Negotiating the Space For Children's Books in India

Radhika Menon, Managing Editor, Tulika Publishers
from a paper presented at a seminar organised by Tulika Publishers, Chennai, and Centre for South Asia, University of Wisconsin – Madison, for a group of teachers visiting from the United States. The teachers were part of a programme to develop multicultural content for their school syllabi.

This is what we have been doing for the last few years — negotiating the space for children’s books in an education system that has no space for it and in a market that does not set particularly high standards. Two questions follow: Don’t schools use books other than textbooks? And are there no quality books for children? The answer to the first question is ‘No, they don’t’, and to the second, ‘Yes, unfortunately.’ A bleak picture, but it is the reality.

          These observations are made from first-hand experience interacting with teachers and parents at Goodbooks Bookstore, the only exclusively-for-children bookshop in India, based in Chennai. The magnitude of the problem hits home especially when going through the process of reviewing books for the bookstore, with even established and longstanding publishing houses producing children’s books of below average standard.

          The good news — and there is good news thankfully — is that the picture is slowly changing. Chennai itself has four major children’s publishing initiatives, including two publishing houses, a magazine, and an audio books company, all set up within the last ten years and each trying to get away from the conventional and carving out a niche.

          The big established companies that include multinationals seem, however, to have worked 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 now well packaged and produced. Again, the good news is that when there is such demand from publishers for more and more titles. some talented writers and illustrators do surface.

          Of course, this is not to say marketing does not concern the small independent publishers. Indeed, it is a major concern if we are to survive. But we have to find new ways of tapping the market as the kind of books small, independent, niche publishers produce don’t fall into neat, familiar categories.

          Children’s books and magazines in India have a long history. The earliest record of written material for children is probably 14th century Urdu poet Amir Khusro’s riddles in verse. I am not including here the oral tradition, the stories of the Panchatantra, the Ramayana, the Mahabharatha and so on, which predates Khusro. Since then, every kind of genre has been explored by writers both in Indian languages and later in English. The publishing scene in languages like Bengali, Malayalam and Hindi has been very vibrant. But if we look at the sheer volume of titles produced and the range, the number of books that stand out as constituting exceptional or even very good children’s literature is shockingly small. There are a handful of titles in the Indian languages, and fewer still in English. What we have is this huge mass of standardized, unimaginative, largely didactic and often imitative books — this, in spite of the many good writers and illustrators in the different Indian languages. Children’s publishers in India, with their limited and narrow understanding of children’s literature, failed to tap this talent to create a modern, relevant, responsive Indian literary resource for children.

          Though the marginalised status of children’s literature is a lament one hears everywhere, including in the UK and USA, children’s books in India seem to belong outside the realm of literature. They are more in the category of textbooks whose role is to inform and hone skills. And in a country where the textbook culture in schools is a continuing legacy of its colonial history, and has a strangle-hold on the education system even today, children’s books are accepted only as an extension of text books.

           To understand the predominance of the textbook culture, we need to look at two things: the perception of childhood and the history of school education. As childhood varies from period to period, place to place, culture to culture, the literature too reflects the changes. The perception of childhood in India and the Indian educational system and pattern have wielded a strong influence on the growth and development of children’s publishing in India.

           In the Indian closely-knit large joint families there is a continuity in the adult and child worlds. In a typical Indian family, small or large, there is always a head of the family, male in most cases. In the eyes of the head of the family, young and old are merely children of varying ages, with the relationship and behaviour of the senior and other members of the family are being defined by this. A 30 year-old father and his 8 year-old child are treated as an older and younger child by the head of the family, who is a benign autocrat. Children, young and old, are not encouraged to ask questions or make independent decisions. In the past, child marriage and early parenthood pushed children into the adult world as early as when they were barely 12 or 13 years old. It is not surprising then that children imitated the adults. And so, a lot of stories in the early books and magazines for children were role-model based.

          In The Story of My Experiments with Truth, which is Mahatma Gandhi’s autobiography, we get a vivid picture of the times. Mohandas and Kasturba were betrothed when they were both 7 years old, and married at 13. “And on the first night, two innocent children all unwittingly hurled themselves into the ocean of life”, writes Gandhi. “We were too nervous to face each other and we were certainly too shy. How was I to talk to her and what was I to say?” By his own confession, young Mohandas knew little about sex beyond a few whispered hints he had received from his sister-in-law. “The coaching couldn’t carry me far,” he wrote, adding that he never knew and never inquired whether or not Kastur had been given any helpful information or instruction.

          Paradoxically, however, childhood in India had also been a privileged state though this privilege was most often reserved for the male child. Lullabies were among the most freely available examples of children’s literature of the pre-colonial times, songs that expressed the mother’s love for her child. Certainly, texts told from the adult point of view. The strong oral traditions further  strengthened the proximity of adult and child. These stories were never separated as being for children or for adults, and many of the stories would probably be taboo for children today!

