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Deepa Agarwal : Young Adult Literature in India

Cover of Ranjit Lal's book. Credit -

Till just a decade ago, the genre of young adult literature in English was almost unheard of in our country. I refer here to the homegrown variety, not modern cult classics like J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye or William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. While many great writers like Tagore, Premchand, Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay and Devakinanadan Khatri penned fiction in the Indian languages that falls into this category, teenagers reading in English had to make the leap directly from middle grade fiction to books written for adults. Since the turn of the century, however,  fiction for the twelve plus age group is fast outstripping the number of titles published for the below twelve one. For this reason, a special feature dedicated to young adult writing by Muse India is most timely.


The very term ‘young adults’ implies that section of readers who are taking their first steps into adulthood and the age group is sometimes defined as between 13-21 years. The question of age group along with others regarding this somewhat amorphous genre have, however, been extensively examined in the article “ ‘Don’t Tell my Mother’: Reading Young Adult Literature in India” by Dr. Panchanan Dalai so I will not delve into it further.


One of the widely accepted requirements of fiction for young adults is that the book possesses a teenage protagonist and deals with issues that concern adolescents. Given that this is a transitional phase in life, many young adult titles are described as ‘coming of age’ books in which the protagonist makes important discoveries about the world around her/him, learns to make her/his own decisions, overcomes serious problems without the help of adults and hopefully ascertains her/his own inner strengths and weaknesses. The challenges children in this stage of life confront like understanding one’s developing sexuality, finding one’s own space in the highly competitive arena of school, dealing with peer pressure, coping with tragedy, disaster and other fear-provoking situations and developing the life skills so important for success are other common themes. One of the important roles such literature plays is that it gives young readers an opportunity to contemplate daunting and uncomfortable issues from a safe distance, define their role in life and learn that each of us possesses abilities to make a difference in the world.


Some indigenous titles published earlier, like R.K. Narayan’s all time favourite Swami and Friends, and Village by the Sea by Anita Desai fit neatly into this category. Arup Kumar Dutta’s Smack (CBT), which appeared in the 1990’s, was another pioneering work that dealt with what was considered a bold theme at the time—drug dealing.


Till quite recently though, such books were few and far between. Now, contemporary teenagers have quite an assortment of fiction to choose from. And nothing demonstrates this better than the three titles selected from India so far for the IBBY (International Board on Books for Young People) Honour list which fall into this genre but are quite different in theme. Devika Rangachari’s Growing Up (awarded 2002) took up the theme of peer pressure in an urban situation, Paro Anand’s No Guns at my Son’s Funeral (2006) portrayed the dilemma of a young Kashmiri boy drawn to terrorism and my own historical adventure Caravan to Tibet (2008) focused on the maturing of a teenager through a perilous journey.


The book that won the Vodafone Crossword Children’s Literature Award last year—Siddhartha Sarma’s The Grasshopper’s Run is another ‘coming of age’ book with an unusual setting—the Second World War in India. Just recently we got the wonderful news that it has received another prestigious award—the Sahitya Akdemi Bal Sahitya Puraskar in English. We are happy to carry an in-depth interview of Siddhartha, conducted by Sunita Baveja, who is herself the mother of a teenage girl.


Indeed, in outstanding young adult titles in English, the coming of age theme recurs over and over again. While Summer Job by Maya Chandrashekhar was an early title actually written by a teenager, the more recent Foxy Four series of detective stories by veteran writer Subhadra Sen Gupta portrays the exploits of a group of teenage girl detectives in the metropolis.  The Confessions of a Listmaniac by Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan, as the title suggests, falls in the category of confessional literature and reads like the real life diary of an urban adolescent—both sweet and bitter. In The Sacred Grove Daman Singh depicts the emotional growth of a strongly individualistic protagonist, displaying a deep understanding of teenage angst. Now or Never by Ramendra Kumar, on the other hand, is a rare venture into the sports arena in which the author takes up the issue of match fixing.


Writers have also examined the situation of teenagers growing up in conflict-ridden areas of the country with great empathy, like the earlier mentioned No Guns at my Son’s Funeral by Paro Anand and its sequel Weed. There is also the fiction that portrays the responses of urban young adults when thrust into a conflict situation like Ranjit Lal’s Battle for No. 19. Faces in the Water is another extraordinary title by Ranjit Lal—a rare work in which a young adult confronts and opposes the gruesome social issue of female infanticide within his own family.


Ranjit’s work has been analyzed extensively in two perceptive articles—Nandini Nayar’s which focuses on these two titles and Devika Rangachari’s piece on the all-important gender issue.


Young adult fantasy has been a huge hit with readers worldwide. Our homegrown fantasies include—among several others—Payal  Dhar’s A Shadow in Eternity and its sequels, and The Beast with a Billion Feet by Anil Menon, a futuristic science fiction shortlisted for the Vodafone Crossword Award 2010. To provide a flavour of Anil’s writing, we are carrying his brilliantly penned and hard hitting short story “Shrieknath”—that projects an extraordinary vision of a teenager’s mind.


