Sunday, 9 August 2009



Like any other individual of my age group, my childhood was not just gruelling exams and mindless competition to be ahead of others. It was simple and innocent world of a kid, complemented by numerous books of fiction, poetry and comics. Beyond the real world where I lived in, there were stories of Panchatantra, reporter Tintin and his adventures, Amar Chitra Katha and other comic strips, short stories in the noted Bengali children's magazines Anandamela and Shuktara, and the timeless monster-dominated fantasies of Thakurmar Jhuli (Grandma's Sack) penned by Dakshinaranjan Mitra Majumdar. The monsters, the princes, princesses, the old woman on the moon and the rest of the characters seemed real to me, just like the bustling city life of Calcutta or London where the fictional sleuths or Tintin chased the baddies. I could relate to the stories of youngsters like Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn who behaved just like my friends and me; the unknown places --- from the Arctic to the jungles in Africa or some small town in America --- came alive because of the super writers. And with the stories they all offered a set of values that helped me to evolve as a person. I guess, the same was true for most of you.

But my childhood was a time without the computers, Internet, video games or other gadgets that could have distracted me from the reading pleasure. And then there was no broom-riding Harry Potter who is ruling the roost now. J K Rowling's overbearing presence seems to have dwarfed other writers and their creations from the past, and I keep wondering how different are the reading habits of today's children in India from that of mine, when I was a kid. 'Are the stories of Panchatantra moving towards oblivion', I ask Karthika V K, the publisher and chief editor of HarperCollins India. “Not at all. They continue to backlist on most children’s publishers’ lists,” she assures. “It hasn’t changed much over the years, if you look at the focus on traditional tales, reference and activity books. The mythology and folktale lists are still the strongest in the young readers’ segment,” she says. Agrees in general Manas Ranjan Mahapatra, editor of the National Centre for Children's Literature of the National Book Trust (NBT). “Fantasies will always remain popular with the children through the ages,” he says. However, there have been changes in the themes of the children's books published in the country, he adds. “In the 1960s and 1970s, the stress was more on the freedom struggle fairy tales and mythologies. In the 1980s and 1990s it veered towards science fiction and other information-based content,” Manas Ranjan explains. Now children read books “more for entertainment unlike the earlier generation who used NBT books for learning,” he adds. “For older children, Enid Blyton still rules, though there are newer fantasy and adventure lists. Amar Chitra Katha is another long-term staple,” Karthika informs.

It reminds me of my first engagement with the great Indian epics through the well-known comics series. It was through the colourful panels that I met King Shivaji and got some idea about his empire; the comics told me the wonderful tales of Birbal; Chanakya's mastermind was easier to access through the pictorials. Just few days back I had the opportunity of going through an illustrated edition of the Mahabharata. Suddenly, it was like reliving my kid days when I tried to imagine how big must have been the palace of the Pandavas, or how fast was the chariot of Arjun... So I got back to journalist-turned-author Namita Gokhale, who retold the story of Mahabharata in that recent book for children. “I wrote the story in a simple, contemporary style for young readers and first-time readers,” she says. But while doing so, she had to communicate it in a “modern and contemporary way”. I ask her to elaborate. “Indian mythology is always re-interpreting itself, as it has been doing through the ages. That is why it is always contemporary and current, never dated,” Gokhale says. “Continuity and change is a hallmark of Indian culture and so it is not difficult to look at ancient stories from a present and modern perspective,” she adds.

Over the years, the epics have been told in different versions, through drama, folk theatre and even the Pata Chitra --- a form of indigenous comic strip. “So I think it’s really appropriate and wonderful to have cartoon and animated film versions of the Ramayana, Mahabharata, Panchatantra etc,” Gokhale maintains when asked about the impact of audio-visual medium on children's literature. At the same time she sounds confident that the “written word continues to have a special meaning” since it is “more demanding and challenging then the comic strip style, and yields more depth and meaning for today’s very intelligent and articulate young people”. And the good news is, informs Karthika, “A new crop of writers is emerging, who write fresh contemporary stories for today’s kids. Hopefully there will be a lot more of them and we will see much more adventurous publishing in the future”. In a nutshell, there will be changes in the content and writing styles; kids of fictions and their actions will reflect the signs of the time that is increasingly materialistic. But at the end, it will be the innocence of childhood that will define their literature.

