graphic novels Posts

Guest Post: Juggi Bhasin “Different roads, one destination”

 

Juggi Bhasin is a successful writer who ” living out fulfilling a lifelong ambition: to become a writer”.  Earlier this month he began serialising a graphic novel in the popular national daily, Times of India. Recognising this as a new and innovative experiement in creative storytelling I requested Juggi Bhasin to contribute a blog post on what it means to experiment in form, is there any difference to his storytelling etc. Here is his lovely note. Read on. 

Late at night when I climb into bed, I set the alarm to wake me up, sharp at seven, next morning. It is that time of the day when I get up to sip some green tea, chew a couple of almonds and review in The Times of India, my graphic novel and daily feature, ‘Agent Rana’.

It’s a good time for me to review not just the novel but my entire journey through various art forms to reach that one common goal. And that goal is undoubtedly the production and dissemination of creative content that gives pleasure to my readers and me.

Every writer in a sense has had a long journey whether in years or in the mind. My journey began as a TV journalist and in my mind’s eye I can still see myself as the only Indian TV journalist that went to North Korea to meet old man Kim, the father of the present infamous dictator running that unfortunate country. Or that morning of Dec 6th, 1992, when I stood at the Babri Masjid with my TV crew and watched and recorded the structure being razed to the ground. I wanted to write a book about those earth shaking experiences but I did not have the words or the syntax or even the drive then to express my thoughts and emotions. The only weapon I had then at my command was what is popularly called in journalese —a ‘good copy’ ability. Many journalists write good copy but it does not make them into great writers. I had a good eye though, an active imagination and a great visual sense.

In the years after the events of Babri Masjid, I worked on stage, in serials and a couple of films and developed my visual imagination and sharpened my emotional outreach. The words to match my visuals also came to me and became a part of my development. By 2012, I felt I was ready to strike out as a writer. The passion in me to write something was overbearing and I felt I had developed a syntax which in a sense was a very different life form from ‘good copy.’

It resulted in my first book The Terrorist which was a national bestseller. The unusual element in The Terrorist was not only its theme but its usage of highly, evocative, visual imagery almost as if the reader was looking at breathtaking visuals from an Akira Kurosawa war film. The combination of intense passion and a visualised style of writing became the key notes of my writing. Many found it unusual, far removed from the traditional ‘bookish’ qualities, whatever they might be, that they felt a book should have. But it were my real life dramatic experiences of news reporting in Kashmir, insurgency hit areas and forbidden lands helped me to sculpt an intense, visually enriching writing style. My visualised writing style compels me to open a window in the reader’s mind. It is the gateway to explore the imagination; which is a desired goal for any author. My successive three novels after the The Terrorist incorporate this style which now has become an article of faith for me.

TOI, 18 Sept 2017

So when I was asked to write a graphic novel for the Times of India, a commission no one has ever done before in this country, it struck me that it would flow all so naturally for me. I had to produce text that was economic in its choice of words and length. It would have to write a text which supported powerful visuals but was also evocative and stirring. This is what Agent Rana accomplishes day after day in the Times of India.

This brings me to my thesis that all art forms are interconnected to create a single, living organism that pulsates with life and passion. The end goal is to explore the human condition. I, believe, that there is no such thing as a purist style of writing. All creative output is the result of myriad experiences, both stylistic and cerebral. In December, this year, my fifth book, Fear is the Key which has a female protagonist, will be released by Penguin Random House. It is perhaps my most challenging work to date. It is a psychological thriller and tells the story of a man conflicted in his mind.

So, that then is the challenge for me. How do you show the conflicts of the mind as evocative imagery? Writing for different genres is like a seven course meal; each course releasing different flavours at the tip of your tongue. But it all leads to that simple but profound thought at the end of it. ‘I really enjoyed myself. It was a great meal.’

Different roads, one destination. There is really no contradiction in that!

© Juggi Bhasin

18 September 2017 

India’s Women Writers, from the Early 20th Century to Today

I wrote a long essay on India’s women writers from the early 20th century to today for Bookwitty. Here is an extract from the essay:  

India has a tradition of fine women writers, and some of the earliest established names among them were also pioneers in fields beyond literature. Roekya Sakhawat Hossein (1880-1932) was a leading Bengali feminist in at the turn of the 20th century. Her sci-fi utopian novella, Sultana’s Dream (1905), was decades before her time and is a delight to read even now. Cornelia Sorabji (1866-1954) was both the first woman to read law at Oxford, and the first Indian national to study at a British university. During her career as the first female lawyer in India, she advocated for women in purdah and children. She wrote a dozen books including her memoirs, India Calling (1934). Sarojini Naidu (1879-1949) known as the “Nightingale of India,” was not only a poet, but also the first female governor of an Indian state, and the first woman president of the Indian National Congress. Her debut collection of poetry, The Golden Threshold, was published in 1905.

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Sarojini Naidu with Mahatma Gandhi

at the 1942 All India Congress Committee Session

Despite our strong tradition of women writers in the early 20th century, to my mind it was the 1974 publication of the “Towards Equality” Status of Women in India Report that marked a watershed moment for women’s movements, and in turn, women’s literature. Though Indira Gandhi, the first woman prime minister, had been in power for years, it was the Report that gave more women a voice and an opportunity to express themselves.

Another literary turning point came in 1984, when Indira Gandhi was assassinated and thousands of Sikhs were massacred in retaliation. For the older generations, this violence brought back memories of the 1947 Partition of India; young writers and social activists including Urvashi Butalia began recording their stories. Butalia eventually wrote a seminal book, Other Side of Silence (2000), based on these oral histories as well as her own family’s story of moving to India from Lahore, now in Pakistan. Around the same time Ritu Menon and Kamla Bhasin’s groundbreaking Borders and Boundaries (1998) was published, documenting women’s experiences of Partition, about which until then it seemed a collective amnesia had existed.

To continue reading the essay please visit:  “India’s Women Writers, from the Early 20th Century to Today” , published on Bookwitty ( 3 August 2017) 

10 August 2017 

Theme of Independence in children’s literature in India

(The following article was commissioned in 2015 by Sarah Odedina for the Read Quarterly. With her permission I am posting it here.  On 15 August 2017  India celebrates it’s seventieth anniversary of independence from the British. )

15 August 1947 India won its independence from the British. It had been a long freedom struggle. Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, “Father of the Nation”, is recognised as one of its leaders especially with his non-violent method of protest. His birthday, 2 October, is a national holiday. When the British decided to leave the subcontinent they did so after partitioning it into two nations—India and Pakistan.

The uprising of 1857[1] was influential in instilling in the Indians “a rudimentary sense of national unity” that when a genuine Indian freedom movement began within a few decades later it inspired the leaders with the hope that their British masters could be defeated. Significant highlights were the Partition of Bengal, new words such as Swaraj ( “self-rule”), Swadeshi (self-reliance) and Boycott ( of all foreign goods and products), Satyagraha, Jallianwala Bagh ( massacre of peaceful protestors by General Dyer in Amritsar), Chauri Chaura ( burning of a police station, killing 22 policemen on duty), rise of communalism with “parties based on religion like the Muslim League, the Hindu Mahasabha and the Rashtriya Swayam Sevak Sangh …these parties only cared for their own communities, it was to their advantage if they could divide the country around religion.”[2]The Dandi March or the salt satyagraha, the Civil Disobedience Movement, Quit India Movement, and Independence.

It is now nearly 70 years since Independence, three generations removed from the momentous events. The freedom struggle still exists in living memory as it is not too far back in time. Yet for children, history is a mish-mash in their minds — the Harappan civilisation, the Mughals, Mauryan Empire and British India/freedom struggle are a blur. This is where literature plays a crucial role in offering perspectives.

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Globally children’s literature is understood to include fiction and non-fiction, a category distinct from literature used as textbooks and supplementary readers in schools. In India these fine lines are blurred. For the toddlers and primary school students there is variety of material available – fiction, folktales, mythology, non-fiction. As the pressure of school curriculum increases on students the focus shifts from reading for pleasure to textbooks. Till recently this attitude was deeply ingrained in society. Now the slow shift to reading for pleasure is perceptible. It is a coalescing of multiple factors –an increase in income of parents allowing disposable income available for purchase of books, a rise in publishing and retailing for children, establishment of specialist bookshops, increase in direct marketing efforts by publishers like book fairs and book clubs in schools and growth in popularity of children’s literature festivals like Bookaroo[3] has made the category of children and young adult book publishing the fastest growing and lucrative category in India. (It also helps when the target audience/market of less than 25 year olds constitutes 40% of the 1.3 billion Indians.)

Children’s literature with the theme of independence is found in school material and trade lists. In the 40s (actually from 30s onward if not earlier) the best children’s literature came out in Bal Sakha – a Hindi Magazine brought out by Bengalis settled in Allahabad, Uttar Pradesh. Some of the best writers, including Premchand, were first published here. This magazine dealt with the issue of independence, presenting it to children in what still seems a fairly contemporary way[4]. In 1957 two publishing houses were established – National Book Trust ( NBT) [5]and Children’s Book Trust ( CBT)[6]. According to Navin Menon, editor, CBT, every year in August Children’s World “publish[es] content related to Independence either written by children or stories/ articles contributed by adults.” Amar Chitra Katha (ACK)[7], specialise in comics, usually the first introduction to children on folktales, Indian mythology and stories about the freedom struggle published its first title on freedom struggle, Rani of Jhansi[8] on 1 Feb 1974, around the 25th anniversary of Independence. Historical accounts by writer and niece of India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, Nayantara Sahgal’s The Story of India’s Freedom Movement (1970) continues to be in print[9]. As she told me in an email, “The freedom movement is part of our modern history. Obviously it is important for young people to know their country’s history.”


