so it seems at times as though every second person is writing and is being published! Of course there's wheat and there's chaff, but the fact is after years and years of bookshops in our part of the world showcasing only books from the West, there is now a market for our own books like there never was before. Children's books by Indian and other Asian authors have begun to arrive on the Indian subcontinent. Much of the writing is fiction with the occasional play or collection of poems. 

          Still, more initiatives are being taken today to consciously promote children's books: by governments, by large publishing houses who also do books for children (an afterthought, it seems sometimes), and by small, dedicated groups and companies fuelled by love and labour. Pakistan, for instance, has enlisted the services of Japanese writer Shinji Tajima to revamp its literacy curriculum. In 1971, Japanese publishers and the Japanese UNESCO Committee established the Asian Cultural Centre for UNESCO (ACCU) to further book development in the Asian-Pacific region through collections that mirror indigenous cultures and concerns. Thanks to these efforts —ACCU has published about 15-20 titles — we have been able to read, for instance, Sybil Wettasinghe from Sri Lanka and Madhav Ghimire from Nepal . . . Names originating in, say, India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, are increasingly being seen on the covers of books published in the US and UK as well. Obviously, something is happening. 

          Where does the story of books for children in South Asia begin? And, for a region rich for centuries with the sound of stories being handed down from generation to generation, why has it taken so long for them to come into their own? 

          Let's rewind just a little. When you do that, you trip over the Panchatantra, a collection of some 80 stories written some time around 400 BC or so and generally attributed to a person called Vishnu Sharman. Available in about 200 versions and translated into 60 languages, the Panchatantra is extremely widely travelled and is believed to have influenced works such as the Decameron, The Canterbury Tales, the Arabian Nights,  and Aesop's Fables. Sharman apparently told these stories to the three sons of King Amarashakti of Mahilaropya somewhere in southern India to teach them how to think. The Panchatantra was also the first Indian book to roll out of the Gutenburg Press, way back in 1483, in a German translation (Das Der Buch Beyspiele.). 

          These stories belonged to the entire subcontinent and still do, although time and history have since divided it into smaller nations. When I was young, my maternal grandmother told me lots of stories from epics such as the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, the Panchatantra, she told me stories about Tenali Rama and Akbar and Birbal and some really naughty ones that I suspect she made up. My paternal grandmother had a grand repertoire of one story which she told with great relish. But stories were not the prerogative of children alone. Oral storytelling was a vibrant, living art: as jatra, as harikatha, as bailaatta. Day's work done, everybody would rush to listen to the storyteller who sang, danced and spun his yarn. 

          Is this why nobody really thought of putting together the stories as printed word? I don't know. What I do understand is that the concept of publishing books especially for children was inspired by the books that came into South Asia along with the men, machines and systems of the British empire. Not just books, but books in English. Litterateurs of the day travelled to England and came back to write, greatly influenced by what they had seen, read and heard. English slowly grew to great heights of dominance; it became the language of the elite and the most common language of communication. 

          This was a very significant development. You see, India, for instance, has 18 official languages and 1650 unofficial languages and dialects. In Sri Lanka the official languages are Sinhala and Tamil, there are about 50 dialects, the medium of instruction in schools is Sinhala and most people know English. In Pakistan, Urdu is the official and commonly used language.  Bangladesh has Bengali and Urdu, and Nepal has 50 languages and dialects! 

          So, when English was introduced, language became an issue, definitely in India. Although the agenda at this symposium is books in English or translations into English, we need to understand the context in which this Asian drama is being played. This is the reason children's books and literacy are so closely intertwined and can never be far from a publisher's thoughts. 

          In Bangladesh, for instance, while there is some publishing happening in Bengali, there's not too much in English. In Pakistan, most of the writing and publishing for children is about the Prophet, about national heroes and about Islamiat to help them cope with the complexity of their world and give them an identity rooted in Islam. 

