A decade or so ago, just after the publication of my first book for children, I went with a brand new ms to a rather well known publisher in New Delhi. He was a reasonably big name in publishing and also the editor of the Publisher’s guild/association. I had met him at a conference and taken time from him.
I reported at the Publisher’s office dot on time. However, when I gave my card at the reception I was directed to meet not the father but the son. While the father seemed to be a man of the world, urbane, suave and shrewd, the son appeared to be young and brash. He flipped through the manuscript like a doctor going through promotional literature on the latest female contraceptive and looked at me.
“Mr ...” he stopped for a few seconds looked at my visiting card, “Yes, Mr. Kumar. Your ms looks interesting. But I am afraid it doesn’t quite fit into our scheme of things right away.”
I knew this was the standard lingo most publishers used for the ‘golden boot’.
“Mr. Sanjay (his first name) what kind of writing are you looking for?” I asked. I had spent 350 bucks and two hours on a taxi and I wasn’t going to give up that easily.
He looked at me with a rather bored expression and suppressing a yawn replied, “Mr. Kumar, why don’t you rewrite the Ramayana for us.”
“Rewrite the Ramayana!” I stared at him. “But Mr. Sanjay that has been done thousands of times. Moreover, for doing a cover version of the Ramayana you can get any graduate in English who has a bit of interest in writing. You don’t need a creative writer for that. Where is the creative challenge in this kind of writing?”
“Mr. Kumar we are not in the business of offering challenges. For that you can participate in game shows on TV. We are in the business of publishing. And like in any other business, here too our focus is on our bottom-line and not on Corporate or Creative Social Responsibility. And for your information there is a huge demand for Ramayana and Mahabharata in places like Bali, Java and Sumatra. If you are interested we can work out the details.”
I shook my head, thanked him and walked out.
In the decade or so since then the scenario hasn’t changed all that much for children’s writing in India.
I would like discuss briefly the current scene.
Many writers who have faltered and failed in writing for adults meander into what they consider a rather easy genre. Bored housewives, expert school teachers and experienced parents who have whetted their tale-telling skills on children are usually bitten by the writing bug. They read up everything available ranging from fables to fairy tales and myths to mythology. They then fasten their seat belts and are ready to launch themselves as children’s writers.
As a result we have ‘made-over’ versions of Aesop’s fables, the Panchatantra tales, the Jataka stories et al. The creativity of the writers is all spent in modernizing the names and settings. The tale of hare and the tortoise would appear in a new avatar as a story between Montu and Pinki set in the grounds of a public school in Noida. The poem of the fox and sour grapes would be cleverly retold as the saga of Golu and the Golgappas.
This reminds me of a little incident which happened during the Asian Conference of Story Telling in New Delhi, a few years ago. A lady with very impressive credentials in the field of Library Science and an equally impressive personality was giving tips to children’s writers on how to write for children.
“All writers attempting to write for children should keep in mind that they have to go down to the level of children,” she concluded with a flourish, waiting for the applause which naturally followed.
During the interaction session I raised my hand to ask a question. She transferred her imperious gaze to me and lifted her eyebrows.
“Ma'am, thanks for your very illuminating discourse, but I have a small point to make.”
She nodded impatiently. Obviously she didn’t have time to waste on a ‘non-pedigree’ writer like me.
“Ma’am, I think you got the direction wrong. We children’s writers don’t have to go down to the level of children, rather we have to rise up to the level of the young and vibrant minds. For, ma’am children are the closest that you can get to God and God lives up there, not down below.” There was a stunned silence for some time and suddenly the entire hall no. 5 of India Habitat Centre exploded with claps and cheers.
The point I am trying to make is that the first set of people responsible for the state of children’s writing in India is the writers themselves.
As an MBA in marketing the primary lesson I was taught was to respect the customer. For us the customer is the child. However, instead of respecting the child we patronize her and take her for granted. The books being churned out by writers and publishers are a testimony to this fact. Most of the books written for children are rehashes of earlier classics. And the reason is obvious. Most writers do not have the talent, the perseverance and the confidence to try out anything new. As a result they are comfortable with their chunnu, munnu, pinky pappu tales or happy with retelling epics for a pittance.
As far as the publishers are concerned they consider the fairy tale/folk tale/fantasy segment safe since there is already have a huge body of work and hence a ready market in this genre. Therefore they indulge in either reprinting age old fables and myths or going in for their remix versions authored by uncles and aunties parading as writers.
I would like to put forth a strong case for a different genre of writing. I would like to take the liberty of naming this segment of writing - Here and Now genre.
What do I mean by Here and Now writing?
This is the writing which is set in a contemporary context, not in the once upon a time? It is concerned not with the past perfect but the present (tense or otherwise). Kids of today face problems, get opportunities and counter predicaments which their earlier generations never did. This scenario throws up greater challenges as well as higher levels of responsibility.
I would like to mention here that the target age group for the Here and Now writing is normally 10 to 16. Many writers do not want to write in this genre because this is one of the most difficult ones to write for. The target audience is much sharper, mature and yes far more critical and finicky. The slightest of dissonance and the audience would reject the writer.
