The Story of Tulika

Radhika Menon, Publishing Director, Tulika Publishers
for Artes Foundation, January 2013

When Tulika Publishers was set up in 1996, it was fuelled by a determination to create Indian books that were as good as the best books anywhere. Ours was a generation reacting to having grown up on a diet of books from the West, while shying away from didactic, badly produced Indian books. Good books happened elsewhere, usually in England, it seemed!

Many questions confronted us. How could we change prevailing attitudes to children’s books and create books that reflected a contemporary Indian sensibility? What was clear to us right from the beginning was that the books had to be rooted in the Indian multilingual, multicultural context. When the languages children hear all around them are kept out of the books they read, how representative or inclusive can such books be? And yet, though it was important to make books available in all the Indian languages, it was just not possible for one publisher to do accomplish this. How could we reflect a multilingual reality in books when we were publishing in only a few languages?

Translations into several languages was the answer – translations that allowed infusions from the original language so that the stories resonated with the sounds of different languages. Picture books allowed us to do this, bridging, as they do, the gap between the oral and the written. They are a child’s first window to literacy. And we had a great advantage in the audience we were addressing – children. Children have vivid imaginations and embrace new experiences spontaneously, and they are not troubled by boundaries. And so Tulika’s multilingual publishing adventure began with picture books for 3-8 year olds in nine languages – English, Hindi, Tamil, Kannada, Telugu, Malayalam, Marathi, Gujarati and Bangla.

Tulika’s first books were not single language picture books but bilingual picture books in which the English text was paired with another language. There was no doubt in our minds that beginner books had to be bilingual because most children in India grow up with more than one language. They may speak in a single language but they are always within hearing distance of other languages. Bringing bilingualism into the books was a natural way to introduce children to languages. Such books are not about language teaching. They are about children discovering the world in their own language and simultaneously in a less familiar one. At the same time, it was a way of giving equal primacy to the children’s own languages in an environment in which English was fast assuming superiority. The intention was not to privilege one viewpoint over another, but to explore the possibilities of creating books for children that reflected the connectedness of regions, languages and cultures while at the same time retaining distinctive voices. But the reactions to the books from the market were far from encouraging, with many schools rejecting bilingual books for use in the classroom.

Staying with our convictions and continuing to publish in nine languages against all the odds has been an enriching experience. While as editors we feel at a disadvantage because of being primarily English speaking, engaging with texts in Indian languages has given the books we publish a sensibility that is culturally rooted. Just publishing in English would not have achieved this. The books offer a range of experience that is inclusive and representative of different childhoods, different social milieus and different cultural contexts. Such books can help young readers understand at least a little bit about how other children live so that their ideas and sympathies extend beyond their own limited circumstances. While the texts reflect cultural and linguistic diversities, the pictures create an equally diverse visual language, which ranges from adaptations of folk styles, to contemporary styles with distinctive colour palettes, photography and digital art.

Bilingual and multilingual picture books make up a large part of Tulika’s catalogue, but we also have a growing list of fiction and non-fiction for the 8+ age group in English. Though we publish fiction selectively looking for writing and themes that stand out in the relatively crowded space for such books, our focus is on building a strong non-fiction list, as this is an area in which little work is being done. Tulika has a number of non-fiction series, e.g. Where I Live, Green Books, Looking at Art and In Focus, which cover a wide range of topics and give young readers fresh perspectives.
Our books have set new trends and ventured into untested territories in both content and form. When such books become mainstream, the effects are far reaching. They are now being widely used by schools, playschools, activity centres and libraries catering to children across the spectrum. They reach street children and the children of migrant workers and other children who have no access to any kind of reading material through organisations that work with them. They are being used as supplementary readers from pre-school to Class VIII, and more than 60 of them have been recommended by the CBSE for school libraries. And so the bilingual and multilingual books have come full circle from rejection to required reading!

Today it is not unusual to see the same book from Tulika (in the relevant language) in village libraries and in schools in large cities, including government schools, and in libraries in different parts of the world. Books that have won international acclaim and awards are being read by children in their own languages in remote corners of the country. Bilingual and multilingual books make this possible.
The historical circumstances of children’s publishing in India have created a situation where there is little professional expertise or experience in areas like editing, writing, illustrating and translating. Over the last 15 years Tulika has worked with more than 250 authors, illustrators and translators and these include well-known names as well as well as less well known ones and beginners. Tulika works with interns from design and art schools in the country as well as with professionals who train with us throughout the year. We have initiated several collaborative projects with design schools like National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad, and Srishti School of Design, Bangalore. Discovering and nurturing talent has therefore been a vital part of Tulika’s growth.

Perhaps now we can say with confidence that we have achieved in some measure what we set out to do. The vision persists and is clearer. The books children read should reflect what they see and what they hear, so that they have some chance of understanding and being comfortable with differences. Will such books help children in their dealings with each other? And will such children create a better future? We don’t know. Any influence the books have may be ameliorative, rather than earth-shaking and world changing. For us, at Tulika, this has to be a matter of hope, not expectation.