Children's Literature in India: Growing Pains

Sandhya Rao, Senior Editor, Tulika Publishers

Each time I read a book, I discover something new in it. - Dhwani Sabesh, when she was not quite 9.

Bangaramma and her husband Penchilayya lived in the village of Narasannapeta in Andhra Pradesh. Normally their home was a quiet, peaceful place. Today, however, the air was filled with excitement. 

“I have been waiting for this day,” Bangaramma said to Penchilayya. “Finally, finally Gorannagaru has come to this village. I have heard him tell stories so often when I was a little girl. Now at last you can hear him too.”

“Gorannagaru? Who is Gorannagaru?” Penchilayya said.

“Ayyo! You don’t know anything! Gorannagaru is the finest storyteller this side of the Godavari river. When he tells stories, it is as though he is reciting poetry, it is as though he is playing god’s own music…”

“Hmmm,” said Penchilayya. “Like a cow calling her calf, like women working in the rice-fields?” he said.

“Oh! You don’t know anything!” Bangaramma said. “You’d better attend Gorannagaru’s harikatha. Maybe then you will understand what I’m saying!”

Just as Bangaramma said, Gorannagaru was famous, famous for his hatikathas. He told stories of the gods. For the next ten nights in Narasannapeta, he was going to tell the story of the Ramayana. He had arrived just that morning and was staying in the village headman’s house.

There is great excitement and Bangaramma forces Penchilayya to attend the harikatha. He goes reluctantly and all he does is sleep in the last row. Through a series of comical circumstances Bangaramma finds out what he’s been up to and she accompanies him to the harikatha. Penchilayya is forced to listen to the story and when he does…. he gets involved in the storytelling, so involved that he becomes part of the story.

Extracted from Sweet and Salty, a folktale from Andhra Pradesh, Published by Tulika

What happened when Penchilayya really listened was that he was transformed. Art, music, poetry, indeed all of the best literature, offer a creative culture for imagination, transformation, mediation and resistance. Perhaps this is the magic of Harry Potter. It doesn’t matter that Harry is an English boy doing English things. Indian readers have travelled beyond the physical boundaries of Harry’s world. That this is not so much romantic fallacy is borne out by what an ordinary boy from an ordinary middle class home in Chennai entered as his slogan in a competition to mark the release on June 21 this year of book five, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix: “I like reading Harry Potter again and again because each time I read the books, I become Harry.”

          It would appear that none of the stereotypes apply in the relationship between Harry and his Hogwarts friends and their Indian readers. Yet, all the stereotypes hold in the relationship between the media and children’s books. In view of the marketing phenomenon that HP5 promised and turned out to be, all stops were unplugged in covering the event. The electronic media too did their bit going just so far as to ask patronisingly if there would ever be an Indian HP and why, with our glorious traditions of the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, the Panchatantra and so on, why did Indian children need Harry anyway?

          The anchor on the late night telecast was not listening when one young studio guest said he liked J. K. Rowling, but he also liked a whole lot of other writers, including R. K. Narayan, and another said she felt the Potter mania was a bit of a ‘thing to do’ and that when she reads Indian books, some kids in school think that’s un-cool. The anchor swung back to Harry and then it was time to wind up the show, thanks for watching.

          This attitude sums up the Indian children’s books publishing today. It, too, swings from the hype of Harry Potter to the repetition and monotony of the Ramayanas and Mahabharatas, along with the Panchatantra, the Hitopadesha, the Jataka, Vikram and Betal, Raja Bhoj and others of similar voice and vintage. There are hundreds of books in thousands of versions, mostly indifferent, mediocre, downright deplorable published by innumerable small, medium and big houses in the industry.

          What can explain this preoccupation, this obsession, with the “rich and glorious” past of India? In one sense, it only mirrors a general obsession with 5000 years of civilization, a tendency to look over the shoulder than to consider the here and now. As for tomorrow, who knows and who cares. The Ramayanas, Mahabharatas, Panchatantras, folktales, of any size, shape, version are the fastest moving titles in bookstores. It doesn’t matter how the book is produced. The discerning buyer obviously looks for a more than just ‘traditional’, but by and large it doesn’t matter. The books sell anyway. Obviously, there is a ‘need’ for Indian books.   

          At Goodbooks, an exclusively-for-children bookstore in Chennai, more and more people come looking for ‘Indian’ books. It’s safe to assume that this is the general trend at least among the growing middle class in bookstores across the country.

