The Gita for Children, and children’s publishing in India

Today is Diwali, the Hindu Festival of Lights. To coincide with this celebration, Swift Press are releasing the UK edition of The Gita for Children by Indian author Roopa Pai (first published by Hachette India in 2015). On the blog today, Martha Halford catches up with the team behind this new publication to find out more about the book, as well as discussing the children’s publishing industry in India...

By Martha Halford

When Thomas Abraham, MD of Hachette India, suggested to his former colleague and friend, London-based Diana Broccardo, to publish The Gita for Children (Diana co-founded in 2020, award-winning publisher Swift Press) she read it alongside her eleven-year-old daughter. Both their reactions were very favourable, and the outcome is that the book will be published in the UK in October.

The Gita for Children by Roopa Pai (launched by Swift Press on 24th October to coincide with Diwali)

The Bhagavad Gita, a small but vital part of the great Indian epic poem The Mahabharata, is arguably the most famous sacred text in Hinduism. It describes a dialogue between two ‘best friends’, the noble Pandava prince Arjuna and his mentor, Krishna. The backdrop is an imminent mighty battle where Arjuna and his brothers will fight to the last against their cousins and many other friends, in a bid to overturn decades of unrighteous rule.

Gazing upon his cousins’ army lined along the opposite hill, Arjuna suddenly wavers. In steps the Divine Krishna who explains to him that sometimes one’s duty requires going against our human attachments. In these instances, we must focus on doing what is right without getting distracted by our emotions and conditioning, which would hinder our resolve – the themes of ‘personal duty’ and ‘doing one’s work sincerely, without focusing on the outcome of the work’ are crucial in The Gita.

Roopa Pai, the book’s author and a well-known children author in India, explains that the Mahabharata is intimately woven into her country’s social and cultural fabric.  As mentioned, it narrates the family saga of the virtuous Pandavas and their cousins, the power-greedy Kauravas. ‘Every human emotion is found in the Mahabharata,’ Roopa says, and this contributes to its timeless and international appeal as its many stories describe humanity in all its beauty and its flaws. She explains that more specifically for India, the ‘family theme’ has an immediate resonance since the family unit plays a pivotal role.

When Roopa was first asked by her editor to adapt The Gita, ‘her jaw dropped’. She herself didn’t know much about it and she thought that such an ancient and philosophically heavy text could never appeal to contemporary children. However, when she learned that the book hinged around the dialogue between ‘two best friends’, she thought that things might be otherwise: “Most young people would know what it means to talk through a dilemma with a trusted friend, so it could appeal to them”. Roopa adds that her previous experience as an author of popular science books for kids (she holds a University degree in engineering) which involved demystifying complex concepts, helped her to convey the key tenets of the philosophical text to the new generations.

In fact, the message of The Gita for Children couldn’t be more timely in a society where young people are often confused, bombarded by media messages suggesting unrealistic ways of life, and struggling to find their own place in an unpredictable world. What Krishna’s conversation with Arjuna tells readers is that one must think and decide for oneself (others can advise us but cannot decide for us, nor bear the burden of our decisions). Moreover, we don’t need to be popular at all costs (as many media would have us believe) – ultimately, carrying out our duty diligently, will be fulfilling in the long term.

Looking at Roopa’s writing more generally, and at India’s children’s book industry, I ask her how she became an author.

As a girl she devoured the children’s classics of English literature such as the Enid Blyton stories. The prolific author taught her how to write a plot and to keep readers’ attention. But these stories led her to idealise ‘British childhoods’ where children roamed free, took decisions like adults, outwitted pirates and the like, and then celebrated their successes with an eye-popping tea. She felt that in comparison, her strict Indian childhood was rather narrow (with no cream teas!)

She didn’t read many Indian children’s authors in English (if only because many didn’t exist) until the 1980’s, when, in her teens, she subscribed to an English language magazine by Indian writers for Indian kids. The adventures featured made her realise that Indian youngsters could have a good time too and that it was down to them to create their own stories rather than waiting for them to come from foreign countries. As a result, she too determined ‘to become an Indian writer for Indian children’ who would forge a new path, closer to her own culture.

