Bringing good books to children – in Telugu

Giridhar Rao

“Good children’s literature is necessary for Telugu’s health” – Suresh Kosaraju

Photos courtesy: Suresh Kosaraju

“Our publishing house, Manchi Pustakam (“Good Book” in Telugu) turns 20 this year. So this is a good time to reflect on what we have been able to do,” says Suresh Kosaraju. What follows is a wide-ranging conversation with Suresh, the Hyderabad-based, 65-year-old publisher of Telugu children’s literature.

“Bala Sahiti”, which was the foundation stone for Manchi Pustakam, was set up in 1990 and published around 30 books. “Bala Sahiti” ceased publication in 2002. From 2002, first as an unregistered organization and then as a registered public trust from 2004, Manchi Pustakam has published 500 books.

How many of those are translations into Telugu?
Oh, about 60-70%, I would say!

That’s quite a lot! Why is the proportion so high?
Our model was Hyderabad Book Trust, which was publishing mostly translations for adults and focussed around progressive literature. We were also dependent on translations because there was a dearth of good original material in Telugu. Also, the books picked up for translations often had good illustrations. National Book Trust published several translated titles in Telugu under their series Nehru Bal Pustakalaya. Children’s Book Trust had only a few titles in Telugu. The other major source of reading material for Telugu children was the magazine Chandamama.

Yes, and Chandamama was very popular, wasn’t it?
Yes, Chandamama had already been around for a long time [since 1947, in fact!]. Their illustrations were good. But the themes of their stories were repetitive, with a clear moralistic, didactic tone. There was hardly any other kind of original reading material in Telugu that might appeal to the young reader. So, we looked around.

And you found the books by Progress Publishers, Raduga, and Mir – all founded in the Soviet Union (USSR) during the first half of the 20th century.
Yes! These were books we too had grown up on. There was a wealth of stories there in English as well as in several Indian language translations including Telugu – in many genres: myths, fantasy, folktales, adventure, historical fiction, and science fiction. Beautifully illustrated and rich absorbing stories! We mostly took stories already published in English and Telugu from Progress Publishers and Raduga.

Was it easy to acquire the permissions to translate the material?
With the collapse of the Soviet Union, some of these publishing houses closed down, but the original publishers were duly acknowledged in our translations and reprints. The only thing was that their Telugu translations needed a bit of language editing. We were also able to improve upon the font type and size because of advancements in technology.

What about the translators? Was it easy to find people who could translate these books into Telugu?
Over the years, we have built a network of translators. Initially, the translations were done without any charge. Now, we are able to pay our translators. We have adopted a rate which is neither too high nor too low. If I have to give a suffix to my name, I would prefer “Translator”: it has become a passion for me!”

What about the illustrations? Were they adapted for the Telugu readership?
As I mentioned earlier, an advantage with the translations was the illustrations. But one of our concerns was their appropriateness. Western children, for example, would be shown bathing in a bathtub! There were quite a few such culturally mismatched illustrations for our context. In some such cases, we commissioned fresh illustrations.

How were these books received?
The Soviet books were a hit! Especially, the picture story books by author, artist, and animator, Vladimir Suteev. Another popular author was Nikolai Radlov. His Picture Stories, with minimal text and a single page of four frames, allowed the storyteller (and the young reader!) to create their own story around the pictures. In all, we published 60 of these Soviet books. What is more, they continue to be popular with print runs of 2000 copies for every edition of coloured books. Some of these books are now in their 6th reprint!

You mentioned “coloured books”. They must be costly?
Yes. The children’s literature market is fairly sensitive to prices. However, Manchi Pustakam as a trust is dependent only on sales and has been viable all these years. This is because, during the initial years, overhead expenditures were minimal and we could build a capital of book stocks. The pricing of books is done on the recurring cost (i.e., printing and binding) and all other non-recurring costs, including royalty, are not considered. Thus, our books are reasonably priced and find a favourable response in the market. We are appreciated both for the content and the price of our books!