          What accounts for this? And why now? Somewhere it seems to be a search for identity, and therefore a harking back to roots. Somewhere, there appears to be a slowly dawning recognition that reading, that books, are ‘good’. Somewhere, readers experience a need to find themselves in the books they read. Children too. Since parents want their children to read the books they recommend, preferably anyway, they buy books in which they think their children will find India and ‘Indian culture’. Whether they do anything else about imparting these ‘lessons’ is a matter for discussion, but certainly this is a major factor as far as choosing books for their children are concerned.

          And this is natural. It happens to everybody, all societies, all over the world. The histories of children’s literature from different parts of the world speak of this compelling need for a sense of identity, of making connections within themselves. Eventually, what is truly representative of the human spirit through a search for roots and identity is transformed into the universal.

          The problem is that in India there are no stop signs, no danger signals, anything goes in the name of ‘tradition’ and ‘culture’ as far as children’s literature is concerned. There is no intellectual debate, there are no scholarly studies, there is no aesthetic engagement, there is no literary discrimination, there is no critical thinking. If it’s to do with myths, legends, folktales, epics, then that’s fine. After all, India has a ‘rich and hoary civilisation’, how can anything be other than fine?

          But, there is a serious problem here, as the following samples of text from various children’s books currently available in bookstores will testify. The following lines have been taken from a colourful, fast-moving version of the Ramayana, Rama is on his way to Sita’s swayamvara with Lakshmana and Viswamitra.: On the way they saw a beautiful deserted hermitage where sage Gautama used to live with his wife in peace and holy meditation. One day Indra disguised as Gautama entered the hut of the sage in his absence to have sexual union with the beautiful Ahalya who was vain of her beauty.

          Another Ramayana published by one of the oldest children’s publishing houses in India has this: A pious ascetic lived in a holy forest where animals abounded and moved freely in joy. Lord Indra who wanted to break the sage’s austerities came in disguise to the hermitage and left a sword in its precincts. It was a calculated act. The ascetic became inhibited to use the weapon always. The habit warped his mind. Slowly giving up his austerities, he used the sword for wrong purposes. The story goes on in this vein through all the x number of pages . The book received a good review from a young journalist writing in the children’s supplement of a leading English daily. Elsewhere, in a collection of folktales, is A Guru and his two devoted disciples were pilgrimaging round. Turn to any page in a majority of such books and up pop these gems.

          In the name of contemporary literature, what is available is the Moral Tale. Decontextualised, deconstructed, devoid of time, place, character, plot, language, these too, are in perennial supply. A book published some four-five months ago called Grandma’s Morals has one story per page typeset in huge font size so none of anything is missed. Each story carries a moral at the bottom of the page, not to be missed, of course. And what are the morals? One man’s pat is another’s swat, for instance. Or, don’t play both sides against the middle. Or, give a wide berth to those who can do damage at a distance. Very easy to read, but what does the reader make of it…?

          Many copies of books from which these passages have been quoted sell, all over the country. Some of it is even showcased at international bookfairs, and earns India the sort of reputation it has in the children’s books industry. Trash such as this — there is no other word for stuff like this — is bought by educated, urban, middle class parents for their educated, urban, middle class children. It is the one-stop culture ‘halt’ for NRIs and their children.

          Obviously, the children’s books industry has not wised up to the dangers of hitching questions of identity only to the distant past or even to nationalistic fervour, while at the same time distancing oneself from the present, an equal if more compelling partner in the shoring up of identities. Publishing houses, even established ones, have chalked out a well-thought out strategy to tap a market that is seeing a boom in children’s products from branded clothes, shoes, fizzy drinks, chocolates, to computers, multimedia products and stationery. When books become primarily products to be marketed, then packaging and speed of delivery is the focus. So we have more and more of the same thing — the same ways of telling, mediocre writing, irresponsible editing, and unimaginative illustrations and design — but well packaged and produced.

          A brief look at the history of children’s literature, of the baggage that it carries, may offer some explanations for this situation. The first stories came from the Panchatantra around 600 BC, the epics, and so on. These were disseminated from generation to generation, by word of mouth, through folk telling and classical discourse. The history of literatures in different Indian languages uniformly refer to the absence of any distinction between stories for adults and stories for children. Songs and lullabies are widely regarded as the first examples of children’s literature. The oral tradition encompassed all members of society.