More recent fantasy titles include Sonia Chandrachud’s Hilarious Hauntings series and Samit Basu’s Terror on the Titanic, which is also the first of a series.  The Fang of Summoning by Giti Chandra (shortlisted Vodafone Crossword Award 2010) has already made quite an impact with its originality of theme and fast paced plot. Well-known critic Venkatesh M. explores this fascinating book and offers us his insights in a review in this issue.


Violence, dystopias, broken families, drug abuse and teen-age sex including same sex inclinations, are major themes in young adult fiction from the west. While graphic violence features in several of the titles mentioned above, the other issues are rarely tackled. Teenage romance hovers in the background of titles like The Summer of Cool by Suchitra Krishnamurthy, the first in a series on the experience of growing up in a housing society in Mumbai. When I turned 16 by Deeptha Khanna is another such exploration. On the other hand, Maya Running by Anjali Banerjee is set in Canada and is mainly about the protagonist’s strong desire to belong in a different culture, though romance does play a role. Among these, the earlier mentioned The Confessions of a Listmaniac by Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan captures a young girl’s first hesitant forays into the world of romance most successfully. “Indian railways” a short story in this issue, by young author Rajni Gupta, also hits the right note as she poignantly recreates an adolescent’s yearning for romance and her rebellion against authority.


The other short stories on offer are veteran author Swapna Dutta’s delightful “Yesterday”, set in the world of rock music. We also have a translation of a Hindi story which has been much talked about in the contemporary scene—“Pinty’s Soap”—Sanjay Khati’s hilarious but deeply touching account of growing up in a remote mountain village. 


Indian language writing is further represented by Dhriti Ray Dalai’s scholarly analysis of Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay classic Bengali YA title Chander Pahar which has been translated into English as Moon Mountain, while Stuti Goswami introduces us to the  oeuvre of Assamese writer Bhabhendra Nath Saikia.


The remarkable burgeoning of YA in India, a topic highly relevant to this issue, is astutely analyzed by Merin Simi Raj and Jojo Joy N who argue that following global market trends like the Harry Potter/Twilight phenomenon, the reader and the publisher now dictate what an author should write. They also raise the important question, which Dr. Dalai has also discussed, about the dominant literary critical establishment’s indifference towards YA fiction, thus providing us with much to mull over.


Along with articles on literary trends we felt it important to present the publisher’s point of view, which is eloquently expressed in Manisha Chaudhry’s piece on multilingual publishing, fast becoming an imperative in a country like ours. We also have a personal reminiscence by Neerja Sharma, which explores Narayan’s Swami and Friends as a young adult text. 


Where poetry is concerned we have quite a variety, ranging from whimsically philosophic verses by one of our top poets Keki Daruwalla, to charming contributions by schoolchildren. The latter section was specially included to provide space for young talent to express itself. And while the versatile Sampurna Chattarji adds a humorous note with her zany compositions, up and coming poet Shelley Bhoil uncovers the sad and sordid truth of child abuse. Shruti Sareen, on the other hand, captures the essence of those tumultuous teen years in her spirited verses.


We hope you will find all this matter interesting reading and intellectually satisfying. In closing, I would like to thank Keki Daruwalla and Sampurna Chattarji for readily agreeing to let us use their poems, Anil Menon and Sanjay Khati their stories, and Richa Jha for her enthusiastic response to my request. More heartfelt thanks to all the contributors who put so much thought into their articles, and generously offered stories and poems to enrich this feature. I sincerely hope all this combined effort will enable readers to discover more about the little known field of young adult literature in India.


Feature–Young Adult Literature

    Deepa Agarwal : Young Adult Literature in India

    Panchanan Dalai : Don’t Tell My Mother
    Devika Rangachari : Gender as an Issue in YAL
    Jojo Joy N & Merin Simi Raj : IE Fiction in new YA Age
    Manisha Chaudhry : Multilingual Publishing
    Dhriti Ray Dalai : Bhibhutibhushan’s Chander Pahar
    Nandini Nayar : Ranjit Lal’s Survival Fiction
    Neerja Sharma : Narayan’s Swami and Friends
    Stuti Goswami : ‘The Quiet, the Robust and Very, Very Naughty’

In Conversation
    Siddhartha Sarma : In discussion with Sunita Baveja

    Keki Daruwalla
    Sampurna Chattarji
    Shelly Bhoil Sood
    Shruti Sareen

Short Fiction
    Anil Menon : ‘Shrieknath’
    Rajni Gupta : ‘Indian Railways’
    Sanjay Khati : ‘Pinty’s Soap’
    Swapna Dutta : ‘Yesterday’

    M Venkatesh – The Fang of Summoning

Children’s Section
    Aritro Bose
    Gunjas Singh
    Tanvi Banerjee : Tagore’s ‘Dhrishti’

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