Attracting the youngsters
From the view of marketing strategy, “the prospects of children's literature is favourable but we have a long way to go in India,” says Lipika Bhushan of HarperCollins Publishers India. According to her, they are “seriously looking at expanding” the children's literature. Titles from both Indian as well as international authors are being “promoted in a more focussed way” and there is sufficient demand for several titles by C S Lewis (Narnia series), Michael Morpurgo and J R R Tolkien (Lord of the Rings), Mary Kate and Ashley series, and Sleepover Club series. “They all sell consistently year after year. In case of Lewis and Tolkien, the demand goes up eight to 10 times at the time of release of a movie,” Lipika adds.

So, these publishers don't lose the opportunity to catch the maximum eyeballs as they did by introducing the Narnia books in Hindi last year along with the English edition around the same time when the Prince Caspian film was released. There were tie-ups with Walt Disney Pictures and Walden Media, and contest for Lucky Seats at multiplexes for both the English and Hindi versions of the movie. And the Tee-shirts added up to the attraction quotient, informs Lipika.

The NBT that published over original editions of 600 children’s books authored by Indian writers in 24 Indian languages besides thousands of reprints and translations, has also taken various steps for promoting reading habit. “We have set up Readers' Club in several government primary schools where we provide free magazine and books to the children,” informs Manas Ranjan. Moreover, the organisation hosts workshops, seminars and events of creative writing to get the children involved with the literary creativity, he says. “And for those interested to work in the field of children's literature, we have set up a national library-cum-documentation centre in Delhi,” he adds. However, more needs to be done and Manas Ranjan thinks children's literature deserves more serious approach. “There can be awards for the writers and other measures need be taken to motivate them so that more material are generated for the reading pleasure of the children,” he opines.

We turn our attention to the Indian authors. Aren't they losing out to foreign literary invasion? Lipika rolls out a list of Indian authors who are writing for children, to counter my scepticism. “HarperCollins India published M Acharya’s Ramayana for Young Readers a few years back after which last year, in collaboration with Mapin, we have published four more titles by Indian authors --- The Kidnapping of Amir Hamza by Mamta Mangaldas and Saker Mistri, Traveller The Tiger and The Very Clever Jackal and In the Indian Night Sky by Reshma Sapre, and Suhag Shirodkar’s Captured in Miniature: Mughal Lives through Mughal Art.” she informs. And in 2009, the publishers have come out with Balraj Khanna’s Rajah: King of the Jungle and Rohinton Mody’s Moneky Tales. “We also introduced the seven Narnia titles in Hindi last year under our HarperHindi imprint,” Lipika says.

So let's put it in this way. If there is a choice between Ruskin Bond and Roald Dahl, children are likely to tilt towards Dahl. “Yes, foreign writers win almost always,” Karthika admits. “But children’s publishing in India is strengthening day-by-day and things are bound to get better,” she sounds hopeful. “In fact, Ruskin Bond is a good case in point. He’s mobbed wherever he goes, kids love him, and all his books sell steadily,” Karthika adds.

I look back to my childhood days again. I was an avid reader, but never got a chance to meet any writer then. Frankly, I don't regret that because it was their words in print that made my imaginations more colourful. That is more important than the hype that is at times created around some writers now. I was a reader, not a customer in the market. Still, I cannot but appreciate the initiatives to get younger people into the habit of reading. At least, that might help to make reading a lifelong passion for modern kids as they will grow up. From fantasy fictions they would move into teenage adventures and graduate into some realistic novel. And then one day, amidst all the humdrum and complexities of adulthood, they will suddenly recall simplicity of the good old childhood story books that filled in the afternoons of their idyll vacations or that they grudgingly guarded in their treasure troves. Like photographs, memories of such books will be their cherished connection with the days that will never come back. Just the way it is for me now.
(Part of the article was published in
Sakal Times of Pune, India, on August 9, 2009)