Guest Post: Ramendra Kumar on the Here and Now in Children’s Literature

Indian writer Ramendra Kumar‘s latest children’s books focus on stories of Indian children in a contemporary setting – an area of writing for middle-grade readers and young adults that has been greatly ignored in India: indeed, he would suggest, actively avoided. Though that may be changing: his most recent book, Now or Never (Ponytale Books 2010) has just been selected as a supplementary reader for Classes 7 and 8 by the Central Board of Secondary Education in India. Other novels include Terror in Fun City (Navneet Publications, 2008) and Not a Mere Game (Navneet Publications, 2006), and his book J J Act is endorsed by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime and Butterflies, a non-profit “programme with street and working children”. Ramendra is also the editor of BoloKids.com, a “complete portal for the young and the young at heart”. We are delighted to welcome Ramendra to the PaperTigers blog.

During the Asian Conference of Story Telling in New Delhi a few years ago, a key-note speaker with very impressive credentials in the field of Library Science (and an equally impressive personality) was giving tips to children’s writers on how to write for children.

“All writers attempting to write for children should keep in mind that they have to go down to the level of children,” she concluded with a flourish, waiting for the applause which naturally followed.

During the interaction session I raised my hand to ask a question. She transferred her imperious gaze to me and lifted her eyebrows.

“Ma’am, I think you got the direction wrong. We children’s writers don’t have to go down to the level of children, rather we have to rise up to the level of the young and vibrant minds. For, ma’am, children are the closest that you can get to God, and God lives up there, not down below.” There was a stunned silence for some time and suddenly the entire Hall No. 5 of the India Habitat Centre exploded with claps and cheers.

As an MBA in marketing the primary lesson I was taught was to respect the customer. For us writers the customer is the child. However, instead of respecting the child, we patronize her and take her for granted. The books being churned out by writers and publishers in India are a testimony to this fact. Most of the books written for children are rehashes of earlier classics. As far as the publishers are concerned, they consider the fairytale/folk tale/fantasy segment safe.

I would like to put forth a strong case for a different genre of writing; and I would like to take the liberty of naming this segment of writing the Here and Now genre.

What do I mean by Here and Now writing?

This is the writing which is set in today, not in the once upon a time. It is concerned not with the past perfect but the present (tense or otherwise). Kids of today face problems, find opportunities and counter predicaments which didn’t exist for earlier generations. This scenario throws up greater challenges as well as higher levels of responsibility for the writer.

The target age group for Here and Now writing is normally 10 to 16, an age-group which is particularly sharp, mature and yes, critical and finicky. The slightest dissonance and the audience rejects the writer.

Most publishers, editors and academics (PEAs) are very wary of the depiction of realism in Here and Now writing. I have often been asked about the depiction of violence in my own writing, considering that my first novel was on terrorism (Terror in Fun City) and the second is on boxing (Now or Never). Most PEAs believe that violence should not be shown at all. My answer is that children today are exposed to the large-scale depiction of violence day in and day out on the TV, internet, computer games, cinema etc. Ignoring violence altogether would be imitating our good friend, the ostrich. A more responsible approach would be to depict violence without glorifying it.

But it is not easy to convince the PEAs, particulary the school teachers. During my book promotion tour to Hyderabad recently, I found my book Terror in Fun City disappearing from the shelves at the retail stores. However, in the schools the teachers refused to recommend the book for holiday reading, even without perusing the book. The title with the word ‘Terror’ right at the beginning made the book an anathema. Yet the book probably has 1/100th of the violence of the Harry Potter books (but then again, Ramendra is no Rowling!).

I would like to draw your attention here to a few writers who have been catering to the Here and Now genre and writing with panache. The first who come to my mind are Deepa Agarwal and Shreekumar Varma. Deepa Agarwal’s book Caravan to Tibet was included in the IBBY Honour List 2008 and has been translated into Korean. Shreekumar Varma has successfully straddled adult and children’s fiction and uses the genre of magic realism to delineate contemporary issues and time cherished values. There are quite a few others, like Swapna Dutta, Cheryl Rao, Deepak Dalal, Neelima Sinha, and Devika Rangachari, who are delighting pre-teen and early teen readers with the magic of their words.

I too, as you might have guessed by now, have been devoted to Here and Now writing for the last twelve years. My books have been translated into Chinese, Japanese, Mongolian, Sinhala and Spanish; a French version is under print. My stories are in school course books in Norway and Bahrain. Thus my writing is good for countries and continents beyond our shores, but is not generally considered fit for cerebral consumption by the young minds and hearts of India.

At a National Centre for Children’s Literature conference some time ago, Dr. Madhavi Kumar of the NCERT (National Council of Educational Research and Training) had this to say: “In a study of some 4,000 books brought out by some 200 publishers, it was found that there was a large number of folk tales, myths and legends. However, there was a shortage of contemporary writing. There is a need to balance this as children today expect and desire books that deal with the world in which they live and deal with conflicts arising out of this.”

According to Reba Mukherjee a Library Scientist, “Contemporary Indian writing needs to be developed and made more accessible. Subjects which deal with the child’s own world and dilemmas are demanded.” I have been going on book promotion tours to different cities which include Book Reading sessions and Meet the Author programs in leading book stores and creative writing workshops in schools. I have been telling realistic stories in all these forums. The response of the young and the young at heart has been fantastic. Deepa Agarwal and Shreekumar Varma have told me that they have had similar responses to their work. Thus our experience shows that readers love Here and Now writing. Indeed, it is very much in demand, and there are at least a few writers who have carved a niche for themselves in this category – then pray what is stopping the publishers from taking the road less traveled? Isn’t it high time that the creators of a brave new literature as well as its discerning readership were given a chance to reach out to each other and create a synergy which is beyond time and space?

Is anyone out there listening…?

Ramendra Kumar

Thank you, Ramendra, for giving us much food for thought.

You can read more about Ramendra’s ideas and reasoning behind the Here and Now genre fom his presentation at the 2008 IBBY Conference.


3 Responses to “Guest Post: Ramendra Kumar on the Here and Now in Children’s Literature”

  1. Nathalie Says:

    “what is stopping the publishers from taking the road less traveled?”
    Wonderful! I want to print this article and glue it to my wall. Thanks Marjorie and Ramendra. I enjoyed reading and learning more about India literature. Given that your book is in English, such a widely spoken language, I hope that more of your and fellow authors work find a home outside your borders. Consider the African market, too.

  2. Ramendra Kumar Says:

    Thanks Nathalie for your appreciation.
    Yes, I would surely like to try beyond Indian borders but have no clue how to locate the right agent. Can anyone help?