Not Funny

Deeya Nayar, Editor, Tulika Publishers
in the October 2000 special issue of Indian Review of Books titled 'Child Matters'

In a retelling of the Ramayana for children, Shri Rama is on his way to Sita's swayamvara with brother Lakshmana and sage Vishwamitra: "On the way they saw a beautiful deserted hermitage where sage Gautama used to live with his wife Ahalya 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." 

          What happens next is history, or mythology. Gautama curses Indra, who in turn curses Ahalya, who turns into stone . .What happened to us was in the nature of a very rude awakening — to what is passed off as fare for children. 

          What is particularly worrying is that a passage like this may well have passed unnoticed in a cursory bookshop browse. The book would have been bought, all the more because it is the Ramayana. The reason we noticed it (and more of the kind, unfortunately) was because we were reading a little closely through books to do briefs on them for the Goodbooks Bookstore which is set to go online soon. 

          Initially, we would just laugh off awkward writing with a "Why do authors turn so stilted, so moralistic, or so simplistic or insensitive when it comes to writing for children?" But this tolerant amusement slowly gave way to stronger feelings — and of a desire to share samples of such writing with all concerned about good books for children, so that we are more aware of what lies between colourful glossy covers. 

          Why is good writing given such short shrift in Indian books for children? How is it /tone used? Again, writing for the littler ones doesn't just mean large typesize and a trite approach — surely they deserve as much input and effort in the writing and editing as do adults! While there is so much (unnecessary) moralising in stories otherwise, why is there so little concern for the suitability of a story for the age addressed? Why do we perpetuate stereotypes, overtly and covertly, for children to emulate? Why are we going on about all this? — read on . . . (Spellings and punctuation have been carefully retained.) 

          More from the Ramayana: "All the queens were glad at heart since they became pregnant. They were all very happy. From the time Lord Vishnu found his way into the womb, joy and prosperity reigned . . . Time rolled on happily till the moment arrived for the Lord to be revealed . . . A cool, soft breeze was blowing. The gods were feeling exhilarated and the saints were bubbling with enthusiasm." 

          A chapter is entitled "Manthra Kicked Hard By Shatrughana" and the last para goes: "The moment Shatrughana saw wicked-hearted Manthra clad in her best. He kicked her so hard that her hunch and head were both broken." 

          The gods are discussing Harishchandra, doubting if he really always spoke the truth: "The talk reached the pinnacle when Vashishtha vouchsafed the quality of speaking truth always of Harishchandra and he had ennobled himself among gods even leading an austere life and that his fame had pervaded the whole globe." (No typo errors or omitted punctuations. And this is a book for children perhaps around 8 years old, with a type point size of 14 or so.) 

          The story of Krishna and Sudama: "Years passed, but Krishna and Sudama never met. Krishna was now the King of the country. He had had various adventures, and he had fought many battles. He had settled many quarrels and disputes between kings and betwen various people." (The Mahabharata, in brief!) 

          Vishwamitra comes to Vasishta's ashram and is amazed by the miraculous cow Nandini. Vasishta offers that Vishamitra and his large army spend the night at the hermitage: "'Please don't worry,' said Vasishta, 'I have enough cots and bedding for all of you.'' 
          Opening lines of Bhishma's Vow: "This is not a recent story. It is a very ancient story which occured thousands of years ago . . .

But then, Ganga had laid down certain conditions to say 'yes' to his proposal and had warned him that whatever she did, he was not counter-question her." (The passage has a large typesize of about 14 points.) 

          An opening sentence: "A Guru and his two devoted disciples were pilgrimaging round." 

          A 'folktale for children' starts with: "There was once a rich merchant, who suffered from a heart ailment. His physician had therefore advised the family members and the servants that any news, especially a bad one, should not be conveyed to him suddenly." The story goes on to describe how a servant builds up news of 'death upon death' in his family and farm, so as to 'gently' lead on to the revelation that his entire family is dead. Supposed to be humorous! 

          A story about a man who goes off to war for a few years. His wife meanwhile lives it up. The man comes back to find her with a year-old child which he accepts, to the horror of the others. A loosely translated excerpt: "'Haven't you been away for three years?' 'Yes, about that long.' 'Now this child is about a year old.' 'Yes, he must be. But he's very naughty,' Ram Avatar said shyly. 'Now, you calculate and see.' 'Oh . . . what should I do?' 'You fool! How did this happen?' 'I don't know, Sir. He's God's gift.' 'God's gift! My foot! This child cannot be yours.' This is a powerful story by a well-known writer — but for ... children? 

          Comments like the following are splattered freely in popular stories aiming to instil 'Indian culture' in children: "'Oh god! My husband is a cripple! He's ugly too! Alas! What have I done to deserve this?'" or "'You dunce of a hunchback. Are you thick-lipped too?'' or "You son of a Suta!" or inevitable phrases such as "wily Brahmin", "deceitful wife", or else "ignorant" or "miserly" wife, or an Akbar-Birbal classic teaching that all mothers think their own children are the most beautiful, which has a picture of a big-built, dark, thick-lipped, unkempt baby to show how poor and ugly 'lower caste' babies actually are! 

          These are just the tip of the iceberg. For here's the clincher: when we went to the bookstore to pick up books we had earlier identified as eminently quotable in this context, we found they were all sold out! 

          And here also arise other issues. One is the completely unquestioning and uncritical popularity of the epics, mythological stories and folktales, which probably account for well over half of Indian books for children. Never mind how badly they are written or produced, they sell. Not that there aren't better publications. Ironically, a beautifully produced Ramayana — simply but sensitively written, exquisitely illustrated — has been published by Channel 4, a television company in the UK! 

          Seldom do parents, teachers or librarians who buy these books care to actually go through them discerningly to see whether they are suitable. And of course, the cheaper they are the better. But what you gain in money, you often lose in worth. For the price of a book doesn't depend on the quality of paper, printing and binding alone — good authors and illustrators, or editors who care, add immeasurable value to a book. It is their worth, too, which a price reflects; not just the cost of production. The old saying, 'Don't judge a book by its cover', was indeed never more true.