          This tradition worked for everybody. The harikatha that Penchilayya unwillingly attends would have had in its audience bawling children, women nursing babies, lovers stealing kisses, drooling men in their dotage, children playing pranks and yes, some fallen fast asleep.

          Then came the British, with their new printing presses printing off Bibles, magazines and booklets, their education policy for the ‘natives’ and high hopes for the English language. Reading materials began to be available. People began to write, children too. In 1978, Keshabchandra Sen in Bengal started the first magazine for children in which the contributors too were children. By the early 20th century, magazines started to proliferate all over the subcontinent. A new, different, compartmentalized, and quite definitely western way of seeing began to find its way into schools and colleges, teaching and learning methodologies. The old, everyone’s-in-it-together approach to life and experience, the holistic approach, slowly began to fade. English made great strides. To know English was to be civilized. It was the new aspiration, the new dream.

          It is a dream that persists to this day. Girls and boys in tiny, remote villages still without water and electricity and practising the most reprehensible forms of caste discrimination… in all these villages, girls and boys aspire to read and write and speak English.

          As communication needs grew, and printing became popular, people began to write for children. Unfortunately, however, very often these writers were often people down and out and desperate to earn something. There is a story of how the well-known Hindi poet Subhadra Kumari Chauhan used to walk into publishing houses with sheafs of poems whenever she needed some money. She and her kind of writing were the exception. Mostly, however, children’s magazines and gradually, children’s literature, began to be dominated by run-of-the-mill, even mediocre writers. Illustrations didn’t come into the picture. That is why Sandesh, the magazine started in 1913 by Upendra Kishore, Satyajit Ray’s grandfather, is of such significance. Dr Nabendu Sen, who has written a short essay on Bengali children’s literature in Children’s Literature from India, points out that although the content did not differ from the best Bengali magazines of the time such as Mukul or Sakha, “in respect of its layout, binding, get-up, illustrations, use of colour, fineness of sketches, selection and casting, Sandesh had no comparison”. By and large however, only mediocre talents were attracted to children’s writings. That mediocrity continues today. Even as Indian writers for adults steadily made bigger waves, this did not find a parallel in children’s literature.

          With the printing presses came another major development, the publication of textbooks. It didn’t take long, however, for textbooks to become synonymous with children’s literature. An article on children’s literature even declared, “No one need be ashamed to say that children’s literature is didactic literature. It’s intention is to make our children better, to instill noble ideals in them and to lovingly mould them into men and women of character.”

          Gradually, the moral or lesson-oriented stories took precedence, as also poems and songs, some expressing nationalistic fervour or extolling the virtues of nature. It seems as though the logic was that dumbing down texts for children would somehow gain legitimacy for them. Didacticism became the byword and stories were published largely shaven clean of inflections, contexts and meaning beyond the page. In a sense, it could be said that children’s books were identified by the talking down tone of the text. If a generalization could be made, it is this, that children’s books that talk down to children offer no challenges and are available everywhere.

          Compare this with the force and flavour of folktales. They are fantastic, they are open-ended, they subvert. Herbert Kohl (who wrote the perceptive Shall We Burn Babar?) makes an interesting and relevant comparison between a good translation of Carlo Collodi’s original Italian Pinocchio and the Disney version. The original Pinocchio is a spirit released from a piece of wood, and children don’t forget that when they listen to his adventures. There is something magical about him from the very start.

          On the other hand, the Disney version invests Pinocchio with an innocence that is wholly lacking in the original. “The book Pinocchio does not preach unmitigated virtue,” says Kohl. “Pinocchio does not become the perfect child and good boy that Disney projects at the end of the film. Because of the moral ambivalence of the story, it’s a wonderful story for children… Since the goal of the story is to read and appreciate the tale and make judgements about the children’s behaviour, our talks do not have to be tied up neatly. There’s no need to draw final conclusions, write down homilies for children to parrot, or even come down on the side of good or evil.”

          Children’s books in India do precisely all these things. They draw final conclusions, write down homilies for children to parrot and which children are encouraged to parrot, and come down squarely on the side of good. The Indian obsession with moral stories for children takes us far away from the spirit of storytelling, and further away from our own cultural space. One has only to read the African-American children’s writer, Virginia Hamilton, to see how she reaches into the traditions of her culture in order in order to tell her own stories. The historical and the spiritual worlds that she carries within infuse her own extraordinary writing for young adults. Given the rich historical and spiritual and narrative resource that Indian writers have, it is inexcusable why we are not able to produce rich and moving texts for children. Is it because writers are not writing for children and those who do, can’t write?