Writing for children about the independence movement began to pick up pace in the early 1980s when CBT published writers like Nilima Sinha’s Adventure before Midnight[10]. In 1984 after the assassination of the prime minister, Delhi saw terrible communal clashes. It led to writers like Urvashi Butalia, Ritu Menon and Amitav Ghosh drawing parallels between their experiences with that of Partition. In the 1990s preparations for the fiftieth anniversary celebrations of Indian independence began. To commemorate it there were a deluge of books. For instance, Shashi Deshpande’s novel The Narayanpur Incident and Macmillan published The First Patriots (series editor, Mini Krishnan) consisting of short illustrated biographies[11]. Biographies, bordering on hagiographies, are the most popular genre for introducing children to this period in history. These books sell extremely well since it supplements school textbooks. Scholastic India with its Great Lives[12], Puffin India with Puffin Lives and Hachette India with What they did, What they Said? series have profiled freedom fighters registering steady sales too. Gandhi is a popular subject of biographies. From picture books ( A Man Called Bapu and We call her Ba on his wife, Kasturba), standard biographical accounts, profusely illustrated with photographs like DK India’s Eyewitness Gandhi and graphic novels like Gandhi: My Life is my message ( Gandhi – Mera Jeevan Hi Mera Sandesh). [13] An unusual book is Everyone’s Gandhi by Subir Shukla[14] which looked at Gandhi from children’s point of view. It asked provocative questions. It was syndicated in some 75 newspapers (English and regional languages) and the author used to get 500 postcards every week from children across the country, proving that it is possible to approach independence in a manner that generates serious response. Paro Anand, writer and founder, Literature in Action[15] says “I loved this book because it brought me closer to Gandhi. It took the capital letter out of it because made me see him like a human being who I could be not a saint or god who I could never aspire to be. I have used the book often with kids urging them to be a Gandhi for 5 minutes every day, in a single act of kindness or a single act of care. To me empathy is a very important component of kid lit.”

Now there are a variety of books available in terms of writing styles and formats. For instance late Justice Leila Seth’s fabulous book on the Preamble of the Indian Constitution – We, The Children of India[16]; graded readers with pictures like Bharati Jagannathan’s movingly told One Day in August[17], Nina Sabnani’s heart-warming animation film (later book) based on a true story Mukund and Riaz [18]and Samina Mishra’s Hina in the Old City[19] — all focused on Partition and Ruby Hembrom’s award-winning picture book Disaibon Hul on the Santhal Rebellion of 1855[20]. Young adult fiction inevitably has the story of one person caught up in the dynamics of the movement. So the author tries to take a micro level view and build upon that. For instance, Chitra Bannerjee Divakurni’s Neela: A Victory Song[21], Jamila Gavin’s Surya trilogy — The Wheel of Surya (1992), The Eye of the Horse (1994) and The Track of the Wind (1997)[22], Irfan Master’s A Beautiful Lie[23],[24] Siddharth Sharma’s award-winning debut novel The Grasshopper’s Run[25] which focuses on the Kohima war and Mathangi Subramanian’s Dear Mrs. Naidu[26] about a young girl who corresponds with Sarojini Naidu through her diary. Forthcoming is the retelling in English of Khwaja Ahmad Abbas’s Bharat Mata ke Paanch Roop ( Urdu) by his niece Syeeda Hameed[27]. Award winning historian-turned-writer, Subhadra Sen Gupta has written a clutch of biographies, historical fiction, picture books and nonfiction titles with the freedom struggle as the literary backdrop[28]. Roshen Dalal has published India at 70 ( 2017) chronicling the seven decades since Independence.

Some other examples of literature are listed by writer Deepa Agarwal, “Subhadra Kumari Chauhan’s popular poem Jhansi ki Rani and Makhanlal Chaturvedi’s Pushp ki Abhilasha. Outstanding historical novels on patriotic themes were written by Manhar Chauhan, like Lucknow ki Loot (The looting of Lucknow) and Bihar ke Bahadur (Brave men of Bihar) both published by National Publishing Company in 1978. His series of sixteen novels about British rule Angrez Aaye aur Gaye (The British came and went) is a monumental work with each book standing alone and yet connected with the others. In Urdu Allama Iqbal’s collection Hindustani Bacchon ke Qaumi Geet and Zakir Hussain’s Abbu Khan ki Bakri are on the theme of freedom. Pandit Brij Narain Chakbast’s patriotic poems,  Hamara Watan dil se Pyara, Watan Ko Hum Watan Humo Mubarak, from the collection Subhe Watan were meant for children. In Marathi V.H. Hadap wrote patriotic stories ranging from historical to modern times; his Sattavanachi Satyakatha is about the heroes of the 1857 revolution like Mangal Pande, Tatya Tope and Rani Laxmibai. In fact the centenary … was celebrated in 1957 with many books for children about the people who participated. Vasant Varkhedkar’s Sattavancha Senani is a novel on the life of Tatya Tope.” In Telugu Komuram Bheem: A children’s Novel on a Tribal Hero by Bhupal is about the tribal rebel from Telengana, published by Vennela Prachuranalu (Telugu)[29]. CBT also has a book on Gunda Dhar/ Bhumkal revolt of the Bastar tribal area.

Apart from written literature in India oral histories play a very important role too. Target, a popular children’s magazine, started a comic strip in the mid-eighties called “Freedom’s Children”, where a freedom fighter was profiled based upon extensive interviews. Prominent writers and illustrators collaborated for this project. At the end of each strip a photograph of the actual person was published. Now some schools organise interactions between grandparents with students to recount their memories of independence movement. Many times it is discovered that the children are unaware of the trauma the older generation experienced as if the elders want to protect the younger generation from the horrors they witnessed.

Vatsala Kaul-Banerjee, Publisher, Children & Reference Books, Hachette India says, “General response to these books is quite good. Our children take their cues from USA/ UK, so they do not look at India too much. … I do not think there is enough experimentation in children’s writing to create fiction in this area, so far.” Tina Narang, publisher, Scholastic India adds “Since this is a period in our recent history for which a wealth of detail is available, relevant research material is easy to come by for authors[30] who have written Independence-themed stories. But that I think is the biggest stumbling block. Most such stories tend to become stereotypical in their portrayal of that period and of independence as a valiant struggle by a group of noble and brave souls. There is little or no independent analysis of this struggle or attempt to question the motives, methods or outcomes (partition included).” Sudeshna Shome Ghosh, (then) Editorial Director, Red Turtle echoes this, “We do need to do more books that present a more diverse view of  the independence movement and that talks about the role of women or tribals or gives other kinds of alternate views.” Radhika Menon, founder, Tulika Books agrees, “Now we would like to do something that includes the contemporary discourses on the freedom struggle. Something that reflects a more inclusive idea of the freedom struggle with all its complexities so that the reader is urged to think and question rather than be left with certainties about history in her/his mind which tend to be rigid. The challenge is of course to make such a book reader friendly for the pre-teen age group.” Ruby Hembrom, publisher, Adivaani is clear when she says, “If we were to do a book on this period, I wouldn’t feature the Indian Nationalists who have been done to death in textbooks first and have hijacked the ‘independence’ space. I would do Jaipal Singh Munda and his eclipsed role in the constituent Assembly for example.”

Writing about Indian independence and the freedom movement for children is a tricky area since it raises more questions than helps map it. There is an apparent shift in the styles of writing over the generations of writers. From the writer like their subject (usually evident in biographies) have a sense of pride at being an independent and self-reliant nation to contemporary writers whose fiction is based research for using history to comment upon the present politics and social status of marginalised groups. Disaibon Hul is ostensibly about the revolt as mentioned in the book, the introduction refers to “outsiders”, and the story is about the fight against the British. It concludes with “Almost 160 years have passed since the Hul. We are alive but still not the owners of our lives? What will it take for us to be really free?” The term “outsider” is left open-ended. Siddhartha Sharma says he wrote The Grasshopper Run because “I wanted to explain how the Assamese and Nagas got along earlier, unlike today. To contemporary Indians, I wanted to show what the people of the region are like, and how history turned out for us.” [31] Mathangi began writing Dear Mrs Naidu when working in government schools and angadwadis and discovered Sarojini Naidu whose letters she was reading. Mathani realised that Naidu was so human compared to the “demigods of independence” students learned about. She adds, “I think there is a lot of literature on the theme of independence that focuses on a couple of the male freedom fighters, and I’d like to see this change. History is such a powerful force: it shapes the way we think about ourselves, and the way we think about the possibilities for our futures. I want to see more histories of women freedom fighters, and freedom fighters who were not elite. I want to see more literature that helps children understands that heroes are just people with a lot of guts and passion, and that everyone has the capacity for greatness.”[32]

I asked eminent historian Romila Thapar, “What are the events/perspectives and aspects of the freedom struggle that you would recommend are also included in the narratives of the freedom movement?” She replied via email, “You have posed a difficult question. My reaction would be that we need to acquaint children with situations that went into the making of what one may call a ‘wholesome’ society. Not the stories that encourage divisiveness and violence but stories that underline in subtle ways the values of a plural society that we once were. This is disappearing fast and it will be an uphill task to retrieve this as we shall have to do in future years. The goal of the national movement was such that communities came together for a cause and set aside what separated them. It is these moments that need to be remembered in the present times. Often they can be more easily seen in activities related to regional and local history. It may be worth doing a little investigation into how people in rural areas and small towns remember the recent past.”

