As Tulika turns 20, managing editor Radhika Menon discusses the company's journey with The Hindu

“Why do you want to talk about me? Let’s talk about Tulika,” smiles Radhika Menon, managing editor of the city-based publishing house. For Radhika, who started Tulika 20 years ago to pave the way for a new wave of children’s publishing in the country, it’s the world of words that takes up most of her time.

Radhika, like many Indians, grew up on a diet of Western literature by authors such as Enid Blyton, Charles Hamilton and W.E. Johns. “I lapped them up and got lost in the magical world they created. But everything happened elsewhere and only in English, it seemed. Since I’d been educated in English, I didn’t even see it as a gap or disadvantage; I just enjoyed reading.”

In 1978, Radhika’s interest in children’s education led to a stint at the J. Krishnamurti school, which not only gave her access to the sort of books she hadn’t grown up with or seen, but also the liberty to use them as a teaching tool. Radhika put this liberty to good use. “For me, communicating ideas to children at that level, imaginatively, creatively and engagingly, was very exciting. Even though I didn’t get into publishing soon after, the experience stayed with me.” It also made her ponder: why did good quality Indian books in English feel as far away as a fairy tale?

So, in 1996, after she had the confidence of working in a pre-press unit and the experience of reading to her own children, she started Tulika, to bridge that gap. In their first year, they produced two bilingual picture books (English with Hindi, Tamil, Malayalam) — Line and Circle and Number Birds — and a Hindi alphabet book, Ka se kapde kaise? At the time, however, bi-lingual books were unheard of. Picture books, too, were rare. “It was needed, so we thought it would sell. But of course, that’s not what happened,” she laughs.

The books were met with a lot of resistance — they didn’t sell fast enough, schools asked for the same books with one language removed, and the company struggled. Yet, they persevered. “Ours is a multilingual culture. A child grows up hearing more than one language. So, obviously, they grow up reading the same way. We give access to another language through a familiar one; that way, you are comfortable with either, and soon, with both. We didn’t know where we were heading, but we were completely convinced it was the way forward.”

By 2000, things started looking up. Working with NGOs such as Pratham and Eklavya opened up an alternative distribution system. Schools began buying the books as in-house libraries became mandatory. Tulika co-published their books with regional language publishers to reach a larger audience, and began selling online as early as 2002. The market, too, started growing, with new players entering the fray. The next thing you know, the awards started pouring in — they now have 20 Indian and 14 International ones to their credit, including the Publishing Next Industry Award for Publisher of the Year 2014.

Today, Tulika has worked with 150 authors, 125 illustrators and 100 translators. They have produced books that reflect contemporary Indian sensibilities in many regional languages, including Tamil, Malayalam, Kannada, Telugu, Marathi, Gujarati and Bengali, and the occasional book in Oriya, Urdu and Punjabi. They have also sold international rights to 70 titles, and digital rights to 75. “Looking back, we’ve always aimed at mainstream readership, which is a diverse audience with different needs. If we were English publishers, for instance, we’d only be publishing for an urban audience.”

Given the focus on multiple languages, the books are inclusive and reach 3.5 million children every year. The topics too, are wide-ranging — disability (Kanna Panna), adoption (The Lonely King and Queen), exile and separation (Mukand and Riaz), deprivation (My Friend the Sea), caste (Ju’s Story), drugs, broken homes, same-sex families. “Children’s books have always reflected the larger society and context. I don’t believe in any taboos; it’s about how the story is written. A really good writer and illustrator can communicate even the most sensitive issue in a child-friendly and accessible manner.”

Even with complaints about the shortening attention span, thanks to gadgets, Radhika says she hasn’t sensed a drop in reading habits. “We find that more of our books are selling, which means more are reading.” Books, she says, will always find their place in a child’s life. Whether it is while reading to her grandchildren, or to the tiny tots who wander into the Tulika office, she finds that books always captivate them. So today, 20 years and over 2,000 titles later, what does that mean for the future of the publishing house? “Continue with our efforts,” says Radhika, “We’ve learnt so much, and it’s a two-way process, so continue working with more writers and illustrators to produce the best books.”

Does she ever see herself writing? “I don’t know why people assume that publishers and editors have to be writers or have to want to write. In fact, I find writing a problem,” laughs Radhika. “When you work with children’s books, which are very oral, you need to have a ear for writing. But I have no desire to write myself. I’m very happy working with writers.”

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