Current Tamil Books for the Young
Vanathi Pathippagam, Palaniappa Brothers, Saiva Sidhanta Noorpathippu Kazhagam, New Century Book House, Kalaimagal Kaariyalayam-these are some private publishers who bring out books for children regularly in Tamil. They are what one might call ‘big’ publishers, and having a few childrens’ titles in their catalsogue adds to their prestige or image. They can not only afford the extra investment which a children’s book entails because of illustrations, good paper etc, but can also print more copies to keep the price low, and have the resources and contacts to win bulk school orders. The target, then, is the school Principal or Librarian rather than the child: they offer some fiction, some poems, some biographies, some general information books, some popular science; and the librarian, whose most pressing problem is often ‘exhausting’ his funds, buys it all up.
This is not to hint at lack of good intentions on anybody’s part. The problem, rather, is one of approach. Everyone is concerned only with keeping up appearances: there’s no real involvement, no thirst for innovation and adventure. The only exception is the field of children’s poetry: excellent and original contributions have been made by poets such as AI. Valliappa, ‘Lemon’, Thambi Srinivasan, P. Thooran, A.N. Ganapathi, R. Ayyasami, Krishnan Nambi, and others. Big names like Bharati, Bharatidasan, Desika Vinayakam pillai, Kannadasan, and Kothamangalam Subbu have also made important contributions in this field. Tamil Writers’ Co-operative Society recently published a representative anthology of children’s poems in Tamil, edited by AI. Valliappa. (Chiruvar Kathaippadalgal, 1977, Rs. 6.50). It is a window on children’s poetry in Tamil. Valliappa himself is well-known among children’s poets, and the collection of his own poems entitled Malarum Ullam has run into 9 editions and sold over 30,000 copies.
The qualities one notices in the best of childrens’ poets–subtlety, precision, humour and innovativeness–are somehow often lacking in fiction writers. Prose becomes synonymous with prosaicness, with clumsy sugarcoating. With flabbiness. Not that wordiness doesn’t have a place in children’s literature-like grandma, for example, spinning out yarns for her grandchildren: ‘And then suddenly, jumping and dancing, mewing like a siren, there came a big, black cat-ugh! so ugly it was, so frightful to look at, and smelly too-ugh! it must be living near a drain or dustbin-its whiskers as long as the jaadu, its tail as long as our clothesline, the clothesline in Ramu’s house, and the clothesline in Gopu’s house, all combined together …. ‘ And so on. An interesting collection of grandma’s tales entitled Kutti Patti Kathaigal, retold by Krithika (Mathuram Bhootalingam) was published a few years back (Kalaimagal Kaariyalayam, 1974, Rs 6). Textwise and production wise, it is one of the very satisfying childrens’ books in Tamil that I have come across in recent years. Other significant contributions in retelling have come from Vai. Govindan, Thi. Ja. Ra, Aarvi, Ki. Ra., Thambi Sreenivasan, Thangamani, Vaandumama, Kalvi Gopalakrishnan, A.L. Natarajan, Puthaneri R. Subramanyan, Naga. Muthaih, P. Ramaswami, N.C. Velan and a few others. These writers have brought the best of world’s children’s literature (including folk tales) within the reach of Tamilian children. Some of these retold tales/adaptations have run into many editions–Vai. Govindan’s retelling of Aesop’s stories is a classic example (6th edition published by NCBH in 1977-Rs 6).
Some writers who have made original contribution to children’s fiction in Tamil are Aarvi, Poovannan. Tamilvanan, Thumilan and Raji (S. Natesan) to mention only a few. Aarvi and Thumilan have the ‘light touch’ so rare in Tamil writers, and their children’s stories and novels, which scrupulously avoid confusing children are a delight to read. Tamilvanan pioneered the detective novel for children in Tamil, and his detective hero Sankarlal was a great favourite with children. Tamilvanan’s crisp, staccato sentences mirrored the fast tempo of modern life and took young readers by storm. Raji has written many animal stories, while Poovannan’s forte is human relationships: he writes touching stories, set in a family or school, about friendship, affection and faith. These authors are immensely popular, and their books are reprinted again and again. Another popular children’s novelist is Vaandumama, who specializes in adventure stories. A children’s writer who is in a class by himself is Rajaji. He wrote stories with a moral, but in a lighter vein, and his simple unaffected style endears him to his young readers. His collection entitled Kuzhanthaikalukkana Kuttikkathaigal was an instant best seller (Vanathi Pathippagam, 1977, Rs 5).
Among non-fiction books, pride of place goes to the Children’s Encyclopaedia (10 volumes) published under the auspices of Tamil Academy (a body financed by the State Govt.) and edited by P. Thooran. A big job, competently done.
Popular science books for children in Tamil had started appearing even three decades back, the pioneer in this field being P.N. Appuswami. He has, on his own and in collaboration with Professor J.P. Manickam, written many books on subjects ranging from Atoms to Aeroplane. Others who have enriched this genre are Naa. Vanamamalai, Rudra Thulasidas, S. Thothadri, Vaithanna, N.K. Velan, K. Rajaram, N.K. Nagarajan, N. Subba Reddiar and ‘Kalvi’ Gopalakrishnan. ‘Kalvi’ is a sort of young readers’ Irving Wallace, specializing in collecting extensive material on any topic, and then giving it a fictional or semi·fictional treatment. His Parakkum Pappa (flying child) series is very famous. The Flying Child visits the moon or the ocean floor, travels backward in time and so on, and through him the young reader learns many interesting things. Pathala Ulagil Parakkum Pappa is the latest in this series (SLBT, 1979, Rs 10.00).
Another interesting series is the Story of Paper, Story of Iron, Story of Rubber, Story of Water, Story of Fire, and so on, published by Saiva Siddhantha Noorpathippu Kazhagam and authored by the names mentioned in the preceding paragraph. The series of books on Electronic devices and appliances by Moorthi, published by Kalaimagal Kaariyalayam, also deserves special mention. These are all professionally executed and have run into many editions.
Biography is also popular but writers often get carried away by their subjects and forget the peculiar needs of the young reader A good biography for children I read recently was the one on Rajaji by Rajarangan (Vanathi Pathippagam, 1977, Rs 2).
The children’s books published by NBT, CBT and SLBT have helped to fill a big void in the field of children’s book in Tamil, production-wise and illustrations-wise. But in defence of private publishers, it must be said that they operate under severe constraints. Price is a crucial factor. The Government has laid down a fixed formula for pricing books-so much for so many forms-and this is uniformly applied, irrespective of the production quality, illustrations etc. The publisher has to work within this limit if he doesn’t want to miss the ‘Public Library’ bus. And as to individual buyers, I quote what Mr V. Balaraman of Higginbothams told me once: ‘The buyer has a different set of values for English and Tamil. He would be prepared to buy an English children’s book even for Rs 20, but for a Tamil book, he won’t be prepared to pay more than Rs 5/-’.
So it is a vicious circle.
(Vol. III Nos. 9-10 Sept/October 1979)