          In such circumstances, the ACCU's efforts at cooperation takes on new colour. Only two per cent of the population in India is English-speaking, yet most of the children's books being published there are in English. Or, to put it another way, the biggest market in children's books is for books in English. The fact is, this is two per cent of a nearly one billion population. It is the elite, and therefore, the  book-buying and reading segment. This is the population that reads for pleasure. 
          I'd like to share a little story with you. I was once helping friends set up a small school in a tiny village near Noida, on the outskirts of Delhi. It is a Hindi-speaking belt in Uttar Pradesh and there was no question that the medium of instruction would be Hindi. But no, the villagers said no. They said we want English, we want our children to have all the opportunities you have and we don't.  This was an eye-opener and it helped me look at English as another Indian language, as natural as breathing. 
          I must also tell you about the seminal work done by Prof Meena Khorana who, in 1991, published an annotated bibliography of some 2000 titles of children's books in the English language published in the South Asian region. Since then, however, there has been a spurt in books published, especially in India, and she will probably need to add an appendix very quickly. Government agencies in all these countries have been doing their bit to promote children's books. In India, the National Book Trust, where Paro  (Anand, who attended the seminar in Birmingham with me) is an editor, and the Children's Book Trust have been steadfastly reaching books at affordable prices to children all over the country. Bangladesh has two or three children's book publishers. In 1997, Bangladesh produced about 200 children's books. The thrust in Pakistan and Nepal is on education and literacy. Sri Lanka, with a literacy level of over 80 per cent, tends to import a lot of its books but the book-buying culture there is very well established.   

          But government agencies can only do so much. Independent publishers have greater freedom and, in a sense, greater commitment to literature not linked necessarily to literacy. Many of the large publishing houses in India do books for children, although many of them manage this thanks to their hold on the textbook market. I belong to a small publishing house and we do books only for children. There are a few like us, and following the graph of sales over the last two years, it is obvious more people are reading them. 

          What do I mean by "our own books"?  Many of us feel post-colonial writing in India especially has not yet established its own identity. It's not enough just to change names or relocate. It is a question of rediscovering roots and changing  with the spirit. The good news is, this is happening. Books such as The Kaziranga Trail by Arup Kumar Dutta or Andamans Boy by Zai Whitaker are unique and wonderfully refreshing, books any child anywhere could pick and read and imagine the lives of others. 

. . . someday somebody'll
Stand up and talk about me —
And write about me —
Black and beautiful —
And sing about me,
And put on plays about me!
I reckon it'll be me
Me myself!
Yes, it'll be me. 

          Some of you must have read these lines by Langston Hughes. From the Ray family's contributions to R.K. Narayan's Swami and Friends to some very special writing by Salman Rushdie, Vikram Seth, books by Manjula Padmanabhan to Sybil Wettasinghe . . . to contemporary writers such as Debjani Chatterjee, Paro Anand, Sigrun Srivastav, Subhadra Sengupta . . . many voices telling their own stories and demanding they be heard. 

          There is also a new awareness of the need to provide good, friendly translations. Did you know that Mahasweta Devi, known to the world as a fiery activist, Ramon Magsaysay award winner, on whose work the film Hazaar Chaurasi Ki Ma was made, has written whimsical pieces for children? Seagull of Calcutta recently published her books, one a collection called Our Non-Veg Cow . The translation thing has finally percolated to children's books and some efforts are now being made to render in English from other languages. 

          In all this, I haven't forgotten the illustrator. Again, I'd like to speak from my own experience. We did a book called Ekki Dokki for four to eight year-olds. Simple story, vivid illustrations, a pretty popular book. Children love it. But when we showed it to fellow publishers at the Frankfurt Book Fair, the response was: "It's lovely, but it's not Indian." What is Indian, we asked each other. 

          A Danish publisher, Vagn Plegne, told this story about  the African illustrator, Meshack Asare. "Meshack Asare made his first picture books in one colour because the market in his country couldn't afford more. When he moved to Europe and found a European publisher, he began to publish in full colour but guess what:  European critics said it was a pity Asare was adapting to European tastes! Now, Asare thinks he is as African as ever in his stories and style  — whatever an African style maybe. And he wonders if he must return to one colour to be recognised as a genuine African! Meanwhile, the economic situation in his country has improved and Asare can do books in full colour! What will the European publishers say now?" 