This observation gains significant urgency when a Muslim man is lynched by a mob on the outskirts of Delhi for his food habits[33]. Noted Hindi journalist Ravish Kumar’s who met a young man, Prashant, at the site says he showed no remorse at the death of Akhlaq, “Instead, he asked us that after the partition, when it had been decided that Hindus will stay here and Muslims will go to Pakistan, why did Gandhi and Nehru ask Muslims stay back in India?… These are the typical beliefs that keep the pot of communalism boiling.” Ravish says he lost the heated argument and could only wonder dismayed, “Who are those people who have left young men like Prashant to be misled by the purveyors of false histories?” Ironically this happened on 2 October, the birthday of Mahatma Gandhi, a man recognised worldwide for his belief in nonviolence.

[1] In A Children’s History of India Subhadra Sen Gupta refers to the events of 1857 and the widespread anger that ensued being an eye-opener for the British “who believed that they were ruling over a peaceful society reconciled to British rule”.

[2] – ibid-

[3] Bookaroo Children’s Literature Festival 

[4] Email correspondence with Subir Shukla, Principal Coordinator, IGNUS-erg and formerly associated with NBT. He wrote a few books at this time too.

[5] National Book Trust (NBT), India is a part of the Ministry of Human Resource Development, Government of India. It was established in 1957 and publishes in English, Hindi and some other Indian languages. It also organizes the annual World Book Fair, New Delhi to which publishers gravitate from around the world and country.  NBT and CBT between them have published many books, many continue to be in demand such as The Story of Swarajya by Vishnu Prabhakar (Hindi), Jawaharlal Nehru by Tara Ali Baig, Stories From Bapu’s Life by Uma Shankar Joshi (Gujarati), Jallianwala Bagh by Bhisham Sahni (Hindi), Bapu by FC Fretus and How India Won Freedom by Krishna Chaitanya. Email from Rubin DCruz, Editor, NBT. He has also put together an invaluable annotated catalogue of select children’s books in India, Children’s Books 2014, published by National Centre for Children’s Literature, NBT.

[6] Children’s Book Trust ( CBT) established by cartoonist Shankar in 1957. Its objective is the promotion and production of well-written, well-illustrated and well-designed books for children at prices within the reach of the average Indian child. CBT publications include an illustrated monthly magazine in English, Children’s World. Shankar also set up the Association of Writers and Illustrators for Children (AWIC). Shankar started the Shankar’s International Children’s Competition in 1949, and as a part of it, the Shankar’s On-the-Spot Painting Competition for Children in 1952. He instituted an annual Competition for Writers of Children’s Books in 1978. Some of the CBT titles are Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose by Dr. Lakshmi Sahgal  & Col. P.K. Sahgal, Adventure before Midnight  by Nilima Sinha, The Return Home by Sarojini Sinha, The  Treasure Box by Sarojini Sinha, Kamla’s Story: The Saga Of Our Freedom by Surekha Panandiker, Ira Saxena, & Nilima Sinha,  A Pinch Of Salt Rocks an Empire by Sarojini Sinha and Operation Polo by A. K. Srikumar and the 12 volumes on freedom fighters Our Leaders or Mahan Vyaktitwa ( English and Hindi). Some of the original titles in Hindi are Aprajita, Hamare Yuva Balidani and Barah Baras ka Vijeta. Email sent by Navin Menon

[7] Amar Chitra Katha (ACK) founded by Anant Pai or Uncle Pai specializes in publishing comics. These comics are usually the first introduction to children about stories of the freedom struggle stories. The ACK titles are Rani of Jhansi (date of publication, 1 Feb 1974), Subhash Chandra Bose (1 March 1975), Chandrashekhar Azad (15 August 1977), the Rani of Kittur ( 1 July 1978), Bhagat Singh ( 15 March 1981), Rash Behari Bose ( 15 May 1982), Veer Savarkar ( 15 May 1984), Mangal Pande ( 1 June 1985), Jallianwala Bagh ( 1 June 1986), Beni Madho and Pir Ali (1st Sept.1983), Velu Thampi (1st May 1980), Senapati Bapat ( 1 February 1984), Surjya Sen (October 2010), Vivekananda (15th October 1977), Rabindranath Tagore (20th may 1977), Babasaheb Ambedkar (15th April 1979), Lokmanya Tilak (1st August 1980), Lal Bahadur Shastri (1st October 1982), Mahatma Gandhi – The Early days (1st June 1989), Jayaprakash Narayan (15th January 1980), Jawaharlal Nehru (November 1991), Subramania Bharati (1st December 1982), Deshbandhu Chitaranjan Das         (1st November 1985), The Story of the Freedom Struggle (August 1997)

[8] Rani Lakshmibai was one of the leaders of the uprising of 1857. She also became a symbol of the resistance to British Rule.

[9] Nayantara Sahgal The Story of India’s Freedom Red Turtle, an imprint of Rupa Publications, New Delhi, 2013. First published 1970.

[10] Midnight refers to the coming of Freedom and this book describes the events that preceded it. It is about a group of teenagers who participated in the Quit India movement and tried to hoist the tricolour in Patna. It was selected for the International White Raven List for libraries.

[11] Tipu Sultan, The Rani of Jhansi, Kattabomman (the rebel of Pudukottai), Pazhassi Raja (Kerala) and Bhagat Singh. The idea for these series was to write about various legendary heroes and heroines who played a pioneering part in the un-enslaving of the country. According to biographer Shreekumar Varma, “Pazhassi Raja Kerala Varma was one of the earliest such freedom fighters. He fought the marauding armies of both the British and Tipu Sultan. His story is full of adventure and thrill, intrigue and treachery, a case-book of bravery. The book is profusely illustrated. It was heavily researched. The surviving members of the Raja’s family were interviewed at Pazhassi and information was gathered from many books and historical records. The text in the book is but a fraction of the material actually obtained.”

[12] Aditi De’s Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi and illustrated by Pooja Pootenkulam in the Great Lives series published by Scholastic India has been released this month.

[13] Gandhi: My life is my message by Jason Quinn, illustrated by Sachin Nagar. It is available in English and Hindi. The translator is Ashok Chakradhar. It is part of Campfire Graphic Novels’s  Heroes Series that introduces readers to historical figures who led lives worth knowing, and whose stories are true life adventures.

[14] It is available freely for circulation since “Mahatma Gandhi cannot be any one person’s property, there is no ‎copyright of this publication.” First edition 1997.

[15] Literature in Action is a programme started by Paro Anand that seeks to bring young people and books together.

[16] It was co-authored by her writer-son, Vikram Seth and illustrated by the late Bindia Thapar, published by Puffin India ( English) and Pratham Books ( Hindi).

[17] Published by Pratham Books

[18]  In an email Nina Sabnani wrote, “Mukand and Riaz was initially an animated film that later became a book. It is a true story about my father Mukand and his friend Riaz. There were several things that brought this project together. My father told me the story of his life very late, close to his death. I wanted to share this with my siblings so I just wrote it up like a story and shared it with them and some friends. My friends persuaded me to think about it as a film. I was quite disturbed by the frequent riots in Ahmedabad that happened and me as a designer did not respond in any way. I thought it maybe  my way of protesting. But protests always forget children. So I wanted to reach children. Fortunately I also received some funds at NID as students were working towards making films on the rights of children for a UNESCO Israel project, Big Small People. Since my father had repeatedly said how much he missed his best friend and how the partition separated them, I thought I would create a film that focused on the rights to home and friendship. I also had a fond hope that if the film was made and Riaz happened to see it he would contact my dad. Of course that did not happen but my father was able to see the film one week before he passed away. I used cloth because he worked in the Textile Mills and was passionate about fabric and prints.” Mukund and Riaz  is published by Tulika Books.

[19] The reader shares moments with 10-year old Hina who lives in Purani Dilli, the walled city of Delhi. She comes from a family of zardozi embroiderers. This exquisite craft is, however, slowly dying as craftspeople find fewer takers for their work or are forced to compromise on care and quality to meet the prosaic demands of the times. Along the way, we get glimpses of life in Old Delhi – its lanes, its ancient mohallas which have seen the pain of Partition. Hina loves where she lives, and warm colour photographs take us right into her world. Guides for projects / discussions and a reading list are provided at the end as further avenues for exploring.

