Against Borders: Children's books in Malayalam

Radhika Menon, Managing Editor, Tulika Publishers, for The Book Review, November 2007

What is true of children’s books in Malayalam is, to a large extent, true of books in other Indian languages too. They exist in their own world, fenced in by their own cultural beliefs and biases regarding, both children as well as the content, style and tone of children’s books. Parochial attitudes further confine the space, while the market reinforces these borders, even as it creates new ones.

          Of course, there are exceptions in every language, but unless we allow children’s books to erase these borders, they will remain out of step with a new generation of young people growing up in a digital world and, with increasing frequency, freely crossing borders of language and culture. Though we cannot wish away the digital divide that makes the technology inaccessible to a majority of children, it does touch their lives in subtle ways in an increasingly wired world.

          While the reasons for the conventionality in much of children’s publishing in India are historical, political, and economical, at the root of the problem is an education system in which the textbook is central to the exclusion of almost any other kind of reading material. In addition is a certain cultural attitude to childhood, which makes us see it as a stage in life that needs to be disciplined rather than nurtured. This has conditioned our understanding of what books our children should read.

          In books published in English in India, we clearly see the influence of the west, in terms of the creativity they exhibit, the attitudes they reflect and the worldviews presented in them. Though many of them continue to be merely imitative, the best of them have a distinct identity. It is a dynamic cultural identity that is changing and evolving constantly. The style and perspective these authors bring to their writing comes from a culturally unique ‘translated’ sensibility. Relating to an Indian language and its culture through English and vice versa brings an interconnectedness of the local and the universal in their stories. To scoff at them as being western and rootless is, therefore, to dismiss a growing generation of children thinking and speaking in English, even while experiencing their native languages through films, songs and television. On the other hand, one might also be guilty of ignoring a large section of children aspiring to learn English as a language of empowerment.

          Before discussing children’s books in Malayalam, based on Tulika’s experience of publishing in English and eight more Indian languages, I must clarify that as someone who has not grown up reading books in Malayalam, the views expressed here are selective rather than comprehensive and entirely urban English in focus. Engaging with narratives for children in English first and then in different languages offers one a vantage point that is more objective than subjective. The intention is not to privilege one viewpoint over the other but to explore possibilities of Indian children’s literature that can reflect the interconnectedness of regions, languages and cultures while retaining distinct individual voices.

          Children’s publishing in Malayalam has a long history. Kerala’s status as India’s most literate state has seen the growth of a strong and dynamic book culture. It has a unique and effective grassroots library network that still survives (though not as efficient as before) placing it ahead of many other states in this respect. It has the most number of children’s magazines, periodicals, and children’s sections and supplements in mainstream magazines and newspapers. It is also one of the few states to have a State Institute of Children’s Literature. In the first fifty years of the 20th century alone, a record 500 children’s books were published in Kerala.

          The beginnings of children’s books as a genre in Malayalam can be traced to the publishing of books with simple language and ethical themes for “intellectually backward women and children,” as claimed by Dr. O.M.Anujan, in his Children’s Literature in Indian Languages (Publications Division, 1982). Dr. Anujan ends his article on an optimistic note saying that with the arrival of more children’s publishers and booksellers, we can look forward to many more books being published. While the optimism is not misplaced, the quantity of books published has not had any impact on the quality nor has it changed the nature of children’s books.

          If recently published books are anything to go by, this long history and tradition of children’s publishing has not generated a vibrant body of children’s literature. Unlike in other parts of the world, there appears to be little that has changed in form or content. Books are better produced but are not particularly innovative. By and large, the same old conventional style and tone of writing continues. Pictures remain mere embellishments to the text. The picture book as a genre simply does not exist, except as alphabet or wordbooks.

          Even in recent publications, the teacher’s voice, for instance, is never far away despite a lighter tone overall (e.g. Pakshikathakal – ‘Bird Stories’ by Prof. S. Sivadas, DC Books). The moral/message, though not spelt out like in earlier books, hovers at the end of every story (Kunjikathakal – ‘Tiny Stories’ by Kiliroor Radhakrishnan, DC Books). The books sport a contemporary look thanks to zany, computer-illustrated covers in bright colours. There were no books among those reviewed that broke away from the sentimental and cliché-ridden style of story-telling which is so typical of Malayalam writing for children. The first line in a collection of children’s stories and poems starts, “Oh golden deer that skips in the forest, tell me… ,” in the stereotypical sugary style of animal/bird poems. Thankfully, however, there are also poems about horns, buses and trains by the children, which have a ‘truer’ ring to them. One, titled Jillapattu – ‘Town Song’ by eight-year-old Navami Prakash, is a clever play on names of cities and towns in Kerala and is thoroughly enjoyable.

