New Indian books for young adults
Militant reading for 14 year-olds
By: Dhamini Ratnam Date: 2011-04-03 Place: Mumbai
Some of the novels that will or have already hit bookshelves include stories of a 14 year-old girl sexually abused by her father, Kashmiri children grappling with militancy and an Indian gay adolescent in the US. If you think they make for great fiction, wait till you hear this. They are books for India's young adults. YA literature is all grown up and asking uncomfortable questions
Like any other teenager, Akhila Handa, living in an apartment in New Delhi, would like a room of her own. Her mother is depressed, and her younger brother, mentally unstable. While she loves her dad, she would rather not share her bed with him.
The 14 year-old protagonist of Ranjit Lal's upcoming book is a victim of sexual abuse by her father. Handa deals with the confusion and psychological impact of sexual abuse with the help of her 15 year-old neighbour Samir, the boy she has a crush on.
Published by New Delhi-based publishing house, Young Zubaan, Smitten is expected to be out by the end of the year. Despite its grim subject, the book is aimed at young adult readers, and is a thriller, says Lal.
"We can't pretend that it (sexual abuse) doesn't happen. Such matters need to be brought out in the open, and talked about," says the Delhi-based author.
Earlier this year, two new fiction titles with gay adolescents as protagonists were published in India. In 2012, management author Subroto Bagchi will be out with a book that provides the young Indian reader "an MBA at 16" by addressing questions on business, entrepreneurship, and social responsibility.
Add to that a collection of short stories by author Paro Anand that address the politics of militancy in Kashmir, and what we have before us is a very grown up world of young adult literature.
While 10 years ago, the average teenager growing up in urban India was immersed in fictional amateur detective Nancy Drew's boy troubles, there's no treating today's teenager with kid's gloves.
And authors say it's about time we bring uncomfortable subjects into the open.
"I am not introducing teenagers to something they don't already know," says Paro Anand, author of No Guns at My Son's Funeral and Weed, published in 2005 and 2008 respectively; two titles that also dealt with the impact of militancy on Kashmiri children.
Both have sold close to 12,000 copies, which is probably why Anand decided to return to Kashmir in two of the eight stories in her new collection of short stories for Penguin, set to release in October 2011. Anand has, otherwise, written 20 books for young adults on issues ranging from self-image to bullying,
"In both stories, I depict how the politics of militancy and unrest have an impact on children. One of the protagonists is three years old; the other is a 12-year old girl. Both their fathers have been killed by militants," she says.
The stories are narrated from the child's point of view -- the three year-old, for instance, waits for his father to return from the market every day, to tell him stories about monsters. When his father, who sells cloth from a cart, is killed in an explosion set off by militants, the boy wonders if the monsters have captured his father.
"Of course, his father has been killed by monsters," declares Anand, simply.
"Kids like reading about other kids because they can relate to them better," feels 14 year-old Namrata Narula, a Class 10 student of Vasant Valley School, New Delhi, who picked up No Guns... a few months ago. "After reading that book, I realised what's happening in Kashmir isn't just between adults. It affects children too."
Anand says writing for children is a great responsibility -- it needs to go beyond a nice read. "It needs to be a safe space where children are exposed to issues in a sensible way, allowing them to examine their feelings, express their discomfort and shake off their sense of helplessness," says the former editor of the National Centre for Children's Literature of the National Book Trust.
Even fantasy novels -- the traditional domain of children's literature -- have started asking serious questions and giving up conventional tropes.
In Payal Dhar's fantasy adventure trilogy, A Shadow In Eternity, published between 2006 and 2009, the 12 year-old protagonist Maya Subramaniam finds that "what we usually define as a family is narrow and restrictive and that there is no such thing as 'normal' when it comes to families," says Dhar.
As Maya comes across a same sex couple, her own parents drift apart. The other issue the book depicts is that "families do break up and it can be nobody's fault," she adds.
Children's books are filled with happy families, or families that solve their issues and come together in the end. In Maya's case, this doesn't happen, and it is okay for it not to happen, Dhar feels.
One of the reasons why Prahniika Borkar, a 17 year-old Arts student of Mithibai College in Mumbai, loved Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni's fantasy-adventure trilogy The Brotherhood of the Conch, was because besides its magical elements, the books raised important concerns.
The trilogy follows Anand and Nisha, two 12-year olds living in a Kolkata slum, who join a brotherhood of healers in the Himalayas after helping them retrieve a magical conch. The final book in the trilogy, Shadowland was released in January 2011 and talks about class and economic divide along with ecological concerns. The earlier two titles have sold close to 6,000 copies each.