[20] To me it is an example of using history to comment on the present. It is ostensibly about the revolt (and the story calls it a revolt too whereas an uprising would be more accurate given it is written from the perspective of the adivasi), the introduction refers to the “outsiders”, the story is about the fight against the British and then it concludes with “Almost 160 years have passed since the Hul. We are alive but still not the owners of our lives? What will it take for us to be really free?” The term “outsider” is left open-ended. Ruby is the founder-publisher of Adivaani, a publishing house that focuses on  producing literature for an by the adivasis.

[21] Neela: A Victory Song is published by Puffin Books India.

[22] Jamila Gavin’s Surya Trilogy is published by Egmont.

[23] Beautiful Lie was published by Bloomsbury

[24] A book review article I wrote on Partition and Children’s Literature and I interviewed Jamila Gavin and Irfan Master.

[25] The Grasshopper’s Run was first published by Scholastic India and worldwide by Bloomsbury.

[26] Dear Mrs Naidu ( 2015) is a Young Zubaan publication.

[27] Forthcoming by Pratham Books is Khwaja Ahmad Abbas’s Bharat Mata ke Paanch Roop ( The Five Forms of Bharat Mata) which are character sketches of five ordinary women whom he considered as the true faces of the Bharat Mata trope. These are originally in Urdu but have been done for us by his niece Syeda Hameed. According to Manisha Chowdhury, Editorial Head, Pratham Books “we see this as a good way to introduce the idea of subaltern narratives to children and expand the idea of history.”

[28] For instance, Saffron, White and Green: the amazing story of India’s independenceA Flag, A Song and a Pinch of Salt: Freedom Fighters of IndiaPuffin Lives: Mahatma GandhiLet’s Go Time Travelling; fictional biographies of Jahanara and Jodh Bai; a short story collection called History, Mystery, Dal Biryani and a novel called Give us Freedom and most recently the bestseller, A Children’s History of India, published by Red Turtle. Email from Subhadra Sen Gupta.

[29] There is also a book on Alluri Seetharama Raju in Telugu.  He led the ill-fated “Rampa Rebellion” of 1922–24, during which a band of tribal leaders and other sympathizers fought against the British Raj. He was referred to as “Manyam Veerudu” (“Hero of the Jungles”) by the local people

[30] It explains why authors like Deepak Dalal and Nandini Nayar have been able to write historical fiction set in 1857. Research is easy to come by. Deepak Dalal’s historical fiction set in the time of 1857 Sahyadri Adventure series – Anirudh Dreams and Koleshwars Secret. He says, “I have received good feedback about the books. Demand is ok, but nothing to thump my back about. We are into the 3rd edition now. Schools love the books and many have used them as readers. But then most of my books are picked up as readers.” Nandini Nayar’s When children make history: Stories of 1857 is a novel about two Indian children who befriend an English boy who considers India his real home. The three of them chance upon a bunch of soldiers making rotis and help them. So, basically, the novel ends with the beginning of the Uprising. In an email to me she wrote, “I wrote the book [since] I was reading a lot about 1857 and the British Raj and began thinking about how it would be if some Indian children were to befriend an English boy. “ The book was first published as an ebook, then print and has recently been translated into Malayalam by Mango Books, the children’s imprint of DC Books.

[31] In an email to me.

[32] In an email to me.

[33] According to rumours that spread like wildfire, fifty-year-old Akhlaq had stored beef (cow’s meat) in his fridge. The cow is sacred to Hindus. A mob gathered and lynched him and injuring many members of the family. On 2 October 2015, two days after the incident in a village in Dadri, 35 kms from Delhi, Ravish Kumar went to report. “A Sewing Machine, Murder, and The Absence of Regret”  (Published and accessed on 2 Oct 2015)

15 August 2017 

Marvel books

Marvel comics were launched in America in 1939. According to Wikipedia:

Martin Goodman, a pulp magazine publisher who had started with a Western pulp in 1933, was expanding into the emerging—and by then already highly popular—new medium of comic books. Launching his new line from his existing company’s offices at 330 West 42nd Street, New York City, he officially held the titles of editor, managing editor, and business manager, with Abraham Goodman officially listed as publisher.

Timely’s first publication, Marvel Comics #1 (cover dated Oct. 1939), included the first appearance of Carl Burgos’ android superhero the Human Torch, and the first appearances of Bill Everett’s anti-hero Namor the Sub-Mariner, among other features. The issue was a great success, with it and a second printing the following month selling, combined, nearly 900,000 copies. While its contents came from an outside packager, Funnies, Inc., Timely had its own staff in place by the following year. The company’s first true editor, writer-artist Joe Simon, teamed with emerging industry’s notable artist Jack Kirby to create one of the first patriotically themed superhero, Captain America, in Captain America Comics #1 (March 1941). It, too, proved a hit, with sales of nearly one million. Goodman formed Timely Comics, Inc., beginning with comics cover-dated April 1941 or Spring 1941.

While no other Timely character would achieve the success of these three characters, some notable heroes—many of which continue to appear in modern-day retcon appearances and flashbacks—include the Whizzer, Miss America, the Destroyer, the original Vision, and the Angel. Timely also published one of humor cartoonist Basil Wolverton’s best-known features, “Powerhouse Pepper”, as well as a line of children’s funny-animal comics featuring popular characters like Super Rabbit and the duo Ziggy Pig and Silly Seal.

Goodman hired his wife’s cousin,  Stanley Lieber, as a general office assistant in 1939.  When editor Simon left the company in late 1941,  Goodman made Lieber—by then writing pseudonymously as “Stan Lee”—interim editor of the comics line, a position Lee kept for decades except for three years during his military service in World War II. Lee wrote extensively for Timely, contributing to a number of different titles.

Goodman’s business strategy involved having his various magazines and comic books published by a number of corporations all operating out of the same office and with the same staff.  One of these shell companies through which Timely Comics was published was named Marvel Comics by at least Marvel Mystery Comics #55 (May 1944). As well, some comics’ covers, such as All Surprise Comics #12 (Winter 1946–47), were labeled “A Marvel Magazine” many years before Goodman would formally adopt the name in 1961. 

For nearly eight decades Marvel comics have survived despite financial turbulence, been at the cutting edge of testing new publishing models, experimented in mediums and continued telling stories with superheros that have gripped the imaginations of young and old alike. With the booming popularity of films many of the superheroes came alive on the screen — Iron Man, Superman, Fantastic Four, X-Men, Wolverine, Captain America, and Hulk to name a few.  On August 31, 2009, The Walt Disney Company announced a deal to acquire Marvel Comics’ parent corporation, Marvel Entertainment, for $4 billion. As of the start of September 2015, films based on Marvel’s properties represent the highest-grossing U.S. franchise, having grossed over $7.7 billion  as part of a worldwide gross of over $18 billion.

Marvel books published by Scholastic, Summer 2017

The last decade has seen the explosion of digital and print mediums and recently of the two experiences coming together. It helps in creating an immersion which is absolute for die-hard fans of the Marvel superheroes. Scholastic, a publishing firm specialising in children’s literature predating the formation of Marvel Comics, has been over the years releasing a range of print products to meet this demand. Take for instance the recently released film Guardians of the Galaxy 2  ( April 2017) where popular actors have done voiceovers for the characters. ( Vin Diesel is the voice for Baby Groot!) Scholastic to coincide with the film published a range of books around the Guardians of Galaxy characters. These include “the movie storybook”, a novel “inspired by the film”, colouring and activity book and a sticker activity book. What is absolutely incredible is how smoothly the publicity team has created a range of successful publishing collateral targetting different age groups of readers. Children are immediately drawn to the books and are kept happily entertained for hours. Along with this a revised hardback edition of Marvel Super Hero Encyclopedia was released. Even though it is priced slightly on the higher side for the local Indian market it has proved to be a bestseller, notching up healthy sales. ( This, despite parents and schools, advising children not to buy such “useless” books!) What is a particularly charming aspect of these stories is that though the super heros are gender-defined and their physical forms are some illustrator’s fantasy of the ideal body shape, the characters appeal is gender neutral. Thankfully, irrespective of the gender of the reader, all children ( and adults) gravitate towards the books. Here is a link posted on Facebook by Seale Ballenger, Publicity Director, Disney Publishing Worldwide ( 29 June 2014) of the legendary Stan Lee speaking about the importance of writing stories for younger readers:

Stan Lee talking about the importance of writing for young readers at ALA 2014

Posted by Seale Ballenger on Saturday, June 28, 2014

Frankly the fascination of these Marvel books is obvious and worth recommending. They keep children happily engaged and away from electronic babysitting while opening up an imaginative world away from their daily routines. It is like going down a worm hole on an adventure with bizarre characters.

27 June 2017 

Geronimo Stilton: The publishing phenomenon it is in India ( and worldwide)

My article on Geronimo Stilton has been published in Scroll on 11 June 2017. It is entitled “Even children who don’t read are addicted to this series of books about a mouse. Why?” I also interviewed Claudia Mazzucco, CEO of Atlantyca SpA. who publish and translate the books as well as Neeraj Jain, Managing Director, Scholastic India who distribute the series locally. 

The Geronimo Stilton series is an incredible phenomenon in children’s publishing in India. In the five years since this series – starring the eponymous mouse who is a bestselling writer and the editor of The Rodent News – was launched here by Scholastic India, one million copies have been sold already. The immense popularity of the books – which have been translated from Italian into English – has actually transcended the realm of regular book fairs and book stores, with the pull coming from even stationary and toy stores.

