The Same Old Story? Or is there something to cheer about?

Priya Krishnan, Editor, Tulika Publishers, for The Book Review, November 2007

As I look back to what I read as a pre-teen, with not much to choose by way of Indian books apart from some CBT and NBT books among which I fondly remember Shankar’s Stories about Grandfather, I marvel at the scene today. Indian writers from across the world are bringing to children’s writing a new sensibility, a comfort with being who they are – indigenous or from the diaspora. The books are shaking off the colonial hangover, shedding homogeneity and uniformity, beginning to reflect the child’s need for an identifiable context and trying to explore the vibrant tradition of many voices telling their stories.

          Content, handled responsibly, maturely and innovatively reflects the child’s concerns. Violence, which has always been graphic but distant, considering the battles of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata belonged to another realm, is now compelling and real in the bloody Hindu-Sikh riots in New Delhi in The Battle for No. 19 (Puffin), Just A Train Ride Away by Mini Shrinivasan (Tulika) explores the dilemma of a child distanced from his father, facing the bittersweet reality of estrangement and belonging, The Smile of Vanuvati by Harini Gopalaswami Srinivasan (Tulika) is a dialogue with history and mythology through adventure, Witch Snare by Ashok Rajagopalan (Puffin), an interactive book replicates a video game with a constant feel of movement and engagingly counters the passivity of television. It is gender sensitive too! Bringing Back Grandfather by Anjali Banerjee (Puffin) addresses the issue of death poignantly, using humour to defuse difficult moments. And the characters are not Tom, Harry or George but Malavika, Santosh and Aditi.

          Apart from Sukumar Ray’s brilliant nonsense verse, available in translation, there isn’t much original work in a genre that gives children access to the theme of ‘defiant individuality’, the fun of language, the world of logic gone haywire and rebel figures they respond to – like Tala, the determined heroine of Today is My Day, by Anushka Ravishankar. (Tara). Whether it is strong-willed Matilda or Pippi Longstrump, or, Alise in Anita Nair’s Living Next Door to Alise (Puffin), children need to question the strictures and contradictory signals of the adult world. This literature of protest becomes necessary reading for adults as well! Well-known Dutch writer Imme Dros says “I’m not sure whether I write specifically for children. I write about the things that I find enjoyable and interesting. Why my books happen to turn into children’s books I really do not know.” 
          Books are, after all, about understanding oneself and the outside world and only a few speak to all ages, across time – like Swami and Friends does about the travails of childhood, or Samit Basu and others do when they create characters and contexts that are culturally unique yet universal in Superhero – The Fabulous Adventures of Rocket Kumar and other Indian Superheroes (Scholastic). The ordinary man is hero in a world of false idols and powerful people running roughshod, a theme that has caught the imagination of children in books and cinema as well.

          Shashi Deshpande’s Three Novels (Puffin) set in small town India might be meaningful to those who still enjoy grandparents, climbing trees, listening to ghost stories…a world from which, unfortunately, most urban kids in wired, concrete jungles are distanced. This estrangement of writer from audience has happened surreptitiously. Blame it on globalisation? 
          But can children’s publishing sustain the need for stories that bridge these divides and make them inclusive? It can, through new perspectives and fresh interpretations. Many mainstream publishers thanks to a growing market for Indian culture at home and abroad, continue to churn out folk tales and myths that unthinkingly perpetuate prejudices and stereotypes. And publishers aren’t doing enough to get sensitive writers to revisit and purge them of these, keeping in mind the times, issues of race, religion and gender.

          Though Soma Guha’s retelling of the Mahabharata (Scholastic) retains moral dilemmas and complexities and Adithi Rao’s Shakuntala and Other Classics (Puffin) is lucid, they are the same old stories when it comes to treatment, with no new insights that Samhita Arni’s Mahabaharata (Tara)offers through a ‘bold and critical look at war.’

          Most of these writers use English in exciting ways – as it lives and breathes in the Indian milieu. But ‘beautiful’ writing is not enough. These writers should claim the space that these genres provide for vibrant alternative narratives of the unheard and the unseen. But publishers tread cautiously. Is it the times we live in? The need to be politically correct?

          Aware of these many strands in our society and not dealing with them is being complicit. To not bring them into the mainstream through words (theirs) or their art, is to marginalise them, feels novelist John Wideman, an African American Rhodes scholar. “Framed in foreign, inimical contexts, minority stories appear at best as exotic slices of life and local colour, at worst as ghettoized irrelevancies,” he says. It is important to give life to these heroes and heroines for large groups of children who now have access to many kinds of books even in rural India – in English and in translations, through libraries and literacy programmes.

          Non-fiction thrives, spurred on by the ‘information’ age. Despite the pressures of competition from foreign books, there are books on archaeology, history or ecology that defy the run of the mill. Leaf Life by Sirish Rao (Tara), Tulika’s The Shining Stones by Shanti Pappu, The Riddle of the Ridley by Shekar Dattatri (Tulika) and 103 Scientific Principles by Shobhit Mahajan (Scholastic) are well conceived, imaginatively produced. Versatile text lends itself for use in a multi-disciplinary approach. Biography thus far has been more hagiography, less unbiased portraiture.

A Flag, A Song and a Pinch of Salt (Penguin) with thumbnail sketches of leaders – men and women from across India, offers a representative range with sensibly balanced profiles. Kabir by Jaya Madhavan (Tulika) unites biography and imagination to bring alive the persona of a complex man in the troubled time and place in which he lived.

          So there is something to cheer about. But there shouldn’t be complacency. Homogeneity threatens again through branding, labeling and packaging. The goal should be to fight labels, tell varied stories in English, in many Indian languages and in translations and see that they reach all kinds of children, across India and the world. The idea is to give them not only what they want but also what most don’t have – the means to look at themselves, the world and its many oddities and surprises with humour, curiosity, empathy and optimism and to find their place in it.