Reading for Pleasure in Indian Families – Part 1

Reading to me is like drinking water. You have to do it every day, you have to do it in substantial quantities and it is a kind of miracle cure for so many things. I read for pleasure as a kid. I read story books, I read English readers with stories and biographies in them. I read comic books like Amar Chitra Katha and magazines like Tinkle and Archie and even grownup magazines like Readers Digest.


It never occurred to me that reading for pleasure would be a no-no especially among families similar to mine. I wanted to write a single blog post about reading for pleasure. But as I have been talking to mums in India, I realize there is more to talk about and write about.

So in this first post on the topic, I am going to talk about infrastructure of books – both private and public.

When I was growing up, India didn’t have a thriving children’s literature market. There was Ruskin Bond who I loved and I read R K Narayan akazirangand of course the Kaziranga Trail by Arup Kumar Dutta. I loved it so much that I tracked it down again, bought a copy and read it again and loved it as much as I did back then.

As a grownup when I go back to India and meet children in schools or storytelling clubs and equally here in Britian when I go into schools that have a percentage of population with Asian backgrounds, I find that the parents have this monopoly on what their kids read. And they want kids to read non-fiction, school books, general knowledge. Reading for pleasure is second to reading to score marks in exams.

This could be for many reasons. In India, there is no aravirajbsolutely no concept of government run libraries in your own neighbourhoods that anyone could walk in and that caters to all age-groups. In Chennai, when I was growing up, there was Raviraj Lending Library, a private enterprise for readers like me and my mum used to take me 10 km on a bus to the library so I could borrow a month’s worth of comics and books.

When I was in Chennai this time, I visited the Connemara Library, a government library. It was like a fortress. Granted it is like the British Library equivalent with rare collections. But it had the worst rules to make a library a living and breathing place. It was almost like a museum of books where no one was allowed to enjoy it.

Connemara-Public-Library-ChennaiI was asked to leave all my bags and carry only important things into the library. It didn’t have friendly staff and it didn’t have an open door. It was shut and boarded up and was a place where researchers would burrow and make notes and leave. It wasn’t a place that would make today’s child tomorrow’s reader.

But the newspapers say the government is doing a lot about public libraries and are also bringing digital services to the people in small towns and villages.

The other sad aspect of my visit this time to India was the number of bookshops could be counted in one hand. Chennai is ¼ the size of London with ½ of London’s population. So more people live in a smaller area. But the number of libraries and bookshops would be far less in comparison. Landmark was one of the few we all visited growing up and being young adults and it too shut its doors in 2014.

If there aren’t that many bookshops, how would children buy books and read them? If there aren’t libraries where they could walk in and pick up a book and read – how would they learn to enjoy reading? There are storytelling clubs and private libraries coming up – then cost becomes a deciding factor denying poor people the chance to change their lives and enjoy the pleasures of reading.

When I was a kid, school libraries were part of my life. But I was one of the few who studied in a private school. Libraries in government school would have been lacking then and they sure are lacking now. Every year, my Mum collects donations for a local government-run school for under-privileged kids and I always insist they buy books.

2015_slideBook fairs are a very Indian thing – due to the scale I think. There are more people and hence everything is larger than life. A huge place filled with tents filled with books. You go there and you will realize that most people check the price of the books in proportion to its size. In fact one of my friends posted a notice on Facebook that said they are selling books by weight in a second-hand bookstore.

funwithriddlesThat kind of reminds me of a time when I was writing in Singapore – and I was asked to do a book of riddles (I pitched it to be fair). And I was told I couldn’t do a book of 10 or 20 riddles. But a book of riddles with 128 pages. That totalled up to 600 riddles – all original.

One of the reasons picture-books don’t used to sell well in Singapore, is that people don’t want to spend $10 on 32 pages (out of which 4 are the covers.) Of course Singapore has the best national library system and those who couldn’t afford to buy could borrow. That is not the case in India.

In a country where many villages don’t have electricity or primary schools, it is fair enough that reading is of secondary concern. But as a girl who grew up in a lower middle-class family with one breadwinner supporting a joint-family of 8, reading broadened my horizons. I wanted to see the world that I was reading about. I picked up vocabulary, grammar and more by reading and reading and reading. I should point out that I just didn’t read English books. I read Tamil and Hindi books. I read literature in my language too. As long as I was reading I was happy.

Having bookshops and free libraries, having librarians who are widely read, having parents who love reading themselves, teachers who can quote from books and give examples to real-life situations from books make up the fabric of a culture that would enjoy reading.


In many ways, mind you, this is my personal opinion – movies are to Indians that books are to others. Like cricket vs football. People save up money to watch movies. Every small village will have talkies. Everyone can quote dialogue from movies. I’m not saying that is wrong. But I know these movies had screenplays and those who wrote some of these wonderful screenplays are very well-read. But if movies can be made cost-effective for all walks of life, why can’t we do the same with books?

Living in Britain now, I am part of the history where local governments are shutting down libraries to save money. And there is an outcry. I grieve when that happens because libraries have been built and stocked. Librarians have been trained. Don’t let that go. There are so many countries where building a single library is an Everest climb. Protect what you have, Britain. You need well-read citizens tomorrow to run this country.

Cinemagoers watch a Bollywood film inside a tent cinema in PusegaonComing back to India where there are more cinemas being built than libraries – whose job is to build libraries and cultivate reading? Isn’t literacy a worthy goal? Isn’t reading and writing more enjoyable when the reward is that you can read stories, and write them yourself?