“Geronimo Stilton as a series is rich with everything that children love in their books. They are replete with humour, they have nail-biting adventures featuring action set pieces in an age-appropriate and non-violent way. There was (and still is) nothing like this in the Indian children’s books category,” said Neeraj Jain, managing director at Scholastic India. The marketing campaign has been unique, he added.

“We waited for a while for the series to develop some word-of-mouth publicity,” Jain said. “Once the buzz grew, we went ahead with an on-air campaign on radio. There have been sustained visibility exercises through displays, character visits and special collaterals across schools that we reach out with to book fairs and book clubs. We carried out The Great Geronimo Tour of India in 2016 where there were character visits and activities at Tier II cities across India. The tour was also amplified on radio and social media.”

Children, many of them not big readers in general, have been lapping up these books and waiting eagerly for the next instalment. According to some retailers, schools are actually beginning to issue directives to book exhibitors not to sell Geronimo Stilton books as children are hooked and refuse to read anything else!

In this talk delivered in 2012, Elizabetta Dami, creator of Geronimo Stilton, said that the idea to create these stories came from her storytelling sessions with patients in a children’s hospital ward. She was clear that while the stories had to grip the child’s imagination, they also had to work at multiple levels like inculcating values and giving the young readers hope. Her own publishing house began to create these stories, after which she joined hands with seasoned publisher Pietro Marietti.

In September 2006, Marietti established Atlantyca Entertainment to forge new business opportunities for the company’s library of entertainment book properties. Since then, as chairman of the firm, Marietti has published over 100 titles in the Geronimo Stilton series. It has generated business worth more than $1 billion.

This growth is also attributed to strategic licence sales, such as bi-monthly comic book magazines, toys, stationery products, as well as a Broadway show called Geronimo Stilton: Mouse in Space presented by Orlando Repertory Theatre (January 2017). Amazon Prime has also committed to two seasons (52 episodes) of an Italian-American-French animated series.

Claudia Mazzucco, CEO of Atlantyca SpA., talked about the series, its origins, and what it takes to keep up the momentum of its phenomenal popularity over generations. Excerpts from the interview:

How did Geronimo Stilton come about? There is no guarantee that an anthropomorphised mouse will be a hit with kids.
The Geronimo Stilton editorial series was initially published in eight titles by the Italian publishing house Dami Editore. Then Elisabetta Dami joined the publishing company Edizioni Piemme as a shareholder and, jointly with the owner Pietro Marietti, they developed the Geronimo Stilton project both on the editorial and the marketing side.

Why did you choose to create the text for children in this manner – multicoloured and diverse fonts?
The “graphisms” in the actual format aim to add an emotional meaning in a funny and witty way to the literal meaning of the word. This helps children to catch the meaning in a blink with the valuable result, among other, to encourage even reluctant readers to read.

Are these texts based on some technical knowledge about creating reading material for younger children? Somewhat similar to Ladybird’s Read It Yourself, Harper Collins’s I Can Read and Dr Seuss books? I ask since these books are poised beautifully in that space between picture books and chapter books but with some characteristics of game books such as those created by Livingstone (1970s). The Geronimo Stilton series definitely helps a child read easily.
This result was achieved little by little at the very beginning of the development of the editorial series in Edizioni Piemme, thanks to the editorial team, the leadership of Mrs Dami and Mr Marietti, and the enthusiastic feedback of young readers.

The rapidity with which these titles are released every month matches the pace of a magazine subscription, but it is actually a book. How does your publishing firm manage it?
The editorial team is a very well-trained engine and they rely upon a big community of illustrators and graphics that have been collaborating for years.

Are some of the titles created specifically for some countries and not for the rest of the world, such as Bollywood Burglary?
The titles are created for a worldwide market. Some themes are suggested by foreign publishers but the books are developed in order to be licensed and distributed all over the world.

What is the turnaround time of a story from conception to publishing?
About five months.

The themes of the stories selected are very modern and at times, topical. How does this come about? Apart from an editorial team does the firm also rely on the feedback from young readers? Are there any special moments or letters that have been memorable?
All over the world, children’s publishers have to be open to changes because their consumers are children – the more flexible, demanding, unpredictable community of the publishing market. The editorial team is even more careful because of the strong ethical commitment of this particular intellectual property. Moreover, a website for children and the related community gives immediate feedback with their comments to books and the marketing initiative.

In contemporary fiction for children, three characters come immediately to mind who have had such huge success – Gruffalo, Peppa Pig and Geronimo Stilton. Do you have any thoughts or insights on why this may have happened? Why now? Of these three only Geronimo is in translation.
We have to make a distinction between properties based on an animated series or movie and those which are based on an editorial series. The first ones derive their popularity from the large-scale awareness that broadcasters can grant. The latter have a different, slower and more resilient evolution. A book-based character and the related brand, once they have reached a level of popularity, can last for years, and can influence generations. In Italy, the first readers of Geronimo Stilton, girls and boys who were eight years old in 2000 when the series was first published, are now grown up. They are parents now and their children are Geronimo Stilton readers.

11 June 2017 

Kunskapsskolan Book Week ( 1-5 May 2017)

I was invited by Kunskapsskolan Gurgaon to curate their book week. They have nearly 1200 students. The book week had to be created for all grades from pre-Nursery to Form 10. Since it has been recently established in India the classes are bottom-heavy with a larger number of students in primary school. Also the teaching staff is young, energetic and eager to learn new ways of learning particularly using technology.

Kunskapsskolan has been established in India via a joint venture partnership between Sweden and India. The schools follow the KED programme whose motto is: “Personalize each student’s education according to their individual needs and abilities. All resources in the school are carefully designed and organized around the student in a complete and coherent system.” Another characteristic of Kunskapsskolan schools is to align themselves with the educational system approved by the government of the country they are establishing schools in. So in India they are recognised by the CBSE board. Having said that they implement the curriculum using theme-based learning and from grades 3-8 it is primarily using digital resources. A unique aspect of Kunskapsskolan is its inclusive policy to have students with behavioural and learning challenges. There is a department that has skilled educators and councillors who are instrumental in the integration of these special children with rest of the school community.

Given the interesting mix of students with varying capabilities and incorporating the simple mandate of the school management — “By making a qualitative difference to the school community by immersing everyone in a world of books. It is also to introduce children to the love of reading via various methodologies and a well-curated book exhibition.” It was decided to hold the book week along with Scholastic India. With ninety-five years experience of publishing for children worldwide, of those twenty in India, Scholastic India is equipped to meet the requirements of the school. For instance putting together a theme-based book fair, introduction to audiobooks, ebooks and levelled readers for students such as Book Flix ( primary) and LitPro ( middle and secondary).

Teacher’s workshop led by Jaya Bhattacharji Rose, 29 April 2017

The book week began with a workshop for the school teachers on the “promotion of reading and digital resources”. I led two workshops. First for early years and primary school teachers. The second one was for middle and secondary school teachers. The emphasis was on importance of reading as a lifelong skill to acquire and not just to complete school curriculum. Given that this is the information age where its imperative to know how to read and glean

Anu Singh Chowdhary

knowledge, reading as an activity has to be enjoyable. It has to inculcate a love for reading without making it a chore. Today there are multiple formats by which children can access books for pleasure and information. According to Kids & Family Reading Report 2016 (KFRR ) children prefer reading for fun and helps develop a fondness for the activity. Parents too agreed that reading is important.

  • 86% of kids interviewed said their favourite books – the ones they were likely to finish – were the ones they pick out themselves. This is close to the USA average of 93%.
  • Across all ages, an overwhelming majority of children (87%) say they would read more if they could find more books that they like.
  • Children and parents prefer curated selections as it is easier to discover books. The top sources of books are the school book fairs, book clubs and word-of-mouth recommendations.  Libraries and bookshops are a close second.

    Anupa Lal

A primary school teacher’s feedback on the sessions and book fair, 5 May 2017

The teachers were introduced to online digital resources ( free and subscription based) that were age-appropriate and supported their curriculum. The workshops had been customised to align with KED methodology. So though the focuse was on resources available online many scrumptious examples of print books were also shared to gasps of astonished delight. A teacher who works primarily with children who have learning disabilities wrote in later to say “I simply loved the session!”

Something similar was witnessed at the Kunskapsskolan Book Week.

A student’s enthusiastic response to the book fair.

On the first day two little tiddlers hurtled down the stairs breathless with excitement, ” This book fair is awesome! The collection is so good!”

Paro Anand reading out aloud “Wingless”

Every single day there were sessions with authors, illustrators, storytellers, dramatists, cartoonists and editors. The idea being to introduce children to different aspects of books and reading. There were even sessions planned around audio books and animations based on popular stories as with Book Flix. Unfortunately due to privacy issues I am unable to upload some of the magnificent pictures taken during the events. Children, irrespective of whether they were toddlers or young adults, were mesmerised by the sessions. I have pictures of children who were trooped into the sessions and sat very quietly not knowing what to expect. Within minutes of the resource people beginning we had children absorbed listening to the stories in wide-eyed wonder, small or big the students were sprawled across the carpets, some were sitting under classroom desks and peering out, others were clapping their hands in glee and yet others body language was a delight to watch.  Inevitably within minutes the students would surround the resource person and it was absolutely marvellous to watch the adult engulfed in a sea of blue with loud chirrups of happiness from the children.

