The BS column: The Day of the Grasshopper

(Published in the Business Standard, August 24, 2010; revised to include corrections.)

As Siddhartha Sarma claimed the first Crossword award for Best Children’s Book in Bombay this week, a bunch of writers at the Jumpstart festival were asking a key question: should adults read books for children?

Technically, The Grasshopper’s Run is a children’s book—published by Scholastic last year in the emerging category of fiction for young adults. This is a growing segment of readers in India, and an important one: historically, despite the wide variety of literature for children, we haven’t had much literature for teenagers and young adults, across most Indian languages. But as writers from Paro Anand to Samit Basu know, writing for children or young adults effectively consigns the author to invisibility on the book review pages. This means that kids, and teens, will read Sarma’s book—but adults will miss out.

And that would be a shame. Sarma’s real audience, as he says on his blog, is “all you closet Commando readers”—or anyone interested in the almost-forgotten Japanese siege of Kohima in 1944. “The (Second World) war touched India in many places, but the only region invaded on the mainland was the North-east,” Sarma writes. “It was a time of great misery, great courage and remarkable events. But if you expect much fiction about India and the war, forget it. Mostly it is because a couple of years after the war we began a bigger adventure: Independence and the rest of the jing-bang. People weren’t really into what their soldiers did fighting for another country in some far-off place.”

Sarma tells his story through 15-year-old Gojen Rajkhowa, who loses his best friend and watches his village being wiped out by invading Japanese soldiers. It’s a gritty, unsentimental novel, and though Sarma toned down the violence in deference to his intended audience, he’s researched this as thoroughly as anyone could without being a veteran war journalist.

The last book that successfully crossed over, finding an adult as well as a teen audience, in India was probably Samit Basu’s The Simoqin Prophecies, the first book of the Gameworld Trilogy. But Basu’s book came out at a time when review space was both marginally more generous and more eclectic—to put it bluntly, today’s readers hear about fewer books, in fewer categories, than they did just five years ago.

Very few mainstream magazines or newspapers have room for children’s books, good academic writing, works in translation or poetry any more. So a book like Grasshopper’s Run flies under the radar—even though it works just as well for an adult audience as it does for teenagers, your kids are likelier to find it in their school libraries than you are in bookshops. Why else would adults not read a well-crafted, simply told story about one of the most fascinating conflicts in the history of our country?

Globally, the rise of what’s called crossover fiction has been a trend. At Jumpstart, the conference on writing for children and young adults that was held in Delhi last week, writers Payal Dhar, Paro Anand and Samit Basu discussed the implications of reading (and writing) books that are often mis-classified in the children’s section. Paro Anand, with Weed and No Guns At My Son’s Funeral, has written books that were marked “crossover”, though she pointed out that as the author, she had little thought of categories in mind when she wrote it.

Samit Basu’s Terror on The Titanic (a Morningstar Agency Adventure) continues his interest in fantasy writing—he’s often called a children’s writer because children like his work, but in the UK, he would probably be on the speculative fiction and fantasy shelf. (Disclaimer: Samit is a personal friend, whose work I’ve followed for years.) And Payal Dhar is on the borderline between SF and children’s writing, with her work comfortably straddling both genres.

Curiously, the Indian market is very open to reading crossover fiction from elsewhere—Philip Pullman, Stephenie Meyers’ Twilight series and the Harry Potter books all found adult readers here. The reason we’re not reading our own, homegrown crossover fiction is because they’re invisible to adult readers: promoted chiefly in schools, rarely discussed in the mainstream literary media. Perhaps Sarma’s win will change this—Banzai to him if it does.

The Crossword Awards: Kalpana Swaminathan’s Venus Crossing beat out Amit Chaudhuri and Mridula Koshy for the fiction in English prize. The non-fiction prize was jointly awarded to Rajni Bakshi for Bazaars, Conversations and Freedom and Sunanda K Datta-Ray’s Looking East To Look West, leaving Gurcharan Das’s The Difficulty of Being Good out in the cold. The award for fiction in translation went to Sarah Joseph for Othappu (Malayalam), translated by Valson Thampu.





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