In his village Raisana in Rajasthan’s Karauli district, where a large part of his childhood was spent, there were not many sources of entertainment. There were no libraries and the bioscope came only once in a while. Hindi writer Prabhat, 47, winner of this year’s Big Little Book Award (BLBA), remembers the many lonely evenings he spent and the stories that alleviated his boredom. “There weren’t many opportunities to read but there was a rich oral tradition of stories. The women in the families would tell stories; they would sing kathas; in dangals and village gatherings, there would be some form of storytelling or the other. That’s how I came to be interested in stories, and, eventually, in writing,” says the writer, whose first books — Kalibai (Room to Read) and Paniyon ki Gadiyon Mein (Lokayat) – came out in 2005.
The citation of the Big Little Book Award, given every year to a children’s writer in a vernacular language (this year’s chosen language was Hindi), says, “Apart from giving them joy, his writing gives children the opportunity to drown in an ocean of imagination, get engulfed in a vortex of curiosity, and to think and reflect… Prabhat is also known for presenting in his writing, images and experiences of rural life with authenticity and ease.” Aimed for a readership of 5+ years, there is an earthiness to Prabhat’s writing, a simplicity with which he brings to life clever linguistic twists and the contiguity between nature and civilisation that is fast disappearing. In Kaisa Kaisa Khana (Jugnoo Prakashan), for instance, a little girl, Rashi, discovers how the word khana can be used differently in different contexts. In Kya Baat Ho Gayi? (Eklavya), an accordion-style book of free verses, he discusses absence in the human and animal world. In Cycle ka Sapna (Eklavya), born out of a children’s workshop at IIT, Bombay, he speaks of energy conservation and how one can reduce carbon footprints. “Unlike now, there was a time when our proximity to nature meant that we felt at home in it and not threatened by it. So, when I think of my childhood, I remember the loneliness but also the thrill of getting drenched in the rain when it finally came to our arid land. I want to share that joy with children,” says the writer, who is now based out of Sawai Madhopur and works as a teacher trainer with a library education programme when he is not writing.
Much of his experiments with language, says Prabhat, who is equally at ease with poetry and prose, began when he found a nurturing ecosystem in the Hindi children’s magazine circuit. “We moved to Jaipur in my teens with my father’s transfer. There, I came across a bunch of children’s magazines such as Parag and Suman Saurabh that opened up a whole new world for me. I read voraciously and what began as imitative writing slowly came into its own,” he says. The gentle rhythm of his narratives rely as much on his memory of listening to kathas in his village as on those years of relentless reading. The magazines would later go on to kickstart his writing life, too.
A lot of Hindi publishing for children thrives on the initiative of indie publishers. While diversity is their forte, mainstream distribution often becomes a problem. The recognition that comes with awards is a step up in that direction. “It makes you more confident of reaching a wider audience,” says the writer.
Prabhat, who goes only by his first name because he does not want his surname to be a giveaway of his caste and religious identity, says that he has never shied away from touching upon difficult issues — such as separation, anxiety or diversity — in his books. “Children are perceptive enough to reflect on nuances if only one would have discussions with them. They are unconditioned and original in their thoughts. Life, death, separation — they experience it in their own way. I consider my whole life to be my subject. I pick and choose episodes that I think will touch a chord with children,” he says.