Simi Srivastava, storyteller

Simi Srivastava told a deliciously onomatopoeic tale about a bear. It was narrated accompanied to music. It went down very well with the toddlers. After the session a little boy came and gave her a tight hug while planting a slurpy wet kiss of appreciation on her cheek. Another girl came up politely and said “It was nice” but her twinkling eyes noted her deep appreciation of the storytelling performance.

Paro Anand, an exceptional storyteller, read out aloud her brilliant fable Wingless to a mesmerised audience of 9 and 10 year olds. ( According to KFRR, across all ages, the overwhelming majority of kids (85%) say they love(d) being read books aloud.) When she said she had written 27 books for children, a tiny little hand went up and a solemn little child said, “It means you are ‘experienced'” much to Paro’s delight.

Later Paro Anand had a session with the senior children around her recently launched graphic novel 2. It is the first Indo-Swedish collaborative book and it was apt that the first school event was held at an Indo-Swedish school. Paro Anand has written this book with Swedish writer, Örjan Persson. Her session was converted into a writing workshop too. The children were broken up into teams of two and given the task of writing stories together, aping the collaboration between the authors of 2. They were given two days to work on the stories. Three winning teams were awarded prizes along with notes of appreciation by Paro Anand.

There were sessions planned with renowned storytellers like Anupa Lal, Anu

(L-R) Anu Singh Chowdhury, Anupa Lal and Blossom D’Souza

Singh Chowdhury conducted a session in Hindi introducing children to Gulzar’s poetry and stories, seasoned publisher-cum-author Arthy Muthana led a workshop on editing and book production wherein the children looked astonished upon hearing of the “small pile” of manuscripts waiting to be read on her desk, dramatist Vanessa Ohri had the children spellbound, and cartoonist Ajit Narayan’s infectious enthusiasm for drawing characters was palpable as children quickly sketched in their art books while he demonstrated. He was provocative with his remarks like “I still have not found the right picture” but it only spurred the children on to improve. They drew furiously and clucked around him for appreciation.

Ajit Narayan

Arthy Muthana

While the book week was on a team of student volunteers had banded together to form a temporary editorial team. These four senior school students were entrusted with the task of creating “books” documenting the book week. They could choose any form of narrative as long as it contained highlights of the sessions and brought in different perspectives. For this they interviewed the resource people, students and teachers to get their views too. The students chose to illustrate with line drawings and soon took photographs to accompany the text. The books are to be placed in the school library. The exercise helped give an insight into the team effort, creativity and patience required to put a book together.

By the last day I too had students smiling and greeting me. The primary school students would give a broad smile or a hug. The senior school students were a little more reserved but it did not prevent them from lurking behind pillars and popping out unexpectedly to waylay me for a chat. It was a tremendous experience and I look forward to many more such occasions.

8 May 2017

*All the pictures except for the one of the school entrance have been taken by me and posted with permission of the school management.

2017 Reading Order, Asian Age

My annual feature in Asian Age which highlights the forthcoming titles of the year was published on 8 January 2017

2017 is going to be a fascinating year for books with big names too. 2016 was extraordinary for the number of strong debuts, overabundance of thrillers, revisionist accounts of history and established names releasing new books. There is a tremendous list of books to look out for – Amitava Kumar (The Lovers), Elif Shafak (The Three Daughters for Eve), Balli Kaur Jaswal (Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows), Jeet Thayil (The Book of Chocolate Saints), Mohsin Hamid (Exit West), Kamila Shamsie (Home Fire), Arundhati Roy (The Ministry of Utmost Happiness), Nadeem Aslam (The Golden Legend), Irwin Allan Sealy (Zelaldinus: A Masque and a travelogue called The China Sketchbook), S.V. Sujatha (The Demon-hunter of Chottanikkara), Sami Shah (Boy), Neil Gaiman’sCinnamon illustrated by Divya Srinivasan, Namita Roy Ghose’s historical fiction (The Wrong Turn: Love and Betrayal in the time of Netaji) and The Parrots of Desire: 3,000 Years of Indian Erotica by Amrita Narayanan.

Debut novelists slated for 2017 that are already being spoken of highly include Prayaag Akbar’sLeila, George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo, Tor Udall’s A Thousand Paper Birds, Torsa Ghoshal’s Open Couplets and Devi Yashodharan’s novel, Empire.

 

natasha badhwar

Mythology continues to be hugely popular (backbone of local publishing) with its innumerable retellings. For instance the eagerly expected Devdutt Pattanaik’s The Illustrated Mahabharata: The Definitive Guide to India’s Greatest Epic and Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology. Others include Mandakranta Bose’s The Ramayana in Bengali Folk Paintings, The Panchatantra by Vishnu Sharma (Translated by Rohini Chowdhury) and popular storyteller Krishna Udayasankarreturns with The Aryavarta Chronicles (4). A curious one to watch out for would be Jaya Misra’sKama: The Chronicles of Vatsyayana — a fictionalised biography of the author of The Kama Sutra(illustrated by Harshvardhan Kadam). Then there is Keerthik Sasidharan’s The Kurukshetra War: A Reconstruction and the ever-prolific Ashok Banker who has been commissioned by PanMacmillan India to write The Shakti Trilogy and by Amaryllis to deliver The Shivaji Trilogy.

The winning genre of thrillers is set to burgeon with some new and some established writers, such as Karachi-based police officer Omar Shahid Hamid’s third novel, The Party Worker, award-winning writer Jerry Pinto’s first detective fiction, Murder in Mahim, Bhaskar Chattopadhyay’s Here Falls the Shadow, Sanjay Bahadur’s Bite of the Black Dog, Sabyn Javeri’s Nobody Killed Her,Nikita Singh’s Every Time It Rains and long-awaited Pradeep Sebastian’s The Book Hunters. The bestselling duo Ashwin Sanghi and Dan Patterson are back with Private Delhi. Three intriguing books based on investigative reporting by prominent journalists are in the offing: The Nanavati Case by Bachi Karkaria, Sheena Bora Trail by Manish Pachouly and Who Killed Osho? by Abhay Vaidya.

Women’s writing continues to be a popular segment and has firmly established itself as a well-defined market. Some of the anticipated non-fiction titles are Status Single by the sharply perceptive Sreemoyee Piu Kundu, Bitch Doctrine: Essays for Dissenting Adults by the extraordinary feminist Laurie Penny, fabulous writer and columnist Natasha Badhwar’s memoir My Daughters’ Mum: Essays and popular mommygolightly blogger Lalita Iyer’s The Whole Shebang: Stick Bits of Being a Woman. Finally significant women in history and myth will be highlighted with books like Women Rulers in Indian History by Archana Garodia, Heroines: Powerful Indian Women of Myth and History by Ira Mukhoty.  Some of the other significant titles planned are Tripti Lahiri’s Maid in India: Stories of Opportunity and Inequality Inside our Homes, Sanam Maher’s The Short Life and Tragic Death of Qandeel Baloch and Priyanka Dubey’s No Nation for Women: Ground Reportage on Rape from the World’s Largest Democracy.

Translations are slowly expanding reading horizons by becoming a robust addition to the local imprint. Some prominent translations expected in 2017 are well-known Malayalam writer, Sethu Madhavan’s novels The Saga of Muziris (translated by Prema Jayakumar) and Aliyah (translated by Catherine Thankamma) which is about the migration of Kerala’s black Jews to the promised land of Israel. Rakshanda Jalil’s translation of Ghaddaar by Krishan Chander is titled Traitor, and there’s also the magnificent 900+ page novel Against the World by Jan Brandt (translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire), award-winning writer Perumal Murugan’s Seasons of the Palm andThe Collected Stories of Saadat Hasan Manto (Vol I, translated by Nasreen Rehman) to look forward to.

Evidence of a mature Indian publishing and a stable nation are the increasing number of academic analysis of the literary traditions. For instance two volumes edited by Rakhshanda Jalil — An Uncivil Woman: Writings on Ismat Chughtai and Looking Back: The Partition of India 70 Years On (with eds.Tarun Saint and Debjani Sengupta).

The Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections will take place in 2017. Plenty of books are in the pipeline. Sudhai Pai’s Uttar Pradesh: A Political Biography, Sajjan Kumar’s The Ailing Heartland: Communal Politics in Uttar Pradesh Since Independence and Venkatish Ramakrishnan’s Dateline Ayodhya. Coincidentally, 2017 is Indira Gandhi’s birth centenary year too and her constituency was Allahabad, home of the Nehrus. Two biographies planned are Sagarika Ghose’s Indira Gandhi: Her Life and Afterlife and Jairam Ramesh’s Indira Gandhi: A Life in Nature. Ashoka University’s Rudranghsu Mukherjee’s The Nehru Reader is also slated for release.

