POINT BLANK - Preaching to the little people: Children’s and YA literature : Arup Kumar Dutta

The future of children’s literature is very grim in Assam and the rest of the region, author Arup Kumar Dutta tells Siba K Gogoi in this interview.

The electronic media is destroying the reading habit. Youngsters today watch television and surf the Internet rather than read books. The visual media has broadened children’s horizons, making it necessary for writers to change their style of writing and adopt more contemporary themes. This is what writer Arup Kumar Dutta has to say, seeing the declining reading habit in the Northeast and elsewhere.

American-born British novelist Andrew Rosenheim has predicted that the printed word will become extinct in the next half-century. Dutta also thinks like Rosenheim and believes that the format of the book will change drastically in the coming decades. This change, he says, will be driven by children drifting away from the written medium. Dutta,the author of such  critically acclaimed books as Kaziranga Trail,The Blind WitnessSmack and The Boy Who Became King, is distressed by young people getting disenchanted with the world of books. He feels that things are not looking good for the future of children’s literature in Assam or the Northeast.

In an exclusive interview with Seven Sisters Post, Dutta speaks about the responsibility of writers in modern times and calls for concerted efforts by authors, publishers, parents, teachers and the government to promote reading habits in the region and to prepare young readers for changes that will come in the world of books.

“The book is not going to survive in its present form. The play of human imagination will be there, but in a different format. The book will be digitalised. The phenomenon of e-book has already arrived. Classroom teaching will change, with computers replacing books. Finally, visuals will supplant words," he says.

According to Dutta, writers, teachers, parents, publishers, the government and educational institutions — especially vernacular-medium government schools — are to blame for youngsters not being keen on reading books.

If parents maintain a culture
of reading, their children will
automatically take to reading books
He warns that authors should not take writing children’s books as an amateurish job, and that they need to adopt a thorough professional approach. “Children and youngsters today are so much exposed to the visual media. Their grasp of global affairs through technology is vast. This has changed their tastes. Writers need to write accordingly,” he says.

Dutta maintains that it is the responsibility of writers and publishers to enhance the quality and quantity of children’s books. “There is no dearth of writers in the region. Publishers are not very keen on bringing out quality books for children because of rising production costs and low returns. 
However, they should not always have profitability on their mind.”

Charity begins at home. Similarly, parents have a big responsibility towards inculcating reading habits in their children. “Parents are the first teachers of children. At an impressionable age, children tend to emulate their parents. If parents maintain a culture of reading, their children will automatically take to reading books. If a household gives more importance to TV, how can you expect children in that household to cultivate the reading habit?”  says Dutta.

The situation at school, he says, further compounds the problem. “Teachers and educational institutions are seen laying more emphasis on textbooks at the expense of extra-curricular books because of the pressure of producing good results.”

What should the government do to improve this situation? “The government is setting up Assam Children’s Book Trust to help publish affordable books for children. It should also extend subsidies to private publishers so that they can bring out good quality books,” he suggests.

On the crucial issue of a writer’s social responsibility, Dutta says, “All writers have social responsibility. Authors of children’s books have to shoulder it to a greater degree as their readers are highly impressionable. A writer has to first know what he or she wants to write about. For example, racial discrimination, class divisions and excessive violence should be left out of books meant for children.”

 “What makes me unhappy is that writers of children’s books have a tendency to preach. If the writer has any message for his young readers, it should come across spontaneously,”  he concludes.
Amid the growing perception that the future of children’s literature is gloomy in the region, Barkweaver, a Norway-based publishing house, has brought out a compilation of folktales from Nagaland at the initiative of a Naga writer. Oluguti Toluguti, a collection of Indian children’s rhymes published by Tulika Publications, also includes rhymes from the region.

Dutta, however, points out that Barkweaver’s books or Oluguti Toluguti does not mean that anything significant is happening in the sphere of children’s literature. “One swallow does not make a summer. Things like grandmother’s tales and rhymes are of little interest to today’s children. Moreover, folktales don’t sell these days. The future of children’s literature is very grim in Assam and the rest of the region,” says Dutta.

On the current scene of children’s literature in the Northeast, he says, “Assam and Manipur have strong traditions of writings for children. Efforts are on to help children’s literature grow in Meghalaya, Tripura and Mizoram. Arunachal Pradesh still has an oral literary tradition.”
Dutta is the president of the North-East Writers’ Forum. He says the forum is doing whatever it can to revive people’s interest in literature.

 “The purpose of the North-East Writers’ Forum is to provide a common platform for writers and translators from eight northeastern states, including Sikkim, to interact and exchange ideas. It also gives an opportunity to aspiring writers to meet and listen to established writers from the region and other countries.”

He referred to the holding of the first Asia Literary Festival by the North-East Writers’ Forum in Guwahati. He says Anwesa is doing a commendable job by promoting children’s books in the Northeast. Anwesa is a book promotion group in the region.
Dutta’s favourite book is his own The Blind Witness. He is happy that it has been printed in Braille in Japan to enable blind students to read it.

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