For example, her fantasy Series, Taranauts (Hachette India) is inspired as much by Enid Blyton as it is by Indian mythology, philosophy and languages. Like her, an increasing number of children’s authors are drawing on India’s rich and diverse heritage and history, so that all kinds of Indian children can recognise themselves, and their daily lives, in their books.  

The complex relationship between India and Britain also emerges in the relationship with the English language. Roopa explains that the parents of children like her, who grew up in the 70s and 80s, wanted their kids to speak first and foremost English, a passport to a well-paid job and high social status. So, even though she speaks Kannada (her mother tongue, and the language of Karnataka, the Southern-Indian state where she is based) fluently, she doesn’t think or dream in it. In other words, although she has just translated into English a poetry collection by a Kannada poet, she wouldn’t trust herself to translate an English poet into Kannada.

She adds that some languages in India enjoy a strong literary tradition such as Malayalam (state of Kerala); Marathi (Maharashtra); Kannada (Karnataka) and Bengali (West Bengal), but sadly this body of literature is rarely known outside these states as all these languages can only be understood locally. She is proud to remind me that this year’s Booker Prize was awarded to an Indian novel, Tomb of Sand, written in Hindi by Geetanjali Shree and translated by Daisy Rockwell (USA). Who knows, one day a children’s book written in Hindi might become a global bestseller too!

When I ask her about the children’s book market in India, the situation isn’t rosy and interestingly it mirrors the British market. Unique to India is that the very concept of ‘books for children’ is relatively recent; children were usually told stories, not read to, and most of the stories were rooted in folklore and mythology. Until the 1980s, there were very few children’s books set in an Indian ethos, particularly in English, and almost no children’s TV or movies.

It is only in the last two decades that things have started changing. For example, a few wonderful Children’s Books Festivals like Bookaroo, whose flagship annual festival happens in Delhi, and the Neev Litfest, based out of Roopa’s southern Indian hometown of Bangalore, have sprung up across the country, together with a number of children’s book awards and honours, like the Neev Book Awards, the Crossword Book Awards and the Parag Honour List.

So, how does she see the future of children’s literature in India? Roopa points out that just like everywhere else in the world, children (and adults!) in India are increasingly ‘listening’, even if it is to audio books, and ‘watching’, rather than ‘reading’ (this sounds a loud echo across the West: USA and Europe). The pandemic has accelerated this trend; in fact, if she had been asked the same question just a few years ago she would have been more positive about future developments.

It is unlikely, she says, that reading will ever become more popular than the entertainments offered by digital games and immersive realities, but she is not too discouraged – she believes that in every generation, there is only a small number of people who are ‘readers’. However, as India has become an increasingly affluent country over the last 25 years, today a larger number of people have access to books and an English education, and are aware of the benefits that reading might bring to their children. Community libraries, independent bookstores, and a wealth of small, independent publishers for children have mushroomed, and far more children’s books in English are being published than ever before, says Roopa, signing off on an optimistic note.

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Roopa Pai is a computer engineer who always knew she was going to write for children. In addition to Taranauts, India’s first fantasy adventure series for children, she has several other published books to her credit, including The Vedas and Upanishads for Children. To make a living, she brings together three other loves – history, working with young people and her hometown in Bangalore – in her day job as a guide with Bangalore Walks, a history and heritage walks & tours company.

Diana Broccardo with her business partner Mark Richards, set up award winning publisher Swift Press in June 2020.  Previously she was the commercial director at Profile Books, overseeing sales, marketing, publicity, art, warehouse operations.  Her career has included stints at Faber & Faber, Hodder & Stoughton and Orion. Diana hopes that in a few years’ time, when Swift is more established, they will be able to start a children’s list in its own right.

Martha Halford is a PR professional in publishing with more than 20 years promoting a wide range of non-fiction including history, arts and children’s books. She has become especially passionate about children’s books since her daughter was born and often scours the web to discover the many books for kids that don’t make it into the ‘top 10’, or even ‘top 100’, but are nevertheless worthwhile and beautifully produced.