Celebrating different childhoods, social milieus, cultures and contexts

Meghaa Aggarwal, Manager: Rights and Business Development at Tulika Publishers, shares insights on the diversity of Tulika’s books.

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Meghaa AggarwalFrom geography to society, diversity is the hallmark of India. Tulika was founded in 1996 with the inspiration to provide children stories rooted in this glorious diversity, celebrating different childhoods, social milieus, cultures and contexts. As we finish our 24th year, we can say that our vision has found its voice through the experiences, sensitivity and imagination of writers, illustrators and organisations who share our values.

Diversity and inclusivity through books…

One of our earliest such books was Zai Whitaker’s Kali and the Rat Snake (2000). This is a story about Kali, isolated at school because others see him as strange – his father is a snake-catcher from the Irula community. Having worked with the Irulas, Zai dips effortlessly into their world to raise questions of identity and belonging. In print even today, the book was picked up by an American publisher and, interestingly, sold well for them too!

Among our bestsellers is the late socio-political activist Mahasweta Devi’s The Why-Why Girl (2003), based on her encounter with a feisty tribal girl with endless smart questions. Rinchin, an activist too, has spent many years documenting untold stories of the marginalised in Central India – such as the Paardhi tribals who have been evicted from the forests and are now ragpickers (The Trickster Bird, 2016). Her award-winning I Will Save My Land (2017) is the poignant story of a little girl from the coal belt who is worried that a “monster machine” will eat up her hard-won little patch of land, turning it into an enormous black pit as in the next village.

Fabulist-feminist Suniti Namjoshi’s Aditi Adventures, a series about four friends – a girl, a monkey, an ant and an elephant – overturns stereotypical notions of gender and heroism, and questions the true nature of courage, equality and friendship.

Author-illustrator Kanak Shashi boldly introduces gender identity to picture book readers. This review of Guthli Has Wings (2019) on the portal Gaysi is telling: “Even before I read it, I made my mother read it… who had struggled to understand her child’s gender identity… it’s a book I wish I could have given her when I was little… Perhaps, it would have helped her understand what I could not make her see.”

One of India’s best known writers Jerry Pinto’s highly original Anya and her Baby Brother (2019) takes the idea of inclusivity to another level – literally! Little Anya has been pouting and shouting ever since her baby brother came along, because he’s a “special child” who needs her mother’s special care all the time. A trip into the clouds shows her how there’s something that makes every child special.

Collaborations…

Collaborative work has also added to diversity in our programme, one of the most rewarding being My Gandhi Story (2014). The book arose from a series of paintings by Warli artist Rajesh Chaitya Vangad. Rajesh felt that Gandhi was just like him because he did his own work and was close to nature – an unusual perspective! Animation filmmaker Nina Sabnani designed a visual story from the paintings while Dastangoi storyteller Ankit Chadha wrote the text as a conversation, with Rajesh as the main voice. The result was a multi-layered book on Gandhi.

Nina’s landmark Mukand and Riaz (2007) is a Partition story whose visuals are cloth appliqué work, traditionally done by women in both India and Pakistan. With Home (2009), a stand-up book, she brought diversity to form, brilliantly adapting the traditional kaavad to offer a contemporary, interactive look at identity and belonging. Similarly, Manjula Padmanabhan’s Different series (I Am Different, Same and Different, We Are Different) uses puzzles to celebrate plurality through form, shape and perspective.

Interaction lead to diversity…

Our understanding of diversity has been enriched by interactions with organisations like Anveshi, whose ‘Different Tales’ project gave us Ju’s Story (2009) and Under the Neem Tree (2012). Originally in Malayalam by well-known writer Paul Zacharia, Ju’s Story takes us into the homes of domestic help, while Under the Neem Tree, originally in Telugu by Dalit writer and teacher P. Anuradha, it is a retelling of a popular folktale that reflects the Dalit experience in undiluted flavour.

Taking in fold the differently-abled…

India has more than 20 lakh disabled children between 0 and 6 years old, and several publishers have now begun to feature them. Way back, in 1999, Tulika brought out Sheila Dhir’s Why Are You Afraid to Hold My Hand. Since then we have published several more – including Kanna Panna and Wings to Fly with the support of Parag (Tata Trusts), in collaboration with Chetana Trust that works with visual impairment.

Languages lead to diversity…

Diversity in our programme finds wings in multilingualism. Almost all our picture books are published in English, Hindi, Marathi, Gujarati, Bengali, Tamil, Malayalam, Kannada and Telugu – sometimes other languages too. Working with multiple languages opens our minds to perspectives we would have missed had we published only in English. It makes us sensitive to the diverse readership we are addressing. Many of our books are sourced by NGOs, through whom we reach out to the last child – in government schools as well as tribal, migrant and street children.

In 2019, we won the award for Excellence in Literary Translation initiative at the London Book Fair. In its award citation, the jury observed, “[Tulika’s] ambitious, energetic and inclusive publishing programme is driven by a real social imperative, to promote multilingualism and give children stories in the languages they speak at home. Resisting the absolute dominance of English is vital work, and Tulika does that work with charm and humour.”

Ours, we believe, are books without borders.

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