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Nilanjana S Roy: The children's hour


Nilanjana S Roy  |  New Delhi 

Meeting Recently Famous Authors can be quite an ordeal, especially if they are a) insecure and b) have seen something of the world outside India.
The one I'd just been introduced to had finished establishing his credentials by dismissing, in Naipaulian fashion, the entire corpus of writers in India who work in English: "Not a good book among the lot, third-rate, derivative stuff", he said, before admitting he hadn't really read any of them.
Then he moved on to children's fiction and sounded a familiar lament: "In the land of Ray and Tagore," he said, "it is a tragedy that you can't name even five writers of note writing for children." Much to his surprise, and I confess, to mine, I did.
I suspect we were surprised for very different reasons, though; the Recently Famous Author in question had grown accustomed, in the span of a few years, to never being contradicted.
I was surprised because, until he laid down his challenge, I had pretty much assumed that there were very few good books for children coming out of India.
Most of the ones available when I was growing up were rehashed versions of familiar folk tales, legends and myths, or preachy tales from that particular corner of hell known as The Moral Science Lesson.
Some might argue that nothing has changed in the world of children's writing; translations of Satyajit Ray's Feluda or Professor Shonku stories still do better than original novels, Vikram and Betaal stories can still be found, and every second book is littered with the gods and demons of yore, instead of more contemporary icons.
But publishers like Tulika Books and more recently, Zubaan, have seen children's books as an area of tremendous potential. This isn't new; children's writing has always had potential""what's been lacking are the authors. That's what seems to be changing now. Here's what to look for in terms of authors and trends.
The Old Stalwarts: Also known as Ruskin Bond rules, ok, and if anyone here doubts Mr Bond's tremendous popularity, I suggest you drop by any urban school and ask the librarian how Rusty and co are doing.
Even though the story of a young wanderer who makes interesting friends on his travels through a familiar India was written decades ago, it still strikes a chord with today's cynical generation. Adults quibble that recent Bond releases could best be described as Rusty Recycled; kids snap the books up by the dozen.
Alongside Ruskin Bond are authors like Bulbul Sharma and Subhadra Sengupta. Sengupta's Kartik and the Lost Gold, a sequel to Kartik's War, which eavesdropped on the Ashokan era from the perspective of an unhappy spy, was written with liberal help from the students of Vasant Valley.
They told her what they wanted as an ending and added evil twists to the plot in an interesting attempt to make the writing of children's books truly interactive.
Paro Anand's books are reliable bestsellers, too; and if authors who write for a more adult audience are tempted to sneer at the kidlit genre, they should think about the ease with which Bond, Anand and Sengupta can fill auditoriums, and the loyalty of their audiences. Anand's Pets Please and Pepper, the Capuchin Monkey have been going strong for years.
Writers Inc: The tradition of authors who're best known for literary work but who also write for children is a hallowed one, from John Steinbeck to Isabel Allende.
In India, Vikram Seth's Beastly Tales From Here and There is read by kids who have decades to go before they can tackle A Suitable Boy, and it's the grandchildren of midnight's children who seem to really lap up Rushdie's dark fable, Haroun and the Sea of Stories.
Shashi Deshpande has written several books for children, notable for their lack of preachiness. And Githa Hariharan is due out with The Winning Team, the story of a storyteller who has, well, run out of stories.
Fans of animal stories have headed straight for Ranjit Lal, whose The Crow Chronicles and Altu-Faltu still count as classics. He's joined by Manjula Padmanabhan, whose Mouse Attack series features an albino hero.
The New Bunch: But the most exciting developments have come from relatively new writers. One of the best children's books I saw this year came from Vandana Singh""called Younguncle Comes to Town, it has none of the self-consciousness you often find in adults who write for children, very plausible dilemmas and a delightful style.
And one of the most exciting debuts of last year came from 24-year-old Samit Basu, whose The Simoquin Prophecies mixed sci-fi and fantasy with an utterly Indian cast of characters.
In the same genre, roughly, is Ashok Banker's successful reworking of The Ramayana, which takes it into sword-and-sorcery rather than classic epic territory.
Anushka Ravishankar has suffered unfairly because of her name""she's no relation to the Pandit and as far as I know, does not play the sitar, but announcements of book readings by her have always carried a caveat to the effect that she's the Other Anushka.
Today is My Day was a lovely story about a girl who's sick of people telling her what to do; she's written other books and is due out with a longer novel next year. Another writer to look out for is Kalpana Swaminathan, who wrote an uneven if entertaining first novel about a street mongrel called Jaldi and Friends.
The Future is?: Despite the recent spurt, most children's books in India still inhabit very familiar worlds. Some have talking animals; some go back into myth and legend, or increasingly, forward into fantasy; some venture into the classroom and the tangled world of friendships.
What's missing is the kind of work Judy Blume and the Puffin authors used to produce, for young adolescents and teenagers.
Two relatively recent books indicate where we might be headed. Farrukh Dhondy's Run featured an adolescent on the run in Britain, trying to deal with racism and other issues.
It dragged a bit under the weight of its philosophy, but it was good to see the attempt. More interesting is Tanuja Desai Hidier's Born Confused, which is a terribly tedious book for an adult to have to wade through, with its cutesy take on ABCD culture.
Her publishers discovered, however, that Born Confused was exactly the kind of book that 14-year-olds, especially NRI, and especially female, relate to""and it is now being marketed for that specific demographic. But both books, however flawed, interest me because of their willingness to explore themes that mainstream children's fiction in India has avoided.
These are just indicators of a trend: as with Indian fiction in English itself, it's not until we have enough people writing that really good, original work is going to emerge.
And I personally believe that there's going to be a boom in translation which could put children's fiction from India in languages other than English on the map.
But it's enough to believe that the bad old days of the adage""ek tha raja, ek thi rani, dono mar gaye, khatam kahani""are over. This isn't the last word, or even the final chapter; it's just the opening paragraph.

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First Published: Wed, October 27 2004. 00:00 IST