The publishers too are wary of foraying in this arena. The reasons may be because of lack of good quality literature and also apprehension to make a foray into uncharted territory.
Now that I have discussed the predilection of some of the writers and publishers to indulge in the policy of safety first let me move to another equally glaring arena – the proclivity of many publishers and the stalwarts in the academia for anything and everything foreign.
I recently came across a circular issued by a senior officer of one of the top boards of the country. In the circular issued to all the schools under the board, the lady waxes eloquence on the teaching of English. Her erudite views are followed by a list of books and writers recommended for teaching in classes 6 to 12. I was shocked to see that out of close to hundred children’s books listed there is not a single one by a contemporary Indian writer. Further, some of the foreign writers listed cannot be classified as children’s writers by any stretch of imagination.
Clearly, according to the wise lady, none of Indian children’s writers of today have the talent or the ability to reach out to Indian children. Only foreign imports with alien sensibilities are good enough for India’s ignited minds. I wonder what the father of our nation would be thinking seeing us sporting the yoke of cerebral slavery with such élan.
There is another issue I would like to discuss. Most publishers, editors and academics (PEA) are very wary of realism in ‘Here and Now’ writing. For instance I have often been asked about the depiction of violence in my writing considering that my first novel was on terrorism and the second is on boxing.
Most PEAs believe that violence should not be shown at all. My answer is that children today are exposed to large scale depiction of violence day in and day out on the TV, internet, computer games, cinema etc. Even the daily news looks more like a reality show with riots, terror attacks, murders, rapes etc. Ignoring violence altogether would be imitating our good friend, the ostrich. A more responsible approach would be to depict violence without glorifying it.
But it is not easy to convince the PEAs, particularly, the school teachers. During my book promotion tour to Hyderabad recently I found my book Terror in Fun City disappearing from the shelves at the retail stores. However, in the schools the teachers refused to recommend the book for holiday reading even without perusing the book. The title with the word ‘Terror’ right at the beginning made the book an anathema.
The book probably has 1/100th of the violence of the Harry Potter books, but then again Ramendra is no Rowling. A firang, and that too a successful one, is next only to Goddess Saraswati while a desi, that to a struggling one, is not even a Jamvant!
I would like to draw your attention here to a few writers who have been catering to the here and now genre and writing with panache.
The first who come to my mind are Deepa Agarwal and Shreekumar Varma. Deepa Agarwal’s book Caravan to Tibet, was nominated for the IBBY (International Board on Books for Young People) Honor List from India 2008 and has been translated into Korean. Shreekumar Varma has successfully straddled both adult as well as children’s fiction and uses the genre of magic realism to delineate on contemporary issues and time cherished values. There are quite few others like Swapna Dutta, Cheryl Rao, Deepak Dalal, Neelima Sinha, Devika Rangachari et al, who are delighting pre-teen and early teen readers with the magic of their words. Yet the head of one of the most prestigious Indian boards feels their creativity is not good enough for Indian students.
I too, as you would have guessed by now, have been devoted to ‘Here and Now’ writing for the last twelve years. My books have been translated into Japanese, Mongolian, Sinhala and Spanish (Chinese and French versions are under print). My stories are in the course books in Norway and Bahrain. Thus my writing is good for countries and continents beyond our shores, but thanks to the largesse of a few, it is just not fit for cerebral consumption by the young minds and hearts of India.
Thankfully pre-university and university academics harbor no such prejudices at least as far as adult fiction by Indian writers is concerned. That is the reason why Jhumpa Lahiri, Arundhati Roy, Vikram Seth, Salman Rushdie and even India’s answer to Jackie Collins -Shobha De, find their place in the syllabi.
In a meeting conducted by National Centre for Children’s Literature some time back, Dr. Madhavi Kumar of the NCERT had this to say,
“In a study of some 4000 books brought out by some 200 publishers, it was found that there was a large number of folk tales, myths and legends. However, there was a shortage of contemporary writing. There is a need to balance this as children today expect and desire books that deal with the world in which they live and deal with conflicts arising out this."
According to Reba Mukherjee, a Library Scientist, “Contemporary Indian writing needs to be developed and made more accessible. Subjects which deal with the child’s own world and dilemmas are demanded.”
I have been going on book promotion tours to different cities which include Book Reading sessions and Meet the Author programs in leading book stores and creative writing workshops in schools. I have been telling realistic stories in all these forums. The response of the young and the young at heart has been fantastic. During my interaction with Deepa Agarwal and Shreekumar Varma they revealed that they had got the same response.
Thus, our experience shows that the readers love here and now writing, research proves that it is very much in demand and there are at least a few writers who have carved a niche in this category – then pray what is stopping the publishers and the academics to attempt to take the road less traveled? Isn’t it high time the creators of a brave new literature as well as a discerning readership get a chance to reach out to each other and create a synergy which is beyond time and space?
Is anyone out there listening?