2017 is also the 70th year of Indian Independence. Some of the books slated straddle academia and lay readership. For instance  Ramachandra Guha’s India After Gandhi: The History of the World’s Largest Democracy, Barney White-Spunner’s Partition, Sheela Reddy’s long-awaited Mr and Mrs Jinnah: The Marriage That Shook India, Bertil Lintner China’s India War, Nikhila Henry’sThe Ferment and Aruna Roy’s The RTI Story. Journalist Poonam Snigdha’s Dreamers: The Heart of Modern India is a much-anticipated title for it focuses on the majority of India

Paddy Rangappa

which is under the age of 25. Another title bound to cause ripples with its publication is Age of Anger: A History of the Present by Pankaj Mishra, a polemic on the Western intellectual origins of Islamic fundamentalist. Delhi, seat of political power of the subcontinent for centuries, continues to be the favourite city for writers. Three books due are — Delhi: Power Politics Destiny by Sheila Dikshit, Chandni Chowk: The Mughal City of Old Delhi by historian Swapna Liddle and Maps of Delhi by Pilar Maria Guerrieri.

Business books continue to be bestsellers. Two prominent titles are Paddy Rangappa’s Spark: The Insight to Growing Brands and financial journalist Pravin Palande’s The Fundamentalists: Czars of India’s Financial Markets — which has been a long time in the making.

14 February 2017 

Graphic novels radically rooted in Indian market

( On 3 December 2016 the New Indian Express published a feature article on graphic novels in India by Catherine Gilon and Jayanthi Somasundaram in India for which I was interviewed as well. I have c&p the text below.) 

cf

Sharad Devarajan, co-founder and CEO, Graphic India

In a dark and stormy night, a dark knight rises, silhouetted against a moonless sky. Gods prepare for war a few thousand years in the mystical past. A goddess manifests herself in a young woman who has been raped and takes revenge. In the more recent past and in the now, history is retold through nostalgic strips of art. Sholay and Shivaay splatter across four-colour pages.

But the one that everyone’s waiting for is yet to come. S S Rajamouli’s breathtaking world of Baahubali promises to change India’s perception of graphic novels forever.

These heroes are not guardians of Gotham City, Metropolis or New York. They are in our own Indian backyard, spawning out of graphic novels, embedding themselves in the hearts of those who grew up with Batman, Superman, Spider-man and their league of super heroes. Artful pictures that tell tales of valour, humour, sex, gossip, introspection, despair, darkness and light—graphic novels are making a bold and in-your-face impression on paper in four colours.

Girija Jhunjhunwala, Publisher Pic: Shekhar Yadav

A mix of photographs, drawings and text bound together in a slim book brought out the colours and darkness in the lives of three men in Delhi in 2004 in Corridor, which leapfrogged its author Sarnath Banerjee and the rise of the graphic novel movement in India. It took Sarnath three-and-a-half years to complete the story set in the corridors of Connaught Place and Kolkata, capturing the essence of urban lives in all its madness.

V K Karthika, who was then senior editor at Penguin Books, took a huge risk by accepting his manuscript. “There was no commercially available graphic novel available in India at that time. She must have spent hours trying to convince marketing. Today, most publishers want to do graphic novels,” says the 44-year-old artist, whose work represents the rapidly-changing Indian lifestyle.

But graphic novels are not new to India. What is new is the themes they depict. With the success of events such as Comic Con 2016, people have come to view the genre of graphic novels in a different light. Visually strung-together powerful stories by 14 women in Drawing the Line: Indian Women Fight Back, published by Zubaan Books last year, reiterate that the realm of sequential art and graphic storytelling is here to stay.

“Amar Chitra Katha presented mythological tales in an illustrated format to readers all over India,” explains S Vijayan, the 49-year-old editor of Lion Comics, a pioneer in regional comics in Tamil Nadu. “Today, there are some young Indian comic book publishers who give an imaginative twist to our mythology for the English and Hindi audience. We need to keep pace with and embrace the changing times. That is why more space is now being created for graphic novels in other Indian languages as well.”

S Vijayan, Publisher. Pic : K K SUNDAR

The term ‘graphic novel’ was coined in 1964, and the Amar Chitra Katha comics were launched in India in 1967. The country welcomed the world of comics with open arms. Initially, they focused on retelling the epics, the Mahabharata and Ramayana. The reality of the power of graphic novels struck us much later when Orijit Sen penned his River of Stories in 1994. Published by Kalpavriksh, his pioneering work focused on how the Sardar Sarovar Dam on the Narmada river in Gujarat would impact locals. It was India’s first
attempt at cartoon journalism and, perhaps, India’s first graphic novel.

“I didn’t grow up with graphic novels as there weren’t any then,” says Sarnath, who was exposed to comics in a Bengali magazine in episodic forms—Indrajal, Amar Chitra Katha and even Tintin. “I was drawn to them because it was like staging your own play,” says the Berlin-based Indian graphic novelist.

Vijayan believes people need to accept that there is a thin line of separation between comics and graphic novels. “Comics in general are an all-encompassing genre, with awesome variety to suit all readers—young and not so young. Comics can mean fun-filled cartoons for kids, superhero stuff, mythology and more. On the other hand, graphic novels are a bit deeper, depict real life and target a mature readership,” he says.

Even though the last decade has seen the rise of more realistic stories, our hunger for superheroes has not gone down. “What has made superheroes and our genre of storytelling so successful is that great superheroes have for generations been reflective of larger societal narratives. They deal with serious storylines through characters that are flawed and go through a story of transformation and growth,” says 41-year-old Sharad Devarajan, co-founder and CEO, Graphic India, a publishing house.

Most readers will admit that the endless retelling of the Ramayana and Mahabharata epics still remain their all-time favourites. Adapting these deep-rooted classics by new-age publishers often see the use of latest technology—sharper, cleaner and refreshing strokes of Ram, Lakshman, Sita, Hanuman and their clan.

Jaya Bhattacharji Rose, International Publishing Consultant. Pic : Shekhar Yadav

Sarnath says graphic novels should reflect both mythology and reality. “There’s a lot of mythology that is created in real life, whether in politics or society. At the same time, mythology could be an inroad into understanding contemporary life. Comics with their multi-layered narratives and natural ability to play with parallel realities have a natural advantage,” says the author-illustrator, who was shortlisted for the Abraaj Group Art Prize 2015 at Art Dubai.

Even as some graphic novels look for inspiration from our yesteryear ethos, some look at present-day pathos. New York-based filmmaker Ram Devineni took up the case of rape survivors in his first novel, Priya’s Shakti. “I was in Delhi in 2012 when the December 16 gang-rape happened,” he says. “I participated in the protests that followed. I was horrified. The problem of sexual violence in India was not a legal issue, it was a cultural problem. For about a year, I travelled around India and Southeast Asia learning from poets, philosophers, activists, talking with rape survivors.”

During his journey, Ram realised how difficult it was for them to seek justice. On a parallel journey of understanding, he began researching Hindu mythology and discovered the many rich stories. “Often a disciple would call on the gods for help during dire situations. So I began formulating a new mythological tale where a mortal woman and rape survivor seeks help from Goddess Parvati. I wanted to create a new Indian superhero, Priya, who is a rape survivor,” he adds. What he did not expect was the stupendous success of the novel, which received so much acclaim that the World Bank approached them for Priya’s Mirror, an edition on acid attack victims. It was released in India in October at the Mumbai Comic Con.

Ram chose to work in this genre because he grew up reading Amar Chitra Katha, which influenced him hugely. “I first learned about Hindu mythology through their comic book series. Comics are an important part of our culture and hugely popular with teenagers and young adults,” he says. Ram explains how comic books have entered the commercial mainstream, major Hollywood releases are based on comic book characters and they fetch enormous box office returns. “Comic book characters like Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman have become modern mythological icons. Other stories such as Art Spiegelman’s Maus address important historical events. We are using existing constructs that are familiar to everyone in India, but presenting them in a fresh and original way.”

Ram Devineni, Author and Filmmaker (second from left) with his creative team

Gaysi Zine, compiled by editor Priya Gangwani and art director Sreejita Biswas (aka Solo), is another success story that shocked conservative India. The country’s first graphic anthology with over 30 contributors visualising the gay Indian community is wacky, vibrant and brilliant. Solo from Bengaluru says she did not imagine its raging success. “The response was amazing. Starting from the successful crowdfunding and ending with the books selling out in the blink of an eye, it was quite the journey to be a part of,” she says. “When Gaysi Zine came out last year, a friend’s father called me to apologise for being homophobic and turning his daughter out of the house when she came out as a lesbian. That has been the biggest achievement for us.”

The making of a graphic novel involves a lot of hard work and intelligence. “It’s a great way to communicate with people across all ages, with people who can’t read, and overcome language barriers. It’s the cheapest way to make a three-headed alien having an epic space fight to come to life,” laughs Solo.

Rashmi R D, Editor, Blaft Publications. Pic: Sunish P Surendran

While many were exploring graphic novels to break stereotypes, Orjit used this format as a journalistic tool. He tried to narrate the voices lost in the 24-hour breaking news format with First Hand: Graphic Non-Fiction from India (2016). Vidyun Sabhaney, 29, who co-edited the book with Orijit, says: “First Hand came to us as an idea two years ago. We felt there were hardly any comics that told contemporary narratives. Comics that told urgent stories of the odds against which lives are being lived, and the events and forces that are shaping them, were missing. This understanding most often comes to us as reports, or in the form of books, but rarely as a visual story that can bring them alive with details, characters, location, etc.”

