August 09, 2020
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Here Hangs A Tale

The Harry Potter sensation shows up its flip side-few children read regional, Indian writers

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Here Hangs A Tale

Are India’s top-selling children’s writers scurrying to their desks to outdo Harry Potter? Not exactly. In fact, many of them have not even read the children’s series that has taken the publishing world by storm. For these underpaid, unrecognised "Sunday writers", J.K. Rowling’s phenomenal success is a stroke of wizardry that is beyond their wildest dreams. "Harry Potter has put children’s fiction on the world’s literary map," says children’s writer Subhadra Sengupta. "Finally, we are being taken seriously."

It’s not as if children’s literature has never been serious business in India. Children’s books like Sukumar Ray’s Abol Tabol are part of its rich literature in regional languages. But gone are the days when a children’s writer like Sukumar’s son, the famous Satyajit Ray, could expect his latest story on detective Feluda to sell out faster than a Harry Potter, and that too without any pre-launch hype. Regional publishers say that the mushrooming of English-medium schools is edging out children’s fiction in regional languages. While there is still a market for regional literature for adults, especially among the older generation, publishers say the market for new children’s fiction in regional languages, even in Bengali and Marathi with a rich tradition, has crashed in the last two decades. Admits Jagannath Chakravarty of Dev Sahitya Kutir, a Bengali publishing house specialising in children's books: "These days we have reduced to a minimum the publication of new volumes. Promoting anything new, especially for children, is a risk."

The problem, according to well-known Bengali jungle and safari writer Budhadeva Guha, is economic. English, if he is to be believed, is a language of the well-off. Says he: "Our readers, the intelligentsia and the affluent sections, don’t bother about their mother tongue. They would rather buy English books."

Moreover, as Ashok Kothawale of Mumbai’s Majestic Prakashan points out: "Famous English fiction gets translated into Marathi, but not the other way round. In English, you get so much fiction for children, there is too much competition for Marathi writers to get translated into English."

With the number of young readers in regional languages dwindling-except few of those who can’t afford to go to English medium schools-even bestselling regional writers can’t hope to exceed sales beyond 3,000 copies. Leading Marathi writer for children B.R. Bhagwat, 90, for instance, has written a phenomenal 125 books for children, and his Faster Fenay series is now running into its fourth edition. But less than 3,000 copies of his books sell in a year.

In contrast, a leading children’s writer in English, Ruskin Bond, sells anywhere between 5,000 to 10,000 copies of his books a year. His earnings are also princely in comparison to regional writers like Bhagwat.

Nearly half of the 11,000 copies he has sold so far of his first novel, Room on the Roof, were bought by young readers, and it is now prescribed reading in many schools, but it was not until Bond was in his forties that he deliberately set out to write a children’s book. "I’d often drawn upon my childhood for my books, so I thought why not write a book for children instead of about them," says Bond.

Approbation apart, Bond insists there is very little money in children’s writing. The changing dimensions of literature has compelled even a writer like Bond to become market-savvy: "Even now, my income would come down by half if I slotted myself as a children’s writer. "

The reasons are diverse. Children’s books are priced at a fraction of adult books on the questionable assumption that children can only afford books if they are cheap. This brings down the writers’ royalties to a ridiculous one or two rupees per copy sold. Publishers, too, complain that children’s books are unprofitable because of the high costs of production and the low sale price. "Parents will buy a Harry Potter book for Rs 500, but they are unwilling to spend even Rs 20 on an Indian storybook for their children," complains Atiya Zaidi of Ratnasagar, a Delhi-based children’s publishing house that has drastically cut down on children’s fiction.

PART of the problem, according to Zaidi, is that children’s books rarely merit a press review. Besides, the booksellers are unwilling to stock them because of low discounts. In fact, so little attention is paid to children’s fiction that it only gets noticed if it is written by a literary giant. Salman Rushdie’s only children’s book, Haroun and the Sea of Stories, sold a phenomenal 14,000 copies, coming close to the all-time Indian record set by J.K. Rowling’s latest Harry Potter, which sold 15,000 copies in 15 days. Similarly, Vikram Seth’s Beastly Tales sold around 10,000 copies in Indian bookstores, while Anita Desai’s Village by the Sea sold out in the Penguin print run of 4,000.

But can any good writer spin out children’s fiction? Most answer in the negative. "It is very difficult to write for children, and finding a child’s voice can be very difficult for someone who writes adult fiction," points out Sigrun Shrivastav, who has written 33 books for children in a writing career spanning 20 years. "A good children’s book," she says, "can be read by all ages, but not the other way round."

Ruskin Bond agrees that writing for children can be a challenge. "Young readers are very demanding. You can’t afford to waffle along for two or three chapters as you can do in a book for adults." Bond says he earns a better income from his children’s books than other writers only because he refuses to be slotted in the children’s category. Arup Kumar Dutta, for instance, has written 14 books for children, including bestsellers like Kaziranga Trail (over 16,000 copies), The Blind Witness and Revenge. Two have been made into films and Revenge was made into a television serial. His royalties are, however, "negligible". Dutta’s first six books were written for the Children’s Book Trust, which paid him Rs 5,000 per book for copyright, depriving him of all earnings from the books: royalties, film and television rights and sales abroad.

"Publishers take advantage of children’s writers because they are not professional about their writing," feels Dutta. He says that because there is so little money in children’s books, writers can’t afford to be professional. "I can’t afford to spend more than three months on a children’s book, although I know I would do better if I spent more time on it," he says. Similarly, Subhadra Sengupta, who has carved a niche for herself in children’s fiction through her books on historical themes, supports her passion for writing through her career in advertising. "I am a Sunday writer, and sometimes by the time I get back to my writing, I don’t know where it is going."

India, Sengupta is convinced, has many Harry Potters in the offing, "but first we need to have the specialised editors who can recognise a good work and market it like Harry Potter".

The magic is here alright, but where are the wizards?

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