Taking stock of children’s books in India in English more than sixty years after Independence, could we rate them to be among the burgeoning literatures in English the world over? Does our mushrooming industry of children’s books in English overcome a postcolonial angst about our literary ability to stand on our own feet vis-a-vis the English language? Moreover, have we really been able to integrate our mutations and mutilations of the colonizer’s language within our corpus of indigenously produced spare time reading matter for young readers in a way that it sells?
My investigation of what children read is obviously limited to that elite segment of literate children who know enough English to want to read fiction and non-fiction in English. Going by the hype around some children’s books in the western canon—for instance the prodigious number of city-bred children who grab a Harry Potter in the wee hours of the morning on the very day it is released—there was not much evidence, to begin with, of the relatively new Indian children’s literature in English having filtered down to popular reading. Nonetheless, I hoped to unearth an appreciably decolonized mindset in some children in their decisive preference to read Indian English fiction.
Among children’s writers, one could not begin but by speaking to Ruskin Bond, whose name is synonymous with children’s literature in India. Children’s writers owe to him the path that he single-handedly carved out against heavy odds, making it easier for those who have followed in his footsteps. Bond thinks that in a country where booksellers are not very educated and have merely been handling the family business for generations, bookshops often have a random stock of books that is neither profitable for the seller nor pleasurable for the buyer. He feels, however, that enlightened teachers and parents have contributed to some extent towards inculcating reading habits among children, and that publishers like the National Book Trust have been trying to produce more eye-catching, reasonably priced books. Educational publishers like the NCERT have been working in tandem with them. He seemed to voice some amount of introspection and irony all along about his own growth as a writer, confessing that it has taken him 55 years to find a place on the map. These self-questioning articulations of the most established children’s writer in English located within the context of a not-too-savvy book trade set the sceptical tenor of my subsequent feedbacks.
During interactions with parents, teachers, librarians, writers, publishers and booksellers about children’s reading habits, I was inter-mittently thwarted by the inevitable question about why children these days do not read. It is easy to blame children for not reading, a few of them averred, but it is the cut-throat competition and peer pressure in the educational system and the lack of a book-friendly cultural environment that nips children’s desire to read in the bud. Ajit Vikram Singh of Fact and Fiction said that upper middle class, educated parents pressurize their children to study so much that they actually discourage reading beyond the age of 12 or so. My questions also unsolicitedly incited adult respondents to rave and rant against the television, the computer and the internet for singing the funeral dirge of the golden era of juvenile bibliophiles. My probe, however, was not about whether children read at all in a bad world contaminated by the evils of examinations and electronic entertainment.
Trying to garner the views of a handful of children about whether the new Indian fiction in English for children has significantly altered their reading preferences, once again, I initiated some volatile and outspoken rejoinders about holier-than-thou adults like me who misuse a surrogate pedagogical and parental privilege in suggesting that Indian books in English might redeem juvenile delinquents who are on the verge of perdition. This compelled me to reconsider my politically correct mission on behalf of Indian books. It would be an uphill task, I realized, to co-opt children into a budding awareness of their valuable stock of native English books. Yet opinions across the spectrum on western writing apropos Indian fiction problematized any smug generalizations I could make on the matter.
A few outraged adult responses I came across also virtually demolished my enterprise dedicated to the cause of Indian English writing for children. Samit Basu, critic and reviewer, writes: ‘Children don’t see books as political statements … [and] won’t gravitate naturally towards books by Indian authors just because they are Indian.’ Payal Dhar, a young adult fiction writer, similarly observes: ‘Anyone …who wants a good read just goes and gets a book that sounds interesting. They don’t say, ‘I will only read something by an Indian author’… [Unfamiliarity] … doesn’t spoil the fun of reading.’ People who are part of the production network of children’s books, too, neither demonized English/ American books in our children’s everyday reading nor were complicit with me in wanting to demystify what I consider the overrated baggage of western juvenile literature. Anita Roy of Young Zubaan felt that ‘if a kid is taken by a story, her imagination gripped by a good narrative, her sympathies engaged by believable characters…she will read that book, whoever its author.’ Conversely, Sayoni Basu of Scholastic India replied that youngsters hardly exercise any choice but follow the beaten track. About parents, however, Pallavi of Tulika said that they are nowadays more aware of the ‘cultural disconnect’ involved in children’s reading about characters with English names in English settings.
Many felt that Indian books for children often put off young readers by the burden of morality that they carry. An adult clientele that has correspondingly not evolved beyond legends of good and evil, stories exemplifying virtues or vices and the primacy of the didactic mode in literature reinforces an edifying agenda, not considering that the reading child would much rather identify with the characters they read about. ‘It’s time authors came up with books for children that talk about real children,’ says Zai Whitaker. Paro Anand concurs: ‘Children today, with all the exposure they have to real life, are bored to death of the same old rehashed stories about do-gooders.’ Ranjit Lall says more optimistically that ‘even though most stories do have some kind of a ‘moral’ inherent in them, it’s no longer riveted into the mind of the young reader with a staple gun.’ From Ruskin Bond onward, unconventional children’s writers have tried to salvage the amusing and the ludicrous within the quotidian lives of their characters.
It is not easy to evaluate the market performance of Indian children’s books. In the absence of any central database, I tried to empirically uncover through conversations the available facts and figures about its showcasing and circulation. The pre-globalization ethos apropos the ostensibly sanitized world of books was not conducive to discussing issues about their marketability. Yet even ‘high’ art or ‘serious’ literature does not warrant assessment only in terms of what Pierre Bordieu calls ‘symbolic profit.’ ‘Are books only meant to be kept in the pooja room?’ asks R. Sriram, the founder of Crossword. Despite being entrenched in the Indian worldview as ‘spiritual’ and ‘intellectual’, books must not be stashed away in an unreal realm, he feels, secluded from the world of demand and supply, buying and selling.
Other new generation booksellers like Landmark and Oxford also think that there is nothing so sacrosanct about books that profit and loss should be inimical to them. Western publishers, I was told, spend 5-7 times more on marketing books than their cost of production. Our marketing, distribution, publicity and promotion for books are still fairly rudimentary, disorganized and unimaginative. Writers are legitimately discontented that their books do not sell because they are usually tucked away in some musty corner and therefore not visible in the shops. Since publishers are very poor at packaging and displaying books, writers urge booksellers to disseminate information about and generate demand for books through ads. At Crossword, they have been working so that their customers could have greater economic access (affordability), physical access (proximity) and psychological access (desire to buy) to books. Some booksellers realize how children’s books have more of a potential as a lucrative business than previously, and are consequently giving some prime space to them. Among writers, though Swapna Dutta is not excited by the so-called ‘boom’ and Subhadra Sengupta says that ‘if you think being a writer will pay the bills it won’t’, Paro Anand and Deepa Agarwal acknowledged the augmented production and consumption of children’s books compared to a decade ago. Most Indian children who were earlier starved of homegrown reading matter, they believe, are gradually becoming more aware that there are delightful stories for them in their own backyard too.
Collating divergent responses across the spectrum, I offer no suggestions for further empowering our indigenous literary products. I hope instead that our books are evolving in a way that they are appreciated for their intrinsic merit and ability to attract children rather than as ‘Indian’ books that ought to be read and championed in order to dislodge the hegemony of their western counterparts.
Nivedita Sen teaches in Hans Raj College, University of Delhi. She has worked on children’s literature in Bangla.