'We have a democratic space'

Radhika Menon, Managing Editor, Tulika Publishers
in conversation with Sudhanva Deshpande, Leftword Books - Paris Book Fair March 2007


Radhika Menon was a school teacher before she ventured into publishing. When was that, I ask. She laughs. “I don’t remember. Ask Indu. She’s better with dates.” She’s talking about Indira Chandrasekhar with whom she started Tulika as a pre-press service “to make enough money to publish books.” There was never enough money, of course, but today the two are publishing books they believe in. Radhika started Tulika Publishers in Chennai specializing in children’s books, and Indira started Tulika Books that publishes academic books.

How did it all begin?

In the classroom! As a teacher at The School, Chennai, I acutely felt the lack of good Indian children’s books. I felt a real cultural vacuum. There were so many wonderful books from the UK or US in the library that were the starting point of exciting lessons and projects but when I tried to relate them to the Indian context I was at a loss. My own colonial ‘English’ education did not equip me to find content that reflected a contemporary Indian reality. In the process of putting together relevant content, I also realized that the approach to topics had to be different from that in western books.


Suppose I wanted to do a project on the rivers of India. I would find one book with geographical information. Then a colleague would tell me a myth about a river, or about a festival, perhaps with a strong conservation angle, someone else would share a song… It was important that children got a sense of all this when they learnt about rivers because what you were then conveying was a sense of history, culture, ecology and the strong link of people’s lives to rivers – quite different from how the beautifully illustrated foreign books presented a subject. Even a story is told differently in different cultures. There was also the growing conviction that this was what Indian children’s books should be about – the multicultural, multilingual Indian sensibility.

You taught in two well-known ‘different’ schools: The School in Chennai and Sardar Patel Vidyalaya in Delhi. What did it mean?

In Sardar Patel, children were instructed in Hindi at the primary level but they learned English as one of the subjects. In middle school, as the medium of instruction shifted to English, children were also taught a third language. This multilingual approach to teaching seemed natural. I saw how my own children studying in the school were growing up strong in an Indian language and in English. In India, all of us are at least bilingual and many of us know three, four, five languages. So it seemed logical that the first two books we published, Line and Circle and Number Birds were bilingual. The third was a Hindi alphabet book.

You were sure it would work?

We had a naive notion that since there weren’t many good children’s books, all we had to do was publish them, and they’d get sold! As simple as that. At no point did we think we were doing something ‘different’ or that there’d be any resistance.

And the response was . . . 
Quite negative! I showed the books around and the response was that it was not going to work. The main reason was the price. We were very clear that the books had to look and feel good and the high quality of paper and printing meant the books could not be priced cheap.

So when did you realize it was going to be a slog?

Immediately! Bookshops wouldn’t keep our books and schools were not willing to buy them.

Why didn’t you just fold up?

Because we were convinced about what we were doing. And the books kept ‘happening’. I saw a portfolio done by artist Paritosh Sen, called A Tree in My Village. It was all about the life around a tree and the artist’s boyhood experiences. He redid the original sepia illustrations in watercolour for us. Then an animated film about the possible birth of zero triggered off All About Nothing... Transforming ideas into books with artists, filmmakers, photographers, storytellers was and continues to be a wonderfully creative experience. But we ran into problems with marketing, cash flow…

How did you overcome that?

Working hard, thinking out of the box, partnerships with corporates and non-governmental organizations, finding alternate channels of distribution and so on.

Why didn’t you make your books cheaper?

Quality production, paying good royalties, marketing books in a vast, fragmented and resistant market — all these add to costs. Yes, there is a huge section that can’t afford the books but they can’t be reached through the mainstream market in any case. We give special discounts to organizations involved in literacy programmes. At least 60% of our sales are to these organizations and through them the books reach less privileged children. And I think that all children need books that are good to look at, hold and read.

But do books matter any more?

Oh yes they do. Why else would books be banned? One of our books was disallowed in community libraries in one state because it was about a tribal girl asking questions and demanding an education! It mattered enough to the people who didn’t want girls to be educated to lock it up. It matters a great deal to us that there are books that subvert stereotypical perspectives and images. Children’s books give us the space to do this creatively and sensitively.

You’ve successfully done books on politically and socially challenging themes, such as the Bhopal gas tragedy and Partition. How did you do that?

I think to a certain extent the chaos of the market worked in our favour. When it is highly structured and regulated, the market dictates the kind of books that will sell. But in India we are able to find unconventional spaces and outlets. In a sense, we have a more democratic publishing space, if we want to use it. For Tulika, because of our multilingual books, the primary market is the economically weaker section. So we create books for that -- books that, through words and pictures, include the cultural experiences of a majority of people largely ignored in the mainstream. That is something we have to work hard at as our own experience doesn’t prepare us for it at all. There has to be a willingness to learn constantly.

And now, you are selling rights as well . . .

Yes, slowly. It is a great feeling to know that our books are traveling not just in English but in Korean, Chinese, Malay, French, German, carrying strong cultural images.

It seems as though getting authors, editors, translators has been relatively painless.

On the contrary. Sometimes there are people with great ideas, but they aren’t necessarily writers. So we have to work very closely with them, almost writing the book for them. Some others have never written for children, but are so passionate about the subject and about communicating it, that they discover they can write for children. Translation has its own problems. There is always the politics of a language, with issues of caste and class and gender all intertwined. We are constantly grappling with these problems.

Future plans?

To continue to publish imaginative books that are socially inclusive in every sense and to make such books mainstream. If we can connect across places and languages with these books perhaps we can move towards a more egalitarian and democratic world for young readers everywhere.

Sudhanva Deshpande
 taught for a while at the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad, before turning to publishing. He works as editor with LeftWord Books, New Delhi.