My name is Ambika. I am an accidental illustrator for children’s books and it has been the happiest unplanned journey of my life. I was lucky enough to have worked on four books with reputed publishing houses in India. I got to read and re-read some superb stories for children and imagine them in art for readers. I woke up one morning with a great joy in my heart and I knew this is what I have always wanted to do. Imagine and draw out funny, fascinating, colorful, beautiful, memorable stories for as long as I live.
For inspiring and encouraging me to do this, I have to thank my amazing mother, Kala Sambasivan. She is a teacher, a storyteller, writer and creative powerhouse all-rolled-in-one. She took my sister and me into the magical world of stories and we never left. She spun tales over dinner, during long family trips, at restaurants and at school. She is our own Shah of Blah. She is still pulling stories out of thin air and for the last five years she has been sharing them with children through India’s national newspapers.
My mother is the reason I love books. As a child, I was a bookworm extraordinaire. I grew up, like most kids in India, on a staple diet of stories from the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. We listened to our grandmother’s funny folk stories, promising to eat our food before it got cold. I owned copies of the Jataka Tales and the Panchatantra, although I admit, I don’t remember any of the little moral tales they are filled with. My childhood friends included Swami, Tenali Raman, Birbal and Kaliya. And there was those magical years when my parents subscribed to a children’s magazine called Target. I distinctly remember the sheer joy of discovering a rolled up copy in the postbox and re-reading each issue till the next one arrived. However, wonderful as these stories were, they formed a very tiny part of my reading experience. The miniature library near home that I frequented was stocked with Nancy Drews, Hardy Boys, Agatha Christies and Alister Macleans. In the recent years, while the Enid Blytons have been replaced by Judy Blume and the ubiquitous Potter, the universe of books continues to be dominated by a single cultural narrative. This “white-washing” of stories is only exacerbated when families of South Asian origin raise their children abroad. In the States, for example,you would be hard-pressed to find protagonists of color in mainstream bookstores. While there are fantastic efforts by smaller presses to bring cultural diversity to storytelling, the book market has become alarmingly commercial. The market has been neatly boxed into different categories; infant books that show good, happy babies doing what their mamas tell them, princess books in pink for sweet little girls, trucks /robots/ dinosaurs for tough little boys, magic and wizardry for pre-teens, topped off by vampires and steam-punk for teens. Books are called “products” nowadays and products sell best when they are standardized.
This saddens me enormously. I want my children to grow up with stories that hold up a mirror to their own lives and that connect them with their past and present. I want them to know the land of their ancestors and give them a glimpse into its intricate culture. To recreate some of the magic of my own childhood in the distant country they will grow up in. Yali Books is my way to make that dream a reality. An attempt to share my mother’s amazing tales with her grandchildren and children around the world. An independent publishing house that will not only showcase our stories but expand to include other writers and artists who can open a window to South Asia. Yali will be home to all kinds of strange, weird and wonderful books, not products. There will be sights and sounds, people and places from India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bhutan, Nepal and Bangladesh. Books that will make children and their parents laugh, cry and dream. Stories that become a part of them as they grow up and grow old.
I am nervous, excited and hopeful. Join us on this journey and together we can nurture this into a thing of beauty. Let’s begin!