Between literacy and reading

The story of one publisher’s ‘new’ genre: the Tamil picture book.

Several years ago, a Madras-based publisher called Tara Books brought out English translations of two Bangla-language works for children, Four Heroes and a Haunted House and Four Heroes and a Green Beard, both by the Calcutta writer Narayan Gangopadhyay. At that time, the publishing house (of which this writer was and remains a part) included a dedicated page in all of its volumes titled, 'What this book does', which placed the particular book in context for the parent, teacher or whoever had bought the title. The page for the two Four Heroes titles suggestively argued that children in India, especially those who are English-speaking, grow up thinking that fun, adventure and fantasy can happen only elsewhere, in exotic foreign climes. With the new translations from local languages, then, the hope was to demonstrate that this need not be the case.

This intent emerged as central to Tara Books' Tamil list for children. Acquainting Tamil-speaking children with worlds that are both familiar and fascinating was deemed important for several reasons. For one, both the Tamil- and English-language textbooks that are used in most Tamil-medium schools today unthinkingly celebrate a flat, middle-class, consumerist 'everyday'. Children in these schools, both in rural and urban Tamil Nadu, end up thinking of this world as a given, an immutable ideal towards which everyone, irrespective of what they want or where they are, ought to gravitate. As far as the child is concerned, this produces a kind of alienation – children do not associate excitement and play with their own contexts. More disturbing, they learn to value education for helping them to move away from these contexts into these more desirable and attractive worlds. It seemed important, then, to create books in Tamil that dealt with the lived, felt and imaginative worlds of the child – and not substitute for it a timeless folk wisdom or the cute certainties of a childhood produced by advertisements and the media.

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Himal Southasian