          Even well known short story writers like Ashita, who is part of the Pennezhuthu (women’s writing) movement, comes up with more of the same in her collection, 365 Kunjukathakal (365 Tiny Stories, DC Books). The writers of the best of children’s books, from picture books to young adult novels, show a finely tuned sensitivity which is as much about their distinctive styles as about their politics, which is wholly missing in children’s books in Malayalam. It is as if writing for children must homogenise style and language and overwhelmingly vest it with ‘purpose’. The witty colloquialisms, the inventiveness of everyday language and rich regional variations and dialects find no place in these books.

          This is why Poochakurinjyaar (Madam Cat) resonates with such conviction. Slated to be published by Anveshi as part of the project, Different Tales: Stories from Marginal Cultures and Regional Languages, J. Devika’s story details the process of a cat bathing and dressing up, with liberal descriptions of landscape, food and ornaments. It is a traditional tale told in a traditional style to subvert the image of the conventional upper class woman. That the youngest of readers respond spontaneously to the strong cultural flavour of the translated story is borne by the fact that books like Eecha Poocha and Ottakaran Kurumulagu, translated from Malayalam into English (Tulika, Chennai), are top favourites not just in their English translation but also in Hindi, Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Bangla, Marathi and Gujarati. The argument for keeping children’s books within familiar and local contexts, especially in regional languages, is that children don’t respond to the unfamiliar in books! Says who?

          While there is some merit in the requirement to standardize language in textbooks, to do so in all writing for children stifles the creativity, not only of the writer, but of the young reader too. Magazines, on the other hand, seem to offer a more unstructured space for writing. Rekha Raj, a research associate at MG University, Kerala, observes that the stories have a witty edge (wit, particularly sarcastic wit, is a trademark Malayali-ism) and cites that the most successful character in the magazine Baalarama (from the Malayala Manorama stable) is a wily fox called Sootran. Interestingly, Rekha attributes this to the “current influence of mimicry groups on the Kerala cultural landscape”.

          The kind of writing that gives us a sense of the oral quality of storytelling and children’s speech, is in books of poems and verse. The free use of word play, rhyme and rhythm in some of the collections by Kunjunni for instance, gives us a tantalizing glimpse of the creative possibilities of language in books for children. But, by and large, the language and themes in the poems are drippingly sentimental and romantic, addressing idealized children in idealized settings.

          An interesting observation made by Dr. Anujan is that most writers for children in Kerala are scientists or science teachers. This has a lot to do with the vibrant grassroots movement started by the Kerala Shastra Sahitya Parishad (Kerala Science Writer’s Forum) to create awareness of science and scientific attitudes. It was widespread across the state and covered every small village and town. The movement actively engaged with children through an impressive number of books on science, including biographies and science fiction, which it regularly published – and continues to publish.

          The success of this grassroots publishing initiative was a fantastic door-to-door distribution network and the nature of the campaign itself, which had literacy ‘jathas’ (processions), children’s book fairs, art and drama all as part of it. Unfortunately, the overriding tone of all this activity, including the publishing, was to ‘inform and instruct’. The books, thus, for the main part, are dryly factual and unwittingly patronizing. Some of the good writers who are very popular adopt an avuncular tone in their writing. While the style and tone of the books perhaps reflect the time when the movement started and has political and cultural roots, that they have remained unchanged over time is of concern.

          Generations have grown up on the KSSP books, and the cycle is repeated even when the old guard changes. The same kind of books continue to be published. Is this symptomatic of a fundamental contradiction in Kerala society – hierachical and gender unequal on the one hand, and politically aware and highly literate on the other?

          Bookstore chains spreading into smaller cities are rapidly changing the children’s books scenario. The market will ensure the availability of a wide range of books in English supplied by the ever-expanding import market and the growing number of children’s publishing houses including the multinationals. The discerning buyer will always find a few Indian books in English comparable to the best anywhere. But in much of the Indian languages it will be an undifferentiated and indifferent mass of books that has nothing new to offer if the current trends continue. The pressures of the market will make it difficult for any kind of innovativeness or creativity to emerge. Savvy publishers of children’s books will cash in on the demand, with assembly line productions, giving packaging more importance than substance, being the order of the day.

          If regional publishers and writers can shed their orthodoxy, both in how they view the child and books for the child, there exists the possibility of creating culturally distinct yet contemporary books for children. Translating such books into English and translating English books by writers who bring a different sensibility to language will create a richly diverse range of books for children – contemporary, democratic and rooted in a plural, multilingual culture. If, as is said of children’s books, they reflect society’s view of the young and the young person’s view of society, there is an urgent need to rethink children’s writing in Malayalam.