          We had a similar experience with Eecha Poocha, done deliberately in two colour. Western publishers simply wouldn't look at it! Why?  With all these years of Western books and notions dominating and influencing, we have had to constantly rage and battle against stereotypical ideas, stories, characters, illustrations, situations, writing...  Now we also have to fight stereotypes in book production. 

          Who says books for children have to be glossy affairs, printed on art paper, in a certain format? Don't local conditions have a say? If in India only a certain kind of paper is available or affordable, why should we have to bend over backwards to match the glossies? Why should our books have to be better than the best if Western distributors/publishers must pick them up? 

          It's time to change all that. It's time books moved out from the Indian subcontinent. Information technology has opened up the world so dramatically, multiculturalism is no longer just a possibility. It is the natural order of things. I'd like to quote from Helen Rochman's thought-provoking book, Against Borders: "Books can make a difference in dispelling prejudice and building community: not with role models and literal recipes, not with noble messages about the human family, but with enthralling stories that make us imagine the lives of others. A good story lets you know people as individuals in all their particularity and conflict; and once you see someone as a person — flawed, complex, striving — then you've reached beyond stereotype. Stories, writing them, telling them, sharing them, transforming them, enrich us and connect us and help us know each other." Exactly. 

          But I am not for one moment saying that multiculturalism is some kind of passport. It is one aspect, an important aspect, of today's world and it has a place in children's books. 

          Suzanne Fisher Staples' Shabanu: Daughter of the Wind  is a much discussed book and has drawn wonderful reviews, especially in the West. An American writing about another culture after having experienced it and understood it. Yet, it doesn't always work in the way it is intended. Suzanne has written  how 13 scholars and others read the manuscript  for accuracy before she submitted it to the publisher. All of them felt she had captured the place, the people, and their lives with a remarkable sense of realism. Yet, the reaction from Pakistani students, teachers and others was largely negative. They even felt offended. They felt, she says, that someone who has no right to do so "speaks" for them. 

          Let me give you another, simpler example. Take information books. Take a picture book about transport. Just your bicycle and car and tram and bus say nothing about the modes of transport in India, as many as ingenuity can think up. Women pulling carts (and I'm not talking about gender issues here), people on camels, children spilling out of an autoricksha, people sitting sedately in patpatiyas... and people walking and walking, some with their footwear on their heads! So we cannot talk in terms of a general book on transport and apply it to all parts of the world. It simply doesn't work like that. It isn't us. 

          Yes, very often we feel that only if we ourselves speak for ourselves  will the rest of the world see us, understand us as we are. Does this sound defensive or unfair? Not really. Think about it: for hundreds and hundreds of years past — and possibly many more into the future — Western notions, standards, ideals have subtly and blatantly dominated and influenced our lives. Breaking out is hard to do, but it must be done. 

          It's not easy. The list of problems are quite daunting: a small reading and book-buying population, illiteracy, constraints with pricing, competition with the textbook market, poor distribution, the attitude of bookshops, and, definitely, the entry of MNCs. We are ready for collaborative efforts on equal terms but not on terms and at prices that pull the rug from under our feet. It takes courage to publish children's books, and commitment — to books, to children, to sharing. I'd like to end with Harivansh Rai Bachchan's poem, translated from the Hindi:  

"I want to write a poem on you," I said to a bird.
The bird said, "Are your words as colourful as my wings?"
"No," I replied.
"Your words as sweet as the music of my voice?"
"No," I replied.
"Have your words the flight of my wings?"
"Have your words my life?"
"Then how can you write a poem on me?" the bird asked.
"But I love you," I said.
The bird said, "What has love to do with words?"

          Well, if you're into books for children, and if you live where I do, love has everything to do with it.