          We know there is a natural connection between listening and speaking, and reading and writing. Even small children can listen to complex stories and assimilate them, question them, and are sensitive to the fine meanings and intents in the text. Children, good readers, understand and assimilate contexts and cultures over a period of time. Like Penchilayya who transformed as a result of listening, children possess a natural ability to absorb and analyse. But book after book produced year after year promoting sanitized stories and moral lessons only serve to chip away at these natural instincts.

          Dhwani Sabesh and Kehan D’Souza, 16, who has read Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire 45 times and who pores over Artemis Fowl and The Life of Pi with equal involvement, are the lucky ones who have retained their natural instincts and have, in fact, been encouraged in their reading quests. They are the exception. They are as comfortable in the worlds of Colfer and Martel as they are in the worlds of Satyajit Ray and R. K. Narayan and Ruskin Bond. The best writers — and there are many today —embody Indian-ness in a way that the majority do not.

          What do we mean by Indian-ness? And in children’s books? A strongly visual quality, for one. Indian storytelling comes in verbal and nonverbal flavours. There are proverbs, riddles, jokes, lullabies, folk tales, family stories, songs, ballads, hero tales, epics, narratives in prose and verse, dances and games, kolams and torans, wall paintings, painted scrolls, toys, craft objects made of stone, metal, terracotta, grass and so on, street theatre, acrobatic tricks, yoga, magic, meditation, all-night theatre and other-world experiences — all these weave in and out of life in India everywhere. Not for the Indian consciousness the separation into areas of activity and endeavour: art, science, religion, economics, music, learning, everything coalesces into one and is expressed as one.

          What better way can there be of expressing Indian-ness in children’s books than by a natural progression of growth, of a continuum of tradition? Other cultures have shown the way, shown how to use the wealth of verbal and nonverbal material, to transform it and to pass it on in new and continuing ways.

          The Indian consciousness is closer to visual narrative. This is why picture books are crucial to the experience of a child, not simply in relation to reading, but to living. Japanese illustrator Satoshi Kitamura says quite simply, “Becaue I like pictures, I like stories.” He believes that there ought to be a holistic culture which does not “divide adults from children” and he sees his picture books as being created for everyone, not for children alone. In fact, he makes no distinction at all between children and adults.

          Ramanujan explains the phenomenon of an overarching sense of lived experience and it’s relevance in the world of child and adult. “One’s sense of what is beautiful and poetic, or what is moral and right, and even one’s most abstracted sense of values are shaped in childhood by these verbal and non-verbal environments. In a largely non-literate culture such as India’s, everyone — rich, poor, high caste and low caste, professor, pundit and ignoramus — has inside him or her a non-literate subcontinent.”

          Reaching out from inside, reaching into the world from within one’s experience, and bringing experience into children’s worlds — these are the ways in which great writers and illustrators negotiate a space for children’s books. The Japanese illustrator, Mitsumasa Anno — one of whose most famous books is in fact a counting book — has much the same approach to his picture-making. “In one of the scenes of Anno’s Journey,” he says, “I incorporated a rendering of ‘The Gleaners’, a well known work by the nineteenth-century French painter Jean-Francois Millet, in which peasant women are seen at work in a field. When a small child sees those women in the book, he doesn’t know the source of that particular image but can make up his own story about them — who they are, what they are thinking about, in what kind of house each one lives, and so on. Later he may see the Millet painting and remember the women.”

          In India, we don’t have to go far to remember. All across the country are examples of visual narrative that cut across distinctions, whether it is the phad scrolls of Rajasthan or the chitrakathis of Maharashtra or the patuas of Bengal or the leather puppeteers of Andhra Pradesh or the yakshagana of Karnataka or the kathakali of Kerala… everywhere, the storytelling culture is dynamic, sophisticated and highly visual.

          One of the most popular series in India is Amar Chitra Katha. The series shows how potent the packaging of national heritage in comic format can be — both as a cultural commodity and a marketing strategy. Although they use the comic book format, ACK completely bypasses the subtlety and sophistication of the genre and makes the medium the message. The text and pictures are replete with racial, sexist and communal overtones, not to mention the banal writing, poor and often wrong use of language, unedited use of age-inappropriate vocabulary and ideas, plainly chauvinistic or downright insensitive dialogue, blandly rendered narrative, decontextualised perspective, and so on.