What about non-fiction books? Does Manchi Pustakam have those too in its catalogue?
Very much so! About 15-20% of our catalogue is science books. We have been lucky. Authors like Arvind Gupta have readily given us permission to translate their works. His String Games is a collection of fun-filled activities. It was done as a bilingual edition (Telugu title, Daaram to aatalu). Similarly, the popular US science (and science fiction) writer, Isaac Asimov, has a series How Did We Find Out. Dr. V. Srinivasa Chakravarthy of IIT Madras has translated these books for us gratis! He has also translated other popular science books and authored several books for us as well as for other publishers.

All these are translations into Telugu, of course. But you do publish bilingual books, don’t you?
Yes, for younger readers, when there is very little text, it is possible to accommodate both English and Telugu on the same page along with the illustration.

How have the bilingual books been received?
Well, the theory is that if we present the text both in a language that the reader knows (Telugu) as well as a language that the reader is still learning (English), it will help the reader to go from the known to the unknown. But in our experience, this is debatable!

Debatable? How so?
What often happens is that the reader quickly completes the text in the known language and does not bother to struggle with the unknown language! The reader reads in only one language. So, for most readers, the bilingual book may not be useful. The grandparents of Indians living abroad may relate to the story in Telugu, while the grandchildren understand it in English! Apart from this, there is a strong demand from parents as well as government school teachers for these books. So the bilingual books continue to be popular.

You mentioned the category “younger readers” just now. What are the age categories that you use?
Well, roughly, 5-8, 8-12, 12-14, and 14+. But we don’t print the age category on the book. This is because Telugu-reading abilities vary greatly and are changing. We don’t want readers to be guided by some “age-appropriate” category. If they find a book interesting, it is for them!

Tell us a little bit about this changing Telugu-reading ability. What is your sense?
The picture is a complicated one, is it not? On the one hand, we have the ASER [Annual Status of Education Report] surveys telling us that a large proportion of 5th and 7th graders in government and low-fee-paying private schools are not able to read even a 2nd grade Telugu text. On the other hand, there is the situation of Telugu students in high fee-paying English-medium schools. Although they may speak Telugu at home, Telugu reading is disappearing from their lives. Their exposure to written Telugu is very limited. These children are struggling to read even a 50-page Telugu novella; but they will read a 500-page Harry Potter novel in English with ease!

So, it becomes even more necessary to choose compellingly interesting material.
Yes. Fortunately, there are several interesting publishers in the market now. Duckbill, Eklavya, Ektara, Muskaan, Pratham, Tara, Tulika, and many more. But the material available in Telugu is still not enough.

And the situation is likely to remain like this, isn’t it?
Or get worse! One impression I have is that 30-40 years ago, readers were proficient in reading and also identified themselves more easily with characters from other cultures. Now that is less evident. While in real life there is a lot of travelling abroad (for study and work, as well as holidaying) and exposure to media, acceptance of other cultures in Telugu books seems to be shrinking. There seems to be a greater emphasis on Bharatiyata, “Indianness”. So, nowadays, we get asked – “Why are you publishing this kind of non-Indian material?!” This “cultural shrinking” in a global village is a paradox!

But that is not likely to change your commitment to translation, is it?
Not at all! Good children’s literature is necessary for Telugu’s health! New media is constantly providing us with interesting material. Meanwhile, we ourselves have been actively sourcing original writings in Telugu. For example, since 2017, Manchi Pustakam has been collaborating with Telugu Association of North America (TANA). Every second year, we invite entries for picture stories and novels from Telugu writers all over the world (both adults and children). So far, 28 picture stories and 21 novels have come out of that collaboration! So, this is an exciting time to be publishing in Telugu!

On that optimistic note, thank you very much for this wide-ranging conversation, and all the best for Manchi Pustakam, Suresh!

The interviewer teaches at Azim Premji University, Bengaluru. His courses focus on language and literature pedagogy, and language and power in education. He blogs in English on these themes at bolii.blogspot.com. Giridhar has translated the writings of Gandhi and Manto into Esperanto. He is a member of the Akademio de Esperanto. He can be reached at rao.giridhar@apu.edu.in.

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