Ask any kid, to choose from TV, books or gizmos. You’d be excused if you imagined that the answer would be anything but books, right? Wrong. If numbers are a yardstick to go by in these PlayStation-inspired times, all of us in Mumbai are in for a pleasant, welcoming surprise. A week ago, a friend in the bookstore business shared a reassuring nugget of information. Contrary to popular perception, Mumbai’s kids actually read.
Not only do they read, but also the fact that children’s titles were the top grosser (36 per cent) in terms of unit sales across Mumbai’s largest bookstore chain deserves more than a full-throttled hurrah. Before the naysayers come to the party, hammer and tongs, one must look at it from a wide-angle lens and lay bare a few facts. Let’s face it — a huge volume of this traffic is generated thanks largely to the paraphernalia that most bookstores come padded up with. These “value adds”, if I might dub them, for want of a better term, tend to extend the attention span of the kid inside a bookstore and voila! the shopping bag is stuffed with not just Harry Potter, Amar Chitra Katha and Artemis Fowl titles but also with the latest gizmos, kid-slanted merchandise and uber-chic stationery that stack high up on the weekly aspirational checklist — the bugbear of the urban Indian parent.
How much is one supposed to read into these “healthy” numbers? Purists (dare one may add allegiance to this band until a while ago) might call this dilution an eyewash. However, it’s important to put things into perspective in today’s canvas, take the foot off the pedal for a bit. Remember what JK Rowling did for the young Indian reader, nearly a decade ago? She, almost single-handedly, resurrected a sleeping giant (read: age group), brought the kid back into the bookstore and encouraged him/her to imagine that fantasy, magic and reality could co-exist and more importantly, that it was cool. The book lover was spotted again, almost overnight. At the time, few were willing to give it a chance. A passing fad, they said.
Today, the Harry Potter series remains one of the largest selling titles of all time, across the globe, and right here, in Mumbai. So, never mind if kids now want more from a bookstore visit. One cannot ignore that these days, we are dealing with a constantly evolving, ever-demanding, impatient species. Sensing this mood is an ever-growing army of Indian and international writers who are churning out title after another to cater to every whim.
Potteresque plots amid Indian settings, fire-spewing mythical gods and school detectives are staring at us from bookshelves. Fast-blurring lines between the comic book and the graphic novel have helped fuel a reading subculture. Likewise, is the reintroduction of classic comic heroes for today’s young reader, Satyajit Ray's Feluda is a case in point. Publishers cannot be left out of this high-speed chase. Apart from the big daddies, most of who have a separate children’s publishing arm, several indie-tinted titles are creating a stir in the market with their offbeat structure, dark imagery and edgy themes. Kids don’t like cute - another newfound mantra that seems to be working, apparently. Clearly, every player is eyeing for a piece of this fast-rising pie. In the process, if this young, impressionable mind is enthused to walk up to a bookshelf, pick up an Eragon adventure and split the pocket money between this title and the latest PS2 game, so be it. Let the kid be king.
— The writer is Features Editor, MiD DAY