The Harry Potter series is a huge hit, but kids here are starved of true Indian fantasy fiction, says Amrita Talwar
Author J.K. Rowling’s books on the boy-wizard have proved to be a bestseller time and again. Looking at the pre-release hype the latest book, “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows”, has created, one might just think that this time it’s going to shatter its own records. However, the Indian publishing industry’s efforts at creating a market for children’s fantasy fiction has not even achieved half the success. What are the reasons? Is it the cost factor, lack of fresh concept, clichéd presentation, or is Harry Potter so exceptional that we can’t dream of even coming close?
“Harry Potter series is a brilliantly written crossover fiction. The characters and concept are fresh and crisp. The marketing strategy is simply amazing and the film has helped too,” says Karthika VK, Editor-in-Chief, Harper Collins. She adds, “In India we lack good children’s fantasy and mistake folktales for fantasy. Either the stories are too long or are too moralising. Wisdom is distilled into a story. We have to get out of the deeply religious, didactic and sometimes jaded mode and create stories which are fun. The children need more than magical carpets to tickle their reading appetite.” Harper Collins is translating “Chronicles of Narnia” in Hindi and soon would be launching their children’s publishing programme. “We are reading manuscripts and would ensure that they have all the ingredients required for a good fantasy story.”
To say that we lack good fantasy fiction is wrong, says Wisdom Tree’s Shobit Arya. “Aren’t Ramayana, Mahabharata and Amar Chitra Katha fantasy stories too? Isn’t Hanuman as agile as Potter? Unlike Potter, Hanuman can fly without a broom and is brave and cute too.” But he feels that Indian publishers and readers should accept that Harry Potter is not only an exception but a phenomenon. Publishing houses worldwide have created books in the same genre but they too haven’t matched its success. Arya says that publishers in India are stuck in a time warp. “We are not able to bring ourselves out of value-enhancing tales. We have to empathise with children and step into their shoes to write a book. Not bring our personalities into it. We have to understand the mindset of young adults.”
Everything comes down to packaging and producing a book. Many feel that a better marketing strategy by publishers and agents would help the Indian books.
Most books of Indian folktales are also focussed more on the ‘educational’ aspect. This does not capture the imagination of youngsters, who associate it with ‘tradition’ – translate ‘passé’. The lack of good translations and niche type textbook collections might also be a factor.
According to storyteller Nupur Awasthy, “One needs to thank J.K. Rowling for awakening our children to the power of the written word although she has used the usual devices like magic, charm, loyalty between friends and victory of good over evil.” For her storytelling sessions she says, “I would introduce Harry Potter to children and then take them to our traditional tales.”
All said and done, publishers in India are trying hard to revive fantasy fiction. “At Katha we are bringing together today and yesterday and making it interesting for the young reader. From the selection of manuscripts to the layout designs and illustrations we add a fresh perspective to the rich heritage that we have,” says Yasmin Rahman, Editor, Katha. Katha would soon be releasing “Pokiri Parrot”, a fantasy travel story of a little girl and Pokiri the parrot. However, most publishers feel that they don’t have the freedom to experiment with design, paper quality or even to “break the frame” as foreign publishers do. Indian books, particularly for children, have to be affordable if they are to make any difference. Even so, most publishing houses in India are making and breaking new paradigms everyday with all their limitations.
Says Arya, “It’s heartening to know that there is a lot of experimentation going on in terms of story, illustration, layout and presentation with publishing houses coming out with interesting and exciting books for children. The trend is definitely changing, for the better.”