          Yet, in many circles, ACK constitutes culture in a package. Looking through a few copies of the English language editions (it is published in 30 languages and about 400 titles have sold over 80 million copies in some 30 years), you find texts such as “His young son, Baji Rao, was imbued with the martial spirit,” “Chaitanya not only stemmed the tide of conversion to Islam, but also provided a new life force to Hindu religion” and Jasma in ‘Jasma of the Odes’ saying of her husband, “Oh god! My husband is a cripple! He’s ugly too! Alas! What have I done to deserve this?” In another title, there’s the line, “You dunce of a hunchback! Are you thick-lipped too?” and Draupadi is described as “the total woman; complex and yet feminine”. The accompanying picture is of a shapely woman in a barely-concealing transparent something, carefully positioned in the frame at an angle that highlights her buxom figure, curves, cleavage and all. In an Akbar-Birbal classic teaching that mothers think their own babies are the most beautiful, there is a picture of a big-made, dark, thick-lipped, naked baby to show that the child is from a ‘lower caste’, is poor, is ugly, and not desirable.

          The implications do not have to be set down. But it is revealing when a student of journalism argues with the Dalit writer and scholar Kancha Iliah, that she believes Vishnu is clean-shaven because that’s how he is represented in ACK! One of the series’ foremost illustrators says their art is based on the Ravi Varma school of painting, cinema such as the early mythologicals of V. Shantaram, and movie hoardings. He adds that he personally uses profiles of Hollywood and European actors and actresses occasionally. Clark Gable as Rama and Marilyn Monroe as Sita certainly lends new perspective to multiculturalism!

          The authors of the series say they often drew from accounts of British colonial officers, further distorting what has already been distorted. It is not surprising then that the British are often portrayed as helpless, duty-bound officers appreciative of native ‘pluck’, as opposed to ‘destructive Muslim invaders’.

          Unfortunately, ACK makes readers, young and old, feel they know all there is to know about Indian culture. It is true that ACK readers have all the ‘facts’ at the fingertips, but do they have an understanding of the history, the philosophy, the culture, the spirit, the essence? In homes where children are exposed to all kinds of books, different kinds of cultural experiences and where is discussion and debate, the damage is, perhaps, not so great. But when they are exposed to little else and parents and teachers see their education on Indian culture being complete because they have read these comics, that becomes dangerous.

          At the other end of the spectrum are the apologists who think spending time, energy, effort and most certainly money on producing children’s books is, somehow, a waste of valuable resources. Literacy, yes, they are completely committed to pushing literacy. Literature? That’s different. The literacy-literature confusion happens all the time in India, with literature most often being used as a synonym for literacy.

          Not having the money to produce a certain kind of book or anything else for that matter is one thing. Finding cost-effective ways to produce quality materials is another thing, it is the challenge. But to work on the assumption that nothing should be spent on children’s books is quite another matter altogether.

          Perhaps what this boils down to the question of how we view our children, as the Swedish writer, Per Gunnar Evander has, observed: “All problems in the world are due to one single question: how we treat our children.” Yes indeed, how do we treat our children?

          And how can we treat their books? Through them and in them, can we convey a sense of the multilingual mosaic of our culture? Can the use of language be less rigid, more creative and closer to the spoken? In some languages, for instance, the gap between the spoken and the written seems unbridgeable. Can we explore new ways of illustrating by using and understanding traditional styles better? Equally, can we explore contemporary styles through understanding better the traditional styles? Can we create awareness among young people about the lives and concerns of marginalized communities, people, places through stories about and of them? Can we develop nonfiction material, information books, from an Indian perspective, books that are well-researched and creatively presented? Can we reach more readers through well-developed, challenging dual language books? Can we give children a sense of the plurality of cultures, religions, histories, ways of seeing, languages, and make ourselves comfortable with the idea of differences?

          Unless we actively engage with children’s growing up experiences which includes what they are reading and watching and give them alternatives, unless we provide the space for debate and discussion so that critical thinking emerges that will spurn the rubbish that is being churned out in the name of education and culture, unless we create a climate through books in which children can understand the need to make informed choices…. unless those in the business of producing books for children — writers, illustrators, ideators, editors, translators, designers — put the needs of the child reader up there with all their other priorities, we cannot have books in which children can find themselves.

         We urgently need these books because, as Zimbabwean writer Chiedza Musengezi said once in an interview, “Books put words at our command. They make us better citizens, difficult to manipulate.” We need responsible citizens of the world. For that we need responsible readers. And for that, books that make a difference.