          In the words of A.K Ramanujan, the renowned poet, linguist and folklorist, “The stories we heard in Tamil were told by a grandmother, an aunt or a cook….The stories we read in English had names like Cinderella, Snow White, Hansel and Gretel, but grandmother’s stories had no names at all. The characters were poor people like a poor Brahmin and his scold of a wife, or two sisters, one kind and one unkind, who were daughters born of a dog that lived under the palace balcony, or clever daughters-in-law who terrorized even the goddess with their farts or outwitted their cruel but stupid mothers-in-law.’ Ramanujan describes how children grew up hearing all kinds of stories with adults in a variety of settings — the grandmother telling a story to the child during a meal, the ritual tale connected with a festival or a ceremony, the travelling storyteller who sat in the tinnai / angan or veranda and who wove romantic tales, and the professional bard who was invited to do his harikatha in a public space.

          Generally, folktales spoke of things that could not be spoken of, often violating ordinary decencies…but which were incidental to the stories. Each teller laced his or her stories with a unique brand of humour and drama and every family had their own favourite storytellers.

          This was the world of the pre-colonial child, growing up in a large family, very much part of the adult world, with stories and songs quite clearly blurring the lines between the two worlds. Yet, they also maintained and reinforced class, caste and gender hierarchies. The education of the pre-colonial child was entrusted to teachers in the villages who were highly respected. The Hindu teachers were the Pandits and the Muslim teachers were the Maulvis. Children went to the best teacher, irrespective of the religious denomination they belonged to. Rich children often had private tutors. What children learnt was decided entirely by the teachers.

          A lot of the teaching centred around religious texts in the classical languages of Sanskrit, Persian and Urdu along with instruction in their own languages. In the case of the trader and artisan classes, the child learnt the craft or trade through apprenticeship along with basic literacy skills. Until about the middle of the nineteenth century, it appears as though education was tailored to the child’s individual needs and was based on a strong teacher-student relationship.

Though I have been speaking of the ‘child’, what I have been describing is the experience of the upper caste male child. The educational and socializing experience of the girl child and the lower caste child is quite different, aimed at keeping the hierarchical staus quo. The upper-caste girl-child was educated informally at home often by family members or sometimes by  semi-professional teachers like the wives of the pandits and maulvis. As for the lower-caste child, education was entirely occupation-based.

          Again, dipping into Gandhiji’s autobiography offers illuminating insights into the different growing experiences of a boy and a girl. Mohandas was given free run of the neighbourhood, usually under the watchful eye of his older sister or the family nurse, Rambha. He would slip away to the nearby temple to climb trees or wander into the. He teased his mother, scribbled all over the floor and once removed the statue of a god from the family prayer room so that he could sit there himself. He began attending school in Porbandar when he was 6 and struggled with alphabets and arithmetic but, as he wrote in his autobiography, “I recollect nothing more of those days than having learned, in company with other boys, to call our teacher all kinds of names.” Kastur, meanwhile, was learning too. She was learning to be a good wife, mother and housekeeper.

          By the mid-19th century, the British had introduced a formal system of education. The introduction of English into the complex, hierarchical language system of India has proved to be the most enduring and contentious aspect of this process. In his Minute on Education, Thomas Macaulay writes, “We must do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and millions whom we govern; a class of persons Indian in blood and colour but English in taste, in opinion, in morals and in intellect.” The motives of the colonial rulers couldn’t be clearer. Other features of his grand design succeeded in giving a bureaucratic format to the education system.

          Macaulay’s spin sent down roots so deep that India is still coping with the problems it created. The text-book culture and a policy of impersonal, centralized examinations was the creation of the British. Each reinforced and legitimized the other while creating a new set of problems, including an alien curriculum, distancing children from local crafts and occupations, with textbook content being drawn from and unknown, unfamiliar Victorian milieu. Naturally, this called for a great deal of memorizing, or else how could children ever pass exams since they understood little of what they were being taught? Sadly, the concept of examinations engendered a very real and deep fear of failure among the young people, a recurring motif in literature and popular culture.

          Ironically, colonial education also sowed the seeds for a nationalist education. A large section of people, that included many leaders and thinkers, endorsed western education with its modern, liberal pedagogy, as a means of building a nationalist ideology. A number of nationalist schools sprang up against a backdrop of growing rebellion against colonial rule. The educationists were also political activists who encouraged them to participate in picketing and non-violent protests. The Civil Disobedience Movement and Non-cooperation Movement saw the active participation of child volunteers. Political organizations called Vanar Sena and Bal Bharat Sabhas were the children’s wings of political groups. Boys between 10 and 13, arrested for their political activities filled the jails. This was the phase of the politicized child, which again made the adult-child divide artificial and complex and had a deep and regressive, impact on the writing for children of that period.

          The economic and educational policies of the British forced a large number of people to move to cities from villages to continue higher studies and in search of jobs. A combination of nationalist ideals, lack of job opportunities outside the government services, a newly awakened literary spirit particularly in the link languages of English and Hindi and a fast-growing print culture thanks to the simultaneous proliferation of text books, Christian missionary literature and nationalist writings saw many opt for literary careers.

