On publishing stories from marginalised communities, and Tulika’s philosophy

Responses by Deeya Nayar, Senior Editor, Tulika Publishers
to questions from Maegan Dobson Sippy, for an article in Indulge magazine, The New Indian Express, Bengaluru, September 2014

Maegan: How did you discover the story (Under the Neem Tree) and why did you feel that it was an important book to publish?

Deeya: Under the Neem Tree was part of 'Different Tales', a project undertaken by the Anveshi Research Centre for Women's Studies, Hyderabad, to present stories about life-worlds of children belonging to dalit and other marginalised communities seldom reflected in children’s books. Our Managing Editor, Radhika Menon, was invited to be on the advisory committee of this project and was part of the discussions on developing the series.
Writing in their own languages, many of the writers drew on their own experiences of marginality in the contexts of caste and community. The stories are woven around everyday issues arising from social practices to do with food and clothing, work and play, and family relationships, and raise consciousness about the problems caused by marginalisation.

These are not the kind of stories told by mainstream writers for children, and as publishers we seldom come across them. For us they were extremely relevant, and at the core of Tulika’s publishing philosophy – to bring out the plural cultural worlds that children inhabit. Translated into the multiple languages that all our picture books come in (English, Hindi, Tamil, Malayalam, Kannada, Telugu, Marathi, Gujarati and Bengali) we could make them accessible to a wider range of children who have little knowledge of such cultures.

Under the Neem Tree was written originally in Telugu by dalit writer and teacher P. Anuradha, retelling a well-known folktale to reflect the dalit experience in full, undiluted flavour. The illustrations by artist A. V. Ilango capture the robust voice. We tried to ensure that the original colloquial, slightly raw feel of the language was retained as far as possible in all the translations.

This is Tulika’s second story from the series, the first being Ju’s Story by Paul Zacharia, originally written in Malayalam.

M: You're renowned for publishing books in many different Indian languages. But is it less common for you to be translating a book out of a regional language into English and other Indian languages?

D: It is, and only because we don’t find very many manuscripts in regional languages. Having said that, we have published several so far: Jhakkad, Malu Bhalu, The Magical Fish and Fakruddin’s Fridge (Hindi); Upside Down, Thakitta Tharikitta Bouncing Ball, Upside Down and Four Friends (Malayalam); Gadagada Gudugudu, The Talkative Tortoise and Malli (Tamil), The Rabbit in the Moon (Bengali); The Neverending Story (Kannada). The latest is Race of the Rivers, which was originally in Khasi, spoken in Meghalaya.

M: What in your experience has been the best way to inculcate a habit of reading? How can parents encourage their children to find joy in books?

D: When parents read to children, it resonates with a child beyond the book. It becomes a whole experience of bonding and comfort and togetherness over a story and pictures, which creates a lifelong memory and draws even potential non-readers to books. When there are so many other avenues in media today to entice children, reading has to be an attractive enough option. Reading with your child every day at a particular time is a good way to form the habit and make it a happy experience as well – pore over details in pictures, get your child to tell the story, come up with related stories….
Also, children who see adults around them reading are more likely to become readers themselves. Then of course, choosing the right books is important.

M: How have you at Tulika used digital avenues to encourage reading or widen participation?

D: Digital avenues are particularly useful for promoting Tulika’s multilingual focus, and to make audio versions of books available as useful resource material for the classroom. For this, we have partnered with companies – such as Storytruck (30 books, almost all of them in nine languages), Bookbox and Qyuki – who are in sync with this profile, to create anibooks, audiobooks, and book episodes that build a ‘show’ around a book.

Listening to books enhances children's engagement, so we have uploaded audio versions of some of our books on SoundCloud. For reluctant readers, slow learners and the visually challenged, listening to a book being read out can be highly motivating. Our books are being used extensively by schools, and additional material like songs based on books (which authors come up with) gives teachers ideas for making the books interactive in the classroom – they are always looking at ways of doing this. Audiobooks are a great tool for learning a language as well. In fact, the Hindi books on SoundCloud were done for learning Hindi by a Hindi teaching centre in the US.

We use YouTube for book trailers, and Facebook and Twitter for general publicity and promotions – apart from our website for online sales and promotion, and our very popular bi-monthly newsletter.

M: Do you think that attitudes towards writing and illustrating for children as a profession have changed in the last five years?

D: Publishing for children has grown hugely in India over the last decade or so, but is still relatively nascent when compared to the long tradition in the West. Added to that is the complex reality of many languages – which language are we talking about when we say ‘writing for children’? So while children’s books seem to be becoming a space publishers want to be in, which in turn has created a spurt in writing for children, there is still a long way to go before we really find a distinctive ‘voice’. The same happened with adult writing in India.

The good news is the growing demand for writers and illustrators over the last few years has met with a heartening response, and many more are turning to it as a profession (if not full time). But with it comes the danger of diluting quality – the notion that anything will do for children, and of the whole process getting fast-tracked in the race for publishers to add more and more books to the list. Training and nurturing talent in all aspects of children’s publishing is what is needed – it will take time and space to mature.

Read the article at indulge.newindianexpress.com/the-reading-festival/bangalore/16573