"I love Harry Potter but The Brotherhood of the Conch is my favourite because I understood its fantasy world," says Borkar.
Young queer adults in the country however, have had little to relate to by way of young adult literature.
That is till Blue Boy and God Loves Hair came along.
Written by American Indian Rakesh Satyal and Canadian Indian Vivek Shraya respectively, both books depict the lives of gay Indian adolescent boys living in white societies.
Blue Boy, which was published in India earlier this year, won the Lambda Literary Award in 2010, while Shraya's short story collection was nominated for the same award this year. God Loves Hair also finds mention in the young adult fiction list recommended for librarians in the United States.
"I wrote this novel with the idea that I would have needed a book like this while growing up," says Satyal, who is now based in New York. "I'm telling a story that is largely untold. It is important to reach younger children while getting through to an adult audience, both equally unaware of the subculture."
The two books also raise other aspects central to adolescent experience -- religion, race and negotiating the terrain of being 'different'. Neither, however, is being marketed as young adult fiction in India.
Part of the reason, explains Queer Ink owner Shobhna Kumar, lies in the age of consent debate, where minors -- or teenagers under the age of 18 -- are not legally allowed to be counselled in matters relating to sexuality.
India's first online bookstore for queer literature lists several books on teenage sexuality -- including Satyal and Shraya's -- under its young adult section, but states that they are only meant for readers above 18. Some of the titles include Why Gender Matters, Straight Parents, Gay Kids and The Orange Book: A Teacher's Workbook on Sexuality Education.
For queer teenagers in the country, however, such books offer a model of normalcy.
"There is no representation of queer teenagers in our media. In such a situation, when a queer teenager reads stories of a boy who is different, it sends them a message 'You will make it'," says Arvind Sharma (name changed), a 19 year-old college student in New Delhi, who read God Loves Hair.
Like alternate sexuality, business too is of interest to young readers.
"We need to communicate with our future to help them build a reasonable view of business. Currently, they have no initiation and hence lack interest in the world of business and entrepreneurship. Some get stereotypical impressions from the media," says Bagchi, co-founder of Mind Tree, a technology solutions enterprise.
After writing three books on business for adults, he decided to write one for children. "They are future businessmen and executives. Today's 16 year-old wants to know about social entrepreneurship and the connection (or the lack thereof) between business and ethics. The idea behind my book is to address this in a manner that treats them as equals."
Your guide to YA fiction. Titles to read (even if you aren't a YA)
Nearly Departed by Rook Hastings, Harper Collins India
Bad Moon Rising, a collection of short stories, Puffins Classic
Growing up Skunk Girl by Sheba Karim, Penguin; and I'm Not Butter Chicken by Paro Anand, Scholastic
Pyre of Queens by David Hair, Penguin India; The Shadow in Eternity series by 19 year old Payal Dhar, Young Zubaan
Conspiracy of Calaspia, written by twins Jyoti and Suresh Guptara when they were 11
Book clubs to get your adolescent reading
>>Sonya Dutta Choudhury runs the Talking Volumes book club in Juhu. Mail her at email@example.com
>>Rupal Patel is behind Creative Reading Book Club in Breach Candy. Call her at 9821174471Poonawala runs one for slightly smaller kids in Cuffe Parade, called Reading Magic. Her new batch starts in June. Call her at 9820102849
From the reader, publisher, author
Vampire fiction annoys me. It uses foul language which does nothing to improve my vocabulary, and doesn't depict young adults behaving maturely.
Mihika Miranda, Class 10 student of Hill Spring International, Tardeo
Young adult literature stands at an interesting point. Many YA imprints are starting not only in India but outside too. This will mean more books in this category, more marketing and sales activities.
Sudeshna Shome, Editorial Director, Puffin and Penguin Young Adult
It (young adult literature) needs to be a safe space where children are exposed to issues in a sensible way, allowing them to examine their feelings, express their discomfort and shake off their sense of helplessness.
paro anand. Her upcoming book of short stories will tackle the impact of militancy on Kashmiri kids
This Holmes is just 14
In June 2010, Macmillan Books published Andrew Lane's reworked version of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes. How, you ask? Well, by turning Sherlock Holmes into a zit-faced angsty 14 year-old. Titled Death Cloud, the novel depicts Holmes as a teenager in the 1860s, who has been sent to live with his aunt at the Holmes Manor in Hampshire during his holidays. He cannot go home since his father is away and mother is ill. His elder brother Mycroft is busy working for the government. Once in Hampshire, Holmes meets his American tutor Amyus Crowe and finds a dead body on the estate during their first lesson together. The rest, as they say, is mystery!
Update: A sequel titled Red Leech was released on November 5, 2010, and four more books are on their way.