          Children’s writings, whether in books, magazines (there were a huge number of these) or textbooks usually attracted writers with very limited literary skills who didn’t make it in the adult literary field.

          The ‘twin burdens’ of tradition and modernity became a creative resource and enriched the body of Indian writing, both in English and in the other Indian languages. The nation-centredness of the new generation of writers was tempered by a cosmopolitan outlook and experience.

          Unfortunately, none of this was reflected in the writing for children. What was churned out was a mass of literature that was didactic, unimaginative and highly moralistic. The mission was to inform, instruct or reform! Children’s books and magazines were produced on a mass-scale almost like propaganda material for one agenda or the other. They were either overtly religious or overtly secular, anti-British or pro- British, nationalistic, jingoistic very often, and highly moralizing. There were instances of very good and creative writing particularly in languages like Bengali, Urdu, Marathi, Gujarati and so on, and many well-known writers did write for children. But they remained isolated phases and did not set any creative trend. Even the Gandhian values of ahimsa, non-violence, simplicity, village-based economy, uplift of the women, workers, untouchables and peasants which, many writers have acknowledged, gave power and energy to their work, did nothing for children’s literature. It merely translated into the high moral ground, which persists to this day.       

    In the nationalist period the debate over writing in the mother-tongue and writing in English paled into insignificance before the more immediate need to forge a national language. Thus the language of the colonizers became the language of the colonized and was a powerful medium of communication during the freedom struggle. Today English is as Indian as any other Indian language and is used creatively, with a lot of energy and dynamism by writers.

          Not by children’s writers, however. Their writing style, by and large, continues to be archaic or over-simplified and bland, deliberately shorn of any cultural inflections. Worse still the metaphors and references remain western and alien to a large number of children — what sense do meadows and daffodils and tongue sandwiches make to the average Indian child? We still receive manuscripts with characters named like Amelia and Amanda (and of course, they are blonde and blue-eyed) — the trendier aspirants use Micky or Twiggy!

          How traumatising it becomes for a child when forced to learn a completely alien language and its images and symbols, is illustrated in this description of well-known writer’s RK Narayan’s experience as a 5 year-old at “a rather severe missionary school in Madras — Tamil and Sanskrit were a badge of inferiority and occasion for jokes in the schools”. Narayan’s first English lesson went along these lines: “A is an Apple Pie, B bit it, C cut it. Narayan could see what B and C had been up to, but the identity of A eluded him. He had never seen an apple before, not to mention a pie. The teacher who hadn’t seen an apple either wondered if it wasn’t like idli — the south Indian white rice cake. And so Narayan’s education in English began, with everyone else in the class, left free to guess, each according to his capacity, the quality, shape and details of the civilization portrayed in textbooks.”

          It is interesting at this point to briefly compare the situation in India with that in England. Children’s books in England and India have been around from early fifteenth century onwards. The beginnings in both countries was greatly influenced by strong oral and religious traditions. Legends and myths, stories and songs were common property of both adults and children. The tone of the books that came out at that time was heavily religious and moral. From mid-eighteenth century the histories of the two countries take different paths. While the British empire grew across the globe, England prospered. To quote John Townsend, “A growing number of people had the time, the money, the education and the inclination to be readers of books. Middle-class life was growing more domestic, centred upon the home and the family rather than on the bustle of the street or the great house. Children were coming into their own: ceasing to be dressed like little adults, calling their parents ‘Papa’ and ‘Mamma,’ and leading more sheltered and perhaps more innocent lives.”

          The prosperity also saw the growth of a modern education which in turn freed children’s literature from the earlier puritanism. The growing English-speaking population across the world provided the economic base for a flourishing children’s literature. So while colonial history left India with an education system that stifled all creativity and energy in children’ s literature, the historical circumstances of the colonizers created the conditions for the growth of the most vibrant body of children’s literature.

          The long uninterrupted history of children’s literature in England has enriched it in a way that it is difficult to find parallels in other parts of the world. It is not without reason, that the long age of storytelling has been kept alive in the classics of J.R.R Tolkein, C.S Lewis, Lewis Carroll and now J. K. Rowling!

          In a world taken over more and more by all-powerful market forces and technology, a global village on the one hand and a deeply polarized world on the other, children are constantly exposed to conflicting and confusing messages about values and attitudes. In such a context the role of stories whether told or written becomes even more crucial in helping children discriminate and make informed choices at every stage in their lives.

          In the Indian context, the responsibility of publishers is even greater — to negotiate a space in a system that has no space for it, and to create a demand for good writing and illustration in a market in which there is no demand or expectation. When Indian writing is winning international acclaim by overcoming historical disadvantages and building on cultural strengths, there is no reason why this should not happen in children’s publishing.

          Negotiating for a space that doesn’t exist, for a challenging and culturally distinctive children’s literature is the BIG challenge that faces us. Creating that space is certainly tough negotiation as all of us involved in serious publishing understand and acknowledge.