Most of the children’s literature that makes its way from India to other English-language markets was originally written in English. Yet there is also a broad and compelling range of children’s literature written in India’s major languages. Jaya Bhattacharji Rose — an independent international publishing consultant and columnist based in New Delhi — answers a few questions for #WorldKidLit Month on children’s literature in Indian languages.
Could you tell us a little about the publishing industry that has grown up around children’s literature in major Indian languages (for instance Bangla, Malayalam, Marathi, Tamil, Kannada) and how it is different from the publishing industry for English-language children’s literature?
Jaya Bhattacharji Rose: Traditionally, the regional-language markets for children’s literature has thrived due to the robustness of the oral tradition of storytelling and later with selfpublishing. The languages you list are also amongst the oldest in the world and have had their own scripts for centuries. By being familiar with a script for so long, these languages have created their own literary tradition of stories, too. You will find examples in Bengali such as Vidyasagar’s “Borno Porichoy” (1854) and “Faster Fene” in Marathi most definitely. I am sure in the others, too. I have come across children’s series in Assam that were first self-published during British India and continue to stay in print even now by the family of the author.
Having said that there are many initiatives in recent years that have helped increase readership particularly amongst school children. From multiple book fairs in regional languages attracting huge crowds and unprecedented sales to direct marketing initiatives in schools such as children’s publisher Scholastic India. They organize book exhibitions in 1000s of schools across the country which highlight a mix of Indian and international authors. It helps in exposure to Indian authors as the publishers organize author interactions and workshops with the school kids. In fact earlier this month they released a report on reading amongst kids and it shows magnificently how reading is on the upswing.
There are many financial (and intangible) benefits to having one’s literature appear in English — festival invites, eligibility for prizes. Could a children’s literature author who wrote only in Tamil or Kannada make a (modest) living at it? What about a translator of children’s literature?
JBR: I doubt if a children’s author, especially one who publishes in the regional languages, will be able to survive on the income made from books. It won’t be possible unless they are very prolific and sell well.
Books in the regional language are usually very low priced, sometimes as low as 50 cents to a $1 / book. Translators too are not very well paid. Over and over again I hear that many of the translators, especially from one Indian language to the next or from English to a regional language, continue to do their work as a labour of love and hand over manuscripts for “free” to the publisher or invest in the project with their own money. But if a translator publishes from a regional language to English there is the likelihood of them being offered a contract and earning some royalties. They may even be lucky to get some of their books in English reprinted abroad, but even superstar authors like Ruskin Bond, Paro Anand, Ranjit Lal and Sudha Murty do not get the same mileage abroad as say Philip Pullman, Neil Gaiman, Meg Rosoff, Malorie Blackman and David Almond may attract.
Ruskin Bond is a kind of crowd-puller somewhat like J K Rowling. Even though 82 years old — Ruskin Bond’s first editor was legendary publisher of Rushdie and Naipaul Diana Athill — he has remained a hyper-local author. He and many others like him need to be read far and wide. In more than thirty years of writing, Paro Anand has been a prolific writer, yet she has only managed to sell the foreign language rights to one young adult novel. Sudha Murty, who is the wife of the co-founder of Infosys, began writing a few years ago for children and she is hugely popular. Ranjit Lal, who has more than 35 books for young adults to his name and some of them absolutely stupendous, such as Faces in the Water, about female infanticide, or Our Nana was a Nutcase, about a beloved grandfather deteriorating due to Alzheimers, has been unable to sell translation rights outside India.
So there is little chance of a translator of children’s fiction surviving on the income made from such an exercise. Some translators exist like Deepa Agarwal who has translated a classic Hindi story Chandrakanta into English. She is herself a children’s writer who has a fair number of novels and anthologies to her name. Or even Sampurna Chattarji and Arunava Sinha who have translated children’s literature from Bengali but they are passionate about the project and do not depend upon translations as a source of living.
Some will argue: But there are already Indian authors writing children’s literature in English, so we do not need translations. What would you say to that?
JBR: Indian authors writing in English are a very different crowd. Their subjects, novel plot, characterization and treatments are far removed from the literature in the regional languages. From what I hear about literature in other languages there is a very close connect to the local culture and references. Also it resonates with the reader at many levels since it is a shared history and tradition. Of the writers in the English language, they are doing formidable work with experimentation, creating new literature and sometimes borrowing from Indian mythology or being inspired by the fantasy and horror of other geographies. A newly launched children’s publishing house, Duckbill Books, is publishing only in English but it is a fantastic range of original literature.
Yet translations are a must. They open a gateway to a different culture albeit within the same country. India being a subcontinent is a market within markets with very distinct linguistic and cultural identities. So apart from just bringing in diversity into the literary tradition of children’s literature, translations are a wonderful way of sensitizing children to others. Having said that, there are a few children’s publishers like National Book Trust, Children’s Book Trust, Tulika Books, Eklavya, Pratham Books, Storyweaver, Katha and Karadi Tales that are doing phenomenal work in translating children’s literature. It is a two-pronged strategy. They commission original stories and simultaneously translate it into a bunch of other Indian languages or they translate an existing text into English.
There are some Hindi publishing houses that have a list of translations. For instance Rajkamal Prakashan, Vani Prakashan, Rajpal & Sons, Manjul Publishing House (which has translated Harry Potter into Hindi) and many more. Then there are publishing houses that have a dedicated translations section on their children’s list but from regional languages into English such as Hachette India, Puffin Books, and Red Turtle.
What are some of your favorites among the new books for young readers that you’ve seen? What do you like about them?
JBR: There are a few authors such as Devashish Makhija, Arefa Tehsin, Payal Kapadia, Shalini Srinivasan, Anushka Ravishankar, Anil Menon, Sowmya Rajendran, Niveditha Subramaniam, Devdutt Pattanaik, Andaleeb Wajid, Windham Campbell 2016 awardee Jerry Pinto, Jaya Madhavan, Nina Sabnani, Manjula Padmanabhan, Revathi Suresh, Mathangi Subramanian, Vinayak Varma, Manisha Chowdhury and Zainab Sulaiman. I am sure I am forgetting some!
Are there language- or state-specific characteristics to the established literatures that you can point to? For instance I’d say generally Japanese children’s literature has more dream-like and fantastical qualities, and Palestinian children’s literature is less afraid of embracing politics. And in American children’s literature nobody likes vegetables.
JBR: I doubt it, since it is impossible to generalize about Indian children’s literature. Depending upon the region they hail from there are strong regional characteristics. It is only recently that children’s literature is developing a stronger voice, otherwise it tends to be softer in tone than the young adult literature found internationally. It is not very bold but it is getting there if some of the stories being lined up for publication next year get there.
How can publishers find the best of Marathi or Tamil or Kannada children’s literature? And the most popular? Are there best-seller lists for children’s books? Prizes that are particularly strong?
JBR: The only way to do so is by asking the Indian publishers who are at Frankfurt Book Fair or visiting their websites. Some local bookstores and newspapers may consider listing the bestseller titles, but rarely are these as influential as say the NYT children’s list. The only noteworthy prize for children’s literature is the Crossword Prize but even that has become infrequent for lack of funds.