#INDIAKIDLIT – Many Languages, Many Voices

by Radhika Menon

When Tulika Publishers was set up in 1996 the key questions that confronted us was, how do we create books that reflect a contemporary Indian sensibility, rooted in the Indian multilingual, multicultural context? When the languages children hear all around them are kept out of the books they read, how representative or inclusive can such books be? The answer clearly was that the books had to be multilingual, translated in as many languages as we could handle, no matter what the original.  

The first books we published were not single language picture books but bilingual books in which English text was paired with another language. There was no doubt in our minds that children would be completely comfortable with two languages on the same page because most children in India grow up with more than one language. They may speak in a single language but are always within hearing distance of other languages.

The Seed/Beej (English-Hindi) – written & illustrated by Deepa Balsavar (2005)

Bringing bilingualism into the books was a natural way to introduce children to languages. Such books are not necessarily for language teaching but for them to discover the world in their own language and simultaneously in a less familiar one . At the same time, it was a way of giving equal primacy to children’s own languages in an environment in which English was fast assuming superiority. The intention was not to privilege one over another, but to explore the possibilities of creating books for children that reflected the connectedness of regions, languages and cultures while retaining distinctive voices.

We started with translations from English into three languages. It was not just a translation with each version standing on its own, independent of the original. We explored ways of infusing the language of the region from which the story came into the translations so that they resonated with the sounds of different languages. Picture books allowed us to do this, bridging, as they do, the gap between the oral and the written. And we had a great advantage in the audience we were addressing – children! Children have vivid imaginations and embrace new experiences spontaneously untroubled by boundaries.

For Tulika, publishing in nine languages against all the odds has been an enriching experience. While as editors we feel at a disadvantage because we are primarily English speaking, engaging with texts in Indian languages has given the books we bring out  a sensibility that is culturally rooted. Publishing just in English would not have achieved this.

The Why-Why Girl – by Mahasweta Devi, illustrated by Kanyika Kini (2003)

In 2003 we published The Why Why Girl by Mahasweta Devi in English, Hindi, Tamil, Kannada, Telugu, Malayalam, Marathi and Gujarati. This was the book that launched Pratham’s Read India programme. (We didn’t translate into Bangla as that had already been done. But our later books are published in Bangla too.) I will quote from a review which sums succinctly the editorial direction of our translations.

The translations read beautifully. By recreating this very Indian story in other Indian languages, the story enjoys a new rhythm, a fresh dynamism, and an inexplicable verve in the hands of each of the translators. The text smoothly allows itself to be embedded in other languages and hence in other cultures too. While reading aloud, the grip one has on the mother tongue, on the turn of an onomatopoeic word or a well-crafted phrase is thoroughly enjoyable and it readily shows with the audience.”

The Sunday Express, January 2004

Multilingual publishing is not just about creating stories in different languages. Translating and publishing in several languages simultaneously adds to the diversity of stories for children. With each language embedded in its own culture, the translated stories echo the tones, textures and sounds of another place and community. Such stories reflect the reality of different worlds – the reader’s own and that of the world outside. Text and pictures capture cultural experiences of the different language worlds that are in constant interaction. This is the larger story embedded in India’s multilinguality – regional yet across regions, narrowing cultural distances.

Tulika Books

Children’s publishing has come a long way and today we do find a lot of children’s books, predominantly in English that seem to be more representative and diverse.   But a closer look shows that most such books stay within familiar boundaries. They reflect perspectives of an English-educated class of people whose experiences are urban-centric and influenced mostly by Western thinking about childhood, through books and media. This includes not just writers but illustrators, editors and publishers as well.  Many books are often written and created as a reaction to Western books and are consciously rooted in Indian settings and experiences. But there is no denying the once-removed quality of these books – inevitable perhaps, but limiting.

In such books there is the danger of stereotyping less familiar, less privileged childhood experiences, be it to do with caste, class discrimination or of marginalised lives. The descriptions, ways of behaving or responding, sometimes the situation itself becomes predictable. Even if well written and illustrated, they are far from being authentically representative of a different kind of childhood. We don’t find the gap so wide in stories written in Indian languages which are usually firmly rooted in the non-urban child’s experience. Perhaps because the writers are never far from that experience.

We know that diversity of stories and voices is equally important when we strive towards a representative literature. But the sensibilities of adults who are the ‘gatekeepers’ to what children read – parents, teachers, librarians, and the editors and publishers – are overwhelmingly embedded in the dominant cultures they belong to. In such a scenario it is difficult to move outside the comfort zone of familiar stories and narratives. And to break out of it requires a level of awareness and understanding which is beyond many of us, even the most committed and passionate among us. That we need to take that leap is something on which we will all agree.

Tulika took that leap (of faith) 26 years ago and the result is a body of culturally distinctive and much loved children’s books. In recognition we were awarded the London Bookfair Literary Translation Initiative Award in 2019.  The citation sums up our work like this:

“Tulika is a unique and important initiative. Its ambitious, energetic and inclusive publishing programme is driven by a real social imperative, to promote multilingualism and give children stories in the languages they speak at home. Resisting the absolute dominance of English is vital work, and Tulika does that work with charm and humour.”

In many languages and many voices.

Radhika Menon

Radhika Menon as the Publisher and Editorial Director is the brain and spirit behind Tulika Books..

 The motivation for setting it up was both her passion for the print medium itself and the creative possibilities of children’s books – possibilities of ‘bridging the gap between knowledge and imagination’ as she puts it. She took the pioneering plunge in 1996 and the rest, as they say, is history!

Radhika’s commitment to creating multilingual books that are inclusive in every respect has been a rich and insightful learning experience for the whole team, and sets the tone for everything that bears the crow logo. Very hands-on as a publisher, she is deeply involved in the editing, visualising, designing and marketing of the books.

September is #WorldKidLit month and this year the GLLI blog is exploring different aspects of #IndiaKidLit in the run-up to the 2022 Neev Literature Festival, a celebration of Indian children’s literature being held Sept 24 and 25 in Bangalore. At the Festival, the winners of the 2022 Neev Book Award, which aims to promote and encourage high-quality children’s literature from India, will be announced in 4 categories: Early Years, Emerging Readers, Junior Readers, and Young Adult

2022 GLLI blog editors for #WorldKidLitMonth
  • Karthika Gopalakrishnan is the Head of Reading at Neev Academy, Bangalore, and the Director of the Neev Literature Festival. In the past, she has worked as a children’s book writer, editor, and content curator at Multistory Learning which ran a reading program for schools across south India. Prior to this, Karthika was a full-time print journalist with two national dailies. Her Twitter handle is g_karthika.

  • Katie Day is an international school teacher-librarian and one of the Jury Co-Chairs for the Neev Book Award. An American with a masters in children’s literature from the UK and a masters in library science from Australia, she has lived in Asia since 1997, including 15 years in Singapore, first at United World College of Southeast Asia and now at Tanglin Trust School.  She has also lived and worked in Thailand, Vietnam, Hong Kong and the UK. Her Twitter handle is librarianedge.

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