Is it the government? Is it the politicians? Is it the schools? Or is the parents?

An Introduction to Writing for beginners

I recently did a session with a group of year 7 students and I shared some of my thoughts about getting into writing.


Also while I was in India this time, many asked me about writing and how to get started. I thought the content I created for the Year 7 group would be great for anyone who wants to begin to write.

So here is a slideshow on some key thoughts on writing, as I see it.

If you find this useful, do share it with others.


World Book Day event at HippoCampus Chennai with Tulika Books

I celebrated World Book Day event with Hippo Campus, Chennai and Tulika Publishers. A hoard of kids were ready to listen to stories, sing with me and absolutely ready to spring with answers to any questions I had for them.

I read from Balu’s Basket and Where is Gola’s Home? and we had a great time singing all sorts of things and drawing everything from house to basket to an eagle when we finished reading and listening to the stories.

I met a lot of young people growing up in Chennai today as I grew up here many decades ago. I got to meet some of my friends and family with their little ones.


My mum and Dad came with me too, proudly commenting on which parts of the session elicited more response and how smart today’s kids are. 


This Year’s Picture Books – The Second One – The Clever Camel

Here is the story of the second book. Couple of years ago, I asked a friend to give me a writing prompt. He said – Camel, folktale.

Camel and a folktale – that meant I have to retell a camel story. So I scoured around for a camel story. Predictably camels are not part of the Panchatantra  and I found many from the middle-east. I wrote a retelling of a camel story as a writing exercise.

I met some writers a few years ago in a writing workshop in Oregon. We kept in touch and we still do. One of them recommended a small publisher Guardian Angel Publishing. They produce beautiful books with diverse themes as a Print on Demand publisher. The book gets sold in Amazon. I did two books with them – an e-book and then a POD.

The e-book was published under their Littlest Angel series – Chasing a Pot of Gold

Then I placed a creative non-fiction – As I Watch – the story of a butterfly. Samantha Bell illustrated it and it is sold on Amazon. 

Earlier this summer, I decided to look up all the writing practice I had done to salvage some stories that had potential. I opened the camel story. I thought that would be great for GuardianAngel Publishing. So I sent a draft to the editor who promptly replied. She wanted some revisions on the scenes. I cut down some more words, added a few more scenes and there the story was accepted the next day. How often do you get to do that?

The Clever Camel is now contracted. I am expecting it to be out next year too. Next year will be a busy year for new books, I think. But I am not complaining.

A red umbrella, followed by a clever camel. It is not often that I get two acceptances within the first 6 months of the year.

Comic Books – Is it serious reading?

I was a child of Amar Chitra Katha – Chitra meaning pictures –  just a coincidence with my name that refers to a star I was born under.

The company that produced Amar Chitra Katha – literally meaning Immortal picture stories – that’s what they were to me.

I read a lot of picture books, story books, even English text books and Readers Digest even when I was 6 or 7. But the books that fed my voracious appetite were the big bound volumes of the comic series ACK.
ACK told mythology stories, stories from India’s culture, history and legends. Every Indian mythology and classics I know today is from these – it was simplified, adapted and there were pictures to guide me. I learnt about heroes, warriors, kings and comedians. I learnt about the history of our fight for freedom.

I did read a lot of western comics too – Archie, Tintin and Asterix. Sounded foreign to have boyfriends, travelling across the world. But it opened up the world to me. I did read a lot of Enid Blyton too and recent figures shows Indian kids still read a lot of Enid Blyton. I learnt about muffins, coves, tides and caves from Famous Five series and my love for detective stories came from the Secret Seven and Nancy Drew series.

In my family, reading was revered.

Somehow  my parents assumed that I was out of trouble because I had a found a secret corner in the house and I had a stack of books next to me, reading. But they didn’t know how it fed my imaginations. I was always in trouble in my head. I was one of the Famous Five or the Secret Seven.

Reading was considered not only safe, but also crucial. Why don’t you read a book? Was my mum’s standard response to “I’m bored.” In a way I think I overdid it –because I lost interest in sports and I regret that still. But on the other hand, at least I developed the love for stories that made me write.

My first manifestation of being a writer was going up to the school assembly of 500 kids and telling a story. I didn’t have a script. All I did was decide on the story with my aunt. I told her the story in my own words and that’s it. I walked up without a paper. Dumb courage. I narrated the story in English – which to this day I can’t decide if it is my first language or second. I didn’t think it was strange for a seven-year old to tell a story to a school full of kids in a second tongue. Well, I still cherish the first prize I won – it was a Enid Blyton picture book.

That’s perhaps another reason for reading when I grew up – schools always gave books as prizes. And in a country where English books were expensive to buy, I cherished every book I received and still have them all.

I digress – lets come back to comic books. Amar Chitra Katha, Tinkle and so many more still do the rounds in India. Now they have a modern format, come in electronic form and have been turned into animation series for both Indian and foreign TV companies.

I used to go to a lending library in town, that had 10s of racks of bound volumes of the comic books. Each book had about 20 issues in them. And I would 10 of those bound volumes for each fortnight and come back to read them after school.

These books taught me characterisation, dialogue and pace. The comic strips encouraged reading box by box – no wonder I am more interested in 12 spreads than a 60,000 word novels still.

Anant Pai the creator of ACK sadly passed away last year. But his spirit lives on as the company is now owned by a private investor. The kids who are now parents and today’s kids still love reading these comics is a testament to a man who had vision and  courage.

Do you read comic books now? Did you read them as a child? Do you let your kids read comics?