The Girl Not from Madras (perhaps the most poignant story from First Hand) takes you straight to the bricks of the police station, reluctance, apathy, et al. The Gurgaon-based writer recalls that when they put out a call for entries for the anthology, they got over 50 applications, many with preliminary sketches, storyboards and plots.

Vidyun agrees. “The community of creators is growing very quickly and attracting people from different disciplines. First Hand is an example of that. This is very different from how it was five years ago, when there were just a handful of comics creators. The medium is being used for many purposes—conventional storytelling, personal catharsis, documentation, education, etc.”

Graphic novels and comics have always sold well in India, says Jaya Bhattacharji Rose, an international publishing consultant in Delhi. “Characters such as Bahadur, created by Aabid Surti, are very popular. It is a familiar form of storytelling, and the Indian audience is receptive to it,” she says. But graphic novels require heavy investment. “When released, it must be affordable, and a substantial number of units must sell. It’s a Catch-22 situation. There is a lot of potential in this genre, but publishers will be wary of experimentation unless it is a tested author.” She cites Malik Sajjad’s Munnu as a remarkable graphic novel that narrates the story on J&K, with the Kashmiri Hangul stag anthropomorphised. “That’s an incredibly powerful book, but it was not published in India, though it was distributed locally,” she adds.

Sarnath points out that the international publishing world for graphic novels is dominated by the white middle-class male, with some designated spots for women, coloured writers and some easy-to-digest identity politics. The politics it represents is not as sophisticated as the form. “The story is different in India. A lot of bright people do graphic novels. It’s a better bet to work within the Indian sub-continent and look for markets outside the West, such as South Africa, Egypt and other non-Western regions,” explains Sarnath.

While working on the Gaysi Zine anthology, Sreejitha says she found that people want to read and know more. “The awesome thing about comic book lovers is that we actually want to keep reading new stuff from new places by new people.”

Vidyun Sabhaney, Author. Pic : Shekhar Yadav

There seems to be a tremendous amount of illustrated stories in the graphic novel format, straddling a variety of genres, both fiction and non-fiction, for a varied age group, from six years to infinity, believes Rashmi R D, 40, editor of Blaft Publications in Chennai. She agrees that comics with fictitious super humans with super powers thrived in the early years. But today, there are some amazing, hard-hitting non-fiction graphic novels for readers available in India.

Blaft Publications’ first graphic novel was Moonward by Appupen, which released in 2009. In 2011, it was selected for the Angouleme Festival, France. Reviewed as vicious, dark and brutally honest, Appupen created the world of Halahala, named after the poison generated through the churning of the primordial ocean and swallowed by Shiva. He brings to light the absurdities, idiosyncrasies and poisons of our own world through his debut novel. “Moonward knocked our metaphoric socks off at so many different levels. The world that Moonward was set in was so off the wall. It was what we wanted to get behind one hundred per cent,” recounts Rashmi. “First, it was Appupen’s art style; the second was that more than 70 per cent of the book was ready.”

Graphic novels have also arrived in the world of education. “The creation of a graphic novel is essentially storyboarding, just like a movie script. This similarity leads to a visual delight for young readers,” explains Girija Jhunjhunwala, 45, director, Campfire Publications, Delhi. Since their launch in 2008, they have published over 100 graphic novels. She admits that Campfire has faced several challenges, of which the first was to find authors, illustrators and editors in India.

“When we started out, graphic novels were a new format and several authors we approached were not able to help. It was an uphill task to find and convince artists to join Campfire, although several young artists that we recruited loved the idea of using their talent for something unique and new,” says Girija. “Booksellers tend to stock graphic novels at the back of shops where customers cannot see them. I am hoping that with the success of events like the Comic Con, the growing reader fraternity of graphic novels will one day convince book shops to bring graphic novels to the forefront in their displays.”

Vijayan agrees and underlines that the world over, graphic novels are an accepted entertainment format and have stunning sales numbers. “In India, there is a slight mental block and we tend to connect kidstuff to reading comics. One picture can convey what a hundred words can fail to. You will be stunned to discover the depth and volume that both comics and graphic novels offer,” he says.

With over 10 of their titles recommended by CBSE and 13 titles recommended by Kendriya Vidyalayas, Girija believes that graphic novels are a suitable medium for engaging young, hesitant readers who may find textbooks boring. “Keeping that end in mind, we have published graphic novel adaptations of well-known Western classics and historical events, biographies of famous persons (Mother Teresa: Angel of the Slums and Steve Jobs: Genius by Design), and tales and legends from Indian and Greek mythologies,” says Girija. “A graphic novel, when used as educational material for young readers, is essentially information disguised as entertainment. In today’s context, time is at premium for the young and graphic novels are indeed ‘instant coffee’ for young readers.”

Like all genres of books, graphic novels also face the brunt of digital revolution. But some use this to up their game. Ram uses augmented reality to elevate the reading experience. “Augmented reality is a major part of our comic book, and by scanning the book with the popular augmented reality app Blippar, you can view animation, real-life stories, and interactive elements pop out of the pages,” he says. Working on his next, Priya and the Last Girls, with Apne Aap Women Worldwide, an NGO working to end sex trafficking, Ram hopes to define new frontiers of integrating books, exhibitions, and public art with augmented reality.

For a nation that grew up with stories and later movies, it makes perfect sense to merge the grandeur of film-making with the in-depth storytelling nature of graphic novels. In the past, the likes of the Bollywood blockbusters Sholay—and more recently, Shivaay—were made into graphic novels.

The upcoming graphic series Baahubali: The Lost Legends is set before the Kalakeya invasion depicted in the movie, when Baahubali and Bhallaladeva as young princes of Mahishmati vie for the crown. The animated series will explore characters such as Prince Baahubali, Bhallaladeva, Kattapa and Sivagami as well as a dozen new characters as they reveal hidden secrets for millions of fans. The series will follow the relationship between the two cousins as they journey across the kingdom of Mahishmati, solving hidden mysteries, overcoming ancient terrors and defending their people from danger.

Sharad Devarajan from Graphic India says, “When Rajamouli revealed the depth of the characters and the world he created, we knew fans would love to go deeper than what could be shown in the films; comics and other transmedia storytelling experiences would allow for these opportunities. In the same way that Star Wars reshaped US cinema and sparked transmedia in the West for generations thereafter, Baahubali will be the pivotal moment we see that similar change emerge here in India.”

Are creating graphic novels an exciting and lucrative career option? “Graphic novelists are paid the same as any author’s royalty, usually 8-12 per cent of the book price. However, it’s a financial nightmare if you want to live on your books,” reveals Sarnath. Sreejita adds: “The payment a graphic novelist receives entirely depends on the publisher. Without a guild to help creators, there are no fixed rates. They can make as much as `5,000 for a page
or as little as `100.”

There’s another factor that publications consider. “In Blaft Publications’ early years, we’d get a lot of queries from people who had ideas and concepts for comics and graphic novels. Having an idea and having a volume of completed, original work ready to present, that’s crucial deciding factor.”

Characters Who Connected With Us

From super heroes to chaiwallahs, here are some characters who struck a chord with readers while presenting stories from India

Corridor
Sarnath Banerjee
Jehangir Rangoonwalla (dispenser of tea, wisdom, and used books), Ibn Batuta (looking for obscure collectibles and love), Digital Dutta (who lives in his head, torn between Karl Marx and an H1-B visa), and Shintu (the newly-wed).

Suppandi
Amar Chitra Katha
Suppandi is the most popular toon of Tinkle Comics, created in 1987. He is based on the Tamil folklore character chappandi, who is a total goof and makes you laugh with his silly antics.

The Gaysi Zine

Priya Gangwani and Sreejita Biswas
A collection of stories written and illustrated by artists captures the truth, from personal experiences, expressing values that are felt deep down to the core.

Munnu: A Boy From Kashmir

Malik Sajad
Seven-year-old Munnu presents an insight into everyday life through evocative graphics.

Astra, the Immortal

After creating superhero Chakra with the legendary Stan Lee, Graphic India will recreate the magic with Amitabh Bachchan. The story revolves around mythical superhero Astra, played by Amitabh’s animated version, taking on supervillains to rule the galaxy.

First Hand: Graphic Non-Fiction
From India, Vol 1
Orijit Sen and Vidyun Sabhaney
Gujarat riot victims as first-time voters, trafficking and forced marriages in Haryana, a vegetable vendor from Kolkata who becomes a world-renowned artist, and 20 other stories.

Odayan
Suhas Sundar and Deepak Sharma
Odayan is a superhero with a dark side in the backdrop of feudal Kerala. He amasses wealth and builds a criminal empire. The green Kathakali-inspired mask strikes closer to home in both the visual realm as well as contextual.

Moon Mountain
Saurav Mohapatra and Sayan Mukherjee
The story set in 1909 is about Shankar, a middle-class Bengali village boy who is expected to get a job and take on more responsibilities. But Shankar’s heart is full of wanderlust and he wants to venture into the wilds of Africa.

Nirmala and Normala
Niveditha Subramaniam and Sowmya Rajendran
Nirmala and Normala are twins separated at birth. One becomes an actress, the other a normal person. Their lives run parallel to each other, bringing out the stark contrast between reality and movies.

3 December 2016