Is Indian young adult literature set to soar?

Jan 12, 2014, 12:00 IST | The GUIDE Team

You'd be hard-pressed to come up with an Indian equivalent of David Levithan, discussing young adult sexuality maturely, or an Indian author writing about violence and death as compellingly as Sally Gardner does

You'd be hard-pressed to come up with an Indian equivalent of David Levithan, discussing young adult (YA) sexuality maturely, or an Indian author writing about violence and death as compellingly as Sally Gardner does. But the tide is slowly turning. Bolder, better YA literature is sniffing air ” pacy mythological thrillers, complex graphic novels, stories set in conflict zones are on offer. Is YA lit finally finding a strong, indigenous voice, wonders Kareena N Gianani

If one were to walk into 15-year-old Teesta Rawal’s room a yearago, and crane the neck at her bookshelf, one would certainly have heard much grumbling. Most of it coming from Rawal, of course.

"I began reading YA literature by Indian authors mainly because I was reviewing books for a publisher over the past two years. Most of them were horrible! They were either too grown-up, devoid of any idea about what the inside of a young adult’s mind is like, or they tried too hard. The worst ones were those which emulated Chetan Bhagat,” she exclaims.

Rawal says she grew up on Roald Dahl and moved on to Gerald Durrell (My Family And Other Animals), Anthony Horowitz (author of the The Diamond Brothers series, the Alex Rider series, and The Power of Five series) and Satyajit Ray (Rawal’s favourite is Barin Bhowmick, A Kleptomaniac Who Is Taken Back Several Years By A Chance Encounter On A Train). “Last year, I noticed that Indian publishers were churning out books for young adults and picked up Techie at Heart by Karthik Subramaniam. There was no plot, it was simplistic and did not mirror my life at all,” she says.

YA readers Durga Mhatre and Shariva Parulkar give Indian YA fiction a shot while browsing through a bookstore. Pic/Rane Ashish

Last year, however, a friend introduced Rawal to books such as Facebook Phantom (a supernatural thriller penned by a 15-year-old author) and Anuja Chauhan’s works. “I was surprised at how good the quality was. More so, these books weren’t trying too hard,” she adds. Another young adult (YA) book, Jobless Clueless Reckless, by Revathi Suresh, impressed a most discerning Rawal because it was a coming-of-age-novel which understood that the life of young adults is just as complicated, confused and colourful. “Now, I can say I have some hope from Indian authors attempting YA literature. At least they are taking risks to explore their target audience’s mind,” says Rawal.

I noticed that Indian publishers were churning out books for young adults and picked up Techie at Heart by Karthik Subramaniam. There was no plot, it was simplistic and did not mirror my life at all. Braving on, I recently picked up Jobless Clueless Reckless and Facebook Phantom, and hope has been restored. I know there are some Indian authors out there who are taking risks and writing plots which mirror a young adult’s life.
Pic Courtesy/Nikhil Rawal

Teesta Rawal A 15-year-old Bandra resident who recently began reading YA literature by Indian authors
Sayoni Basu, who co-founded the publishing house, Duckbill with author-editor Anushka Ravishankar in 2012, says YA literature as a category existed since the 1970s, and came into its own internationally in the 1990s. “In India, it was only after 2000 that books were specifically published with the ‘YA’ tag.” Paro Anand’s No Guns At My Son’s Funeral (which went to reprint just four months after its release in 2005) was one of the first books to be published with an explicit YA branding, remembers Basu. “A couple of years later, there were a slew of really good ones: Siddhartha Sarma’s The Grasshopper’s Run, which won the first Crossword Children’s Book Award in 2009 and Samit Basu’s Terror on the Titanic, for instance.

In 2005, when my YA book, No Guns At My Son’s Funeral, which was about the life of a 14-year-old terrorist in Kashmir, was going for print, I was full of trepidation. We even changed the title to the much-watered-down Kashmir, The Other Side Of Childhood, got covers printed, then went back to the original name. Today, YA writing is ready to take on bolder issues, and I do not feel as nervous. My next book is a YA graphic novel with a rather non-linear, complex plot, and I am not worried at all. Paro Anand, author

Meanwhile, international titles, including the Harry Potter, Twilight and Hunger Games series, continued to hold YA readers in thrall. Indian YA fiction is yet to see a book truly deal -- and deal thoughtfully -- with tricky subjects of sexuality, violence and death. We don’t, for instance, yet have an Indian equivalent of Maggot Moon, a dystopian YA novel, in which author Sally Gardner unflinchingly writes about death and violence.

In 2009, when I began writing The Wordkeepers trilogy (a mythological YA thriller), many people asked me to ditch mythology and stick to adventure. Until two years ago, the assumption was to move to ‘proper’ English yet keep the Indianness aside. But that’s changing -- YA literature in India is finding a most unique, endearing ‘Indian’ voice. Fewer authors are imitating their Western counterparts. Now, I’d like to see books which nudge issues like sexuality, race and skin colour. Jash Sen, author of The Wordkeepers trilogy

Risks underway?
That, however, does not mean that Indian YA authors and publishers are not pushing the boundaries. Last year, Duckbill published YA poetry for the first time -- The Right Kind Of Dog by Adil Jussawalla dealt with war, famine, even murderous thoughts. Red Turtle published Guns On My Red Earth by Swati Sengupta, which dealt with Naxalism.

Ameya Nagarajan, editor, Inked (Penguin’s imprint dedicated to young adults) says Indian writers attempting YA literature seem to have understood the thumb rule -- negotiate this complex space without talking down to your audience, and that, by itself is half the job done. And take more risks.

