Why I think audiobooks in regional languages is a game changer


Diwali was just a week away, which meant only one thing in my house: festive cleaning. Four hours into scrubbing, swabbing, dusting every corner, and several unsuccessful attempts to reach the back of the loft to clean, I stumbled upon a suitcase, coated with a thick layer of dust, sitting untouched and unwanted in the loft. Intrigued, I dragged it down, narrowly escaping a shower of spiders.

As I cracked open the bruised, peeling bag, I was met with the familiar smell of old paper and ink, the kind that reminded me of grand libraries with leaping windows, filled to the rafters with voluminous books. Under a layer of what would have been clear plastic sheet then, I found a treasure trove – hundreds of books, from classics to contemporary all belonging to my grandfather.

Among the many books was an early edition of Mrutyunjay by Shivaji Sawant, a Marathi literary masterpiece based on Karna, the tragic hero of the Mahabharata. Several pages were missing, some torn.

I immediately picked up the phone to call my grandfather, to tell him of this relic I unearthed. The phone call was short – Appa, (that’s what I call my grandfather) said he stopped reading a long time ago. His eyes couldn’t take the strain. These books were what kept him company for the many lonely years he spent away from his family to earn a living in Mumbai, he said. He would scrounge books shops, second-hand markets and libraries for Marathi literature, Bengali poems, and Hindi classics.

The thought that my grandfather couldn’t enjoy the rich literature he used to hold so dear was heartbreaking. A professor of history in Mumbai, Appa was an avid reader and a fierce protector of traditions. He was, and continues to be fluent in Marathi, Hindi and bits of Bengali – thanks to his tight group of friends.

As I wallowed in disappointment and a maze of ideas to help Appa with his reading, I remembered that he used to make me read out headlines from the newspaper every morning when I was younger. He loved to stay updated with the world, and listening to the headlines was a better option for him than the endless, noisy TV news debates. It was from this memory that I got my answer: Audiobooks!

I downloaded Storytel, a digital subscription service app that streams audiobooks on your mobile phone. Before Storytel, audiobooks, meant one thing to me – a great collection of English titles, not my grandfather’s strong point. However, Storytel is no ordinary app. I was impressed with its commitment to not just give access to English audiobooks, but also regional languages It has a vast collection of rich literature in Hindi, Marathi, Bengali, Urdu and Malayalam- a great way to reconnect with your heritage.

I browsed through the Marathi titles first and to my surprise and thrill, I found the classic ‘Mrutyunjay’. The sweet, crisp and clear voice of artist Sanket Mhatre washed over me as I listened in, and Shivaji Sawant’s masterpiece effortlessly captured the trials, tribulations and crossroads that Karna found himself at. Within an hour, I downloaded the app for my grandfather and he was hooked, too.

The legendary Pu La Deshpande’s rib-tickling ‘Batatyachi Chawl’, NS Inamdar’s ‘Rau’ and ‘Mantravegla’ were all immediately lined up. A fan of Bengali poems and literature, he tuned in to Tagore’s ‘Kabuliwala’, a smile playing on his lips listening to Hazra and Mini’s conversations. “It’s like reliving the good old days,” he said with a smile.

The fact that the 2018 JCB Prize, one of the most prestigious literature awards in India, was awarded to ‘Jasmine Days’, a Malayalam book by Benyamin, speaks a lot about the renewed interest, enthusiasm and reach of regional language literature and subscribers can’t get enough.

With a 14-day free trial and unlimited access to books, the written word is no longer a habit of the past for the older generation. While many like my grandfather would have regained their love for books through Storytel, the vast collection of regional language audiobooks can open the world of literature to many more audiences. Here’s how

1.     The chances of our domestic helpers, drivers, security guards or local vegetable vendors being able to read and write, even in their own mother tongue, is quite slim. And even if they do, in a country like India, where access to clean water, food and jobs is still a prevailing problem, access to literature is a distant dream. However, while macro problems like water and food needs think tanks and policy makers, all one needs for access to audiobooks is a smartphone. With an app like Storytel, one can start to turn the wheel by introducing regional language audiobooks to people around us who don’t know how to read. All you need to do is search for a title they’d like to ‘read’, and type it in for them if they can’t do it themselves.

 2.     Regional language cinema is booming, with some entering the coveted ‘Rs 100 crore club’. The fact that a Marathi film like ‘Sairat’, which became a runaway hit was remade as a Hindi blockbuster or that the Telugu hit ‘Arjun Reddy’ was remade into three more languages, goes to show that people are hungry for good content in regional languages. India owes some of its most iconic films to regional cinema and its pioneers – think Dadasaheb Phalke, Satyajeet Ray, Hrishikesh Mukherjee and Ritwik Ghatak, among others. New-age regional cinema is also growing in leaps and bounds, in terms of content, production values and revenue. So, while consumers of regional cinema continue to grow, literature seems to be fading in the background. It does not have to anymore. The joy of hearing Premchand’s ‘Kafan’ as you sip a cup of tea is unparalleled.

 3.     For me, school summer vacations meant lazing around, trips to grandparents’ homes and a whole lot of free time. Reading was looked at like a chore. The same continues to happen even today and the habit is slowly fading away. While schools are trying to rectify this, with reading assignments and book reports during vacations, children end up reading a lot of English language literature, while they remain ignorant about writings in their mother tongue. Cultural identities play an important role in building a society and keeps children in touch with their heritage. Storytel helps children immerse themselves in a world of regional literature, which they otherwise wouldn’t have access to. Make it your good deed for the day.

 4.     While women in urban areas are breaking the glass ceiling in all sectors, those in semi-urban areas are still confined to the four walls of home. While there is no lack of entertainment for them, with television and the internet, when it comes to reading habits, rarely do they move beyond magazines or newspapers. Blame it on lack of access, the time- consuming nature of reading or the fact that some books are expensive. However, these worries will be a thing of the past with Storytel. At only Rs 299 per month, they can have access to over 1 lakh titles across languages. 

Getting in touch with their roots is the best way to understand your history, and what better than literature to give you a snapshot of your community? Imagine being a Bengali and never having read Tagore’s revitalising Bengali poems, or being a Malayali who hasn’t read the cult classic ‘Chemmeen’. Wouldn’t you want to change that? I struggled with reading Marathi literature, having spent most of my time making ‘to-read’ lists of iconic English books. I have chosen ‘The Great Gatsby’ over ‘Shriman Yogi’ and ‘Oliver Twist’ over ‘Shatranj Ke Khiladi’. I don’t have to anymore, and neither do you.

Storytel is completing two years in India and we heard of their special offer — a 30-day free trial for all who sign up between Nov 21 and 27 using the link www.storytel.com/in/en/turns2 Now is a good time to share the love for stories with your friends and family.


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