In India, Writers Show Kids 'a World Beyond Harry Potter'

By Rama Lakshmi
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, June 1, 2009

NEW DELHI -- Twenty children squatted on the floor of a pink-and-yellow bookstore here on a recent Sunday morning to listen to a young Indian author read aloud his short story, "Bani Chatterjee and the Burden of Expectation."

Sitting on a round stool made of reed and twine, the author, Samit Basu, asked the children to name the books they imagine themselves in. One boy said he wanted to be in the British writer Enid Blyton's "Secret Seven" series. Another named the Percy Jackson series by the U.S. author Rick Riordan. A third said Mary Pope Osborne's "Magic Tree House."

But no child mentioned any Indian book.

For many generations of middle-class Indians, works by Blyton and the popular American books about Nancy Drew or the Hardy Boys were essential childhood reading. Barely a handful of Indians wrote stories for children in English. But that may be changing.

In the past decade, a publishing boom, rising middle-class affluence and creeping cultural guilt among parents have led to a steady growth of Indian books for children with distinctly local characters and stories.

"When I opened this store six years ago, only 10 percent of the books were by Indian authors. Today, it is 30 percent Indian books," said M. Venkatesh, co-owner of the brightly painted Eureka bookstore, which now routinely invites Indian authors to read to children.

On the store's shelves, such titles as "I'm Not Butter Chicken," "My Mother's Sari" and "Autorickshaw Blues" rub spines with America's "Captain Underpants" and Britain's "Horrid Henry" series. The famous journey of the Gingerbread Man now has an Indian competitor in "The Roti Roll."

A recently published, racy young-adult novel called "Double Click," part of the Foxy Four adventure series by Subhadra Sen Gupta, is replete with images of contemporary India. Four teenage girls drive around the bumpy, potholed roads of New Delhi, looking for clues to solve a mystery as they eat lentils for lunch, pray to the multitude of Hindu gods, haggle with auto-rickshaw drivers and listen to thumping Bollywood music.

Publishers say they think Indian children can identify more easily with bullock-carts, banyan trees, maharajas and monsoons rather than with Halloween and the tooth fairy.

"It's the new, new thing in Indian publishing. We are trying to tell Indians that there is a world beyond Harry Potter, Roald Dahl and Enid Blyton," said Sudeshna Shome Ghosh, editorial director of Puffin India, a children's publishing house. "It is a discovery that Indian children have just begun to make."

Another major factor is the nonprofit Pratham Books, established five years ago to produce Indian children's books in eight regional languages as well as English. Most of its titles cost 50 cents or less and are distributed through a network of 4,000 community libraries in urban slums, village schools and temples.

For a long time, the sole advocate of children's books in India was the government-run Children's Book Trust, which sold titles like "The Raja's Moustache" and a popular comic series on ancient tales called the "Amar Chitra Katha." But they could not keep pace with the brightly illustrated foreign books that flooded the Indian market with their contemporary stories, often accompanied by merchandise such as toys, games, plastic bags, refrigerator magnets, hats and posters.

"There are good Indian writers, and their numbers are growing. But how do they compete with the kind of aggressive promotion that foreign authors get? The Indian books just sit on the shelves in the hope that they will get picked up and somehow sell magically," said Basu, 29, after his reading at the Eureka. "You cannot make a living as a children's writer here."

Indeed, only one Indian writer enjoys a cultlike following among children in India: Ruskin Bond, a 75-year-old of British descent. He has written countless books in the past five decades and continues to capture the imagination of children with his "Rusty" series -- about a shy, endearing teenager from the hills -- and a series of misty Himalayan ghost stories. Bond occasionally tours schools, where children wait in long lines for his autograph.

But last year, India's first children's literature festival, called "Bookaroo," attempted to bring about three dozen Indian authors face to face with children. More than 5,000 children and parents came to the two-day festival on the sprawling green lawns of the capital, under the balmy November sun. Authors conducted story-telling sessions about peacocks and ghosts, followed by finger puppets and theater.

Mita Kapoor, who heads a literary agency called Siyahi, said that for too long, publishers have churned out safe titles from India's time-honored repository of traditional fables, myths and Panchatantra, a collection of animal tales that impart life lessons and morals.

"It took a long time to break out of the old mold of moralizing fables that we were stuck in," said Kapoor, who was an adviser to the festival. "But you don't need to have a moral at the end of every story. At Bookaroo, children engaged with Indian authors who are fun, contemporary, adventurous and non-preachy."

The festival will now be an annual event in New Delhi.

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