“If you had asked me two years ago, I would have had to tell that my favourite YA titles are international, because they are no holds barred. The YA segment is very commercial, so it has a lot of scope, but sadly, we didn’t have writers to match these expectations. That is changing now -- I was surprised to even find the manuscript of Domechild (a sci-fi thriller by Shiv Ramdas) in my inbox last year. We are gradually moving on beyond the regular themes of romance and fantasy, and doing that well. This year, for instance, I’m thrilled about this very funny graphic novel about twins separated at birth, one of whom has a very Bollywood life, while the other’s is very normal. I’ve also got a school story about teenagers in an international school and all the things they get up to,” says Nagarajan.

The key change, feels Nagarajan, has come about because people are hearing about ‘unusual’ themes in books and a market is being created in India. “It’s taking a while for the readers to invest in a book by an Indian. We have been told we should try and use non-Indian pseudonyms for some of our international level YA, for example. The problem is the general feeling that Indian’s can’t really manage to write at international standard in English. The solution of course is very simple, find the people whocan and then publish them. The market will learn,” she explains.

Caught in conflict
For Canadian author Rukhsana Khan, this evolving, (almost) swashbuckling market has meant the release of a book which she thought would not even see light of the day. In 2009, Khan, who was born in Peshawar, Pakistan, wrote Wanting Mor, the story of a 14-year-old girl who lands up in an Afghan orphanage because her father abandons her at the marketplace. “It is based on a true life story, and I knew I wanted to put it down. But I wondered whether young adults would want to read about it.”

The book did release in Canada and sold very well, but Khan missed out every important award in Canada, which left her disappointed, at least initially. Last year, when she met Ravishankar and Basu, she was taken aback at their interest to publish the book in India. More so, Wanting Mor is now the first book in the NOW series (Not Our War), which will publish titles about young adults and children growing up in conflict areas across the world.

Khan, author of 11 children’s and YA titles, has written about suicide in her previous book, Dahling, If You Luv Me, Would You Please, Please Smile?, and says that the fact that her books have been reached Japan, Australia, Sharjah, even Alaska, is a sign that the YA space is ready for a change. “Nothing is off limits. If as a parent or publisher, you think you are sheltering this age group by not making them read some themes, you’re really oblivious,” smiles Khan. The only thing she considers a no-no when writing for young adults is glamourising negative behaviour. “I have had characters in my books who have large breasts, I’ve used a cuss word, I’ve even dealt with sexual manipulation between a teenaged couple. But all with a consciousness that someone out there might take all the wrong things from it, and my style will have to walk some very tricky ground,” she explains.

Author Paro Anand illustrates this shift with an experience of her own writing career. In 2005, when No Guns At My Son’s Funeral, was just about to go to print, she had serious doubts about whether the title would work for young adults. The publishers even went ahead and printed covers with a more watered-down title, Kashmir, The Other Side Of Childhood. “We went back to the original title eventually.

I don’t see that sort of trepidation striking me when I write a YA novel. Some very broad-minded school principals suggested I raise the age of a minor girl sexually involved with a character in the book. I did it, and that’s again something I don’t think I will need to do today. We have Ranjit Lal discussing female infanticide for young adults, we’ve seen books on war, even Naxalism -- so I think we are in a good space now.” Her next book, to be published by Nova, is a graphic novel for young adults, only the second of its kind to be released in India for this segment.

Anand has penned Two in collaboration with Swedish writer Örjan Persson and calls it a “hyperreal, magical, fantastical graphic novel about an Indian boy and a Swedish girl, told from two different points of view”. “I am not putting it down very well but it is a rather complicated book!” she laughs. “I wouldn’t have imagined finding a publisher for this, and so much muscle power being put into a graphic novel for young adults even five years ago,” says Anand.

Boys and sexuality
Publishers, writers and YA readers call this phase ‘growing up’, and they expect much trial and error, and very tricky times ahead. There’s much to be done, and a marketing model to be cracked for such a tricky segment. Out-reach programmes in schools are too uncool, young adults aren’t seen thronging bookstores like their younger counterparts are, and they’d rather be seen online than anywhere else.

Little wonder then, that Lubaina Bandukwala, commissioning editor at Nova, Scholastic’s young adult imprint, feels that experimentation with writing will only have to intensify if India wants the winning formula when it comes to young adults. “Our styles are uncompromising now, we aren’t afraid to explore darker stuff in YA novels. YA readers are few and discerning, and you cannot mess it up. But what’s encouraging is this -- a few years ago, you could only name a few authors who wrote promising, edgy YA lit. Now, we have Kanika Dhillon, Sampurna Chatterjee, Jerry Pinto jumping on to this. And writers are not hesitant to write anything,” she says.

Nagarajan, too, has a list of to-dos she has chalked up for this year. “I found no good books with boy protagonists in the YA space in India, so that’s something I am looking out for. And the next thing is writing well about sexuality, because that’s one reality we cannot afford to ignore. My favourite, even today, is David Levithan’s Every Day. It negotiates sexuality so beautifully.I wish to read and publish more Indian authors experimenting with this theme. You don’t need a song-and-dance routine to discuss this subject. Just let it flow,” says Nagarajan.

‘Yet to soar’
The young adult category has grown immensely in the last 15 years thanks to the Harry Potter mania that had swept kids and adults off their feet across the world. Books such as the Twilight, Hunger Games, Narnia, Veronica Roth series, Heroes of Olympus series and Alex Rider series have pushed the sales numbers.

YA writing by Indian authors is at a nascent stage yet. It is a fairly new genre that is coming up now. Publishers such as Duckbill, Nova and Inked are just about taking off. Over the last quarter, books such as Wanting Mor (Duckbill), Seventeen and Domechild (Inked) and What Happened to Regina That Night (Nova) have contributed to the sales in YA writing, but they are yet to catch up with international titles.

Kinjal Shah, COO, Crossword Bookstore

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