Not Once Upon a Time – Narratives for Children

Radhika Menon, Managing Editor, Tulika Publishers, for Talk delivered at Majlis, May 2006

Narratives encompass a whole range of genres – fable, myth, songs, poems, dance, drama, illustrations, comics, television and the world wide web. I would like to focus on narratives in children’s books for our discussion today.

          Children’s literature is part of a wider literature, just as children are an intrinsic part of the whole population. The history of Indian literature is 5,000 years old, we are told, and it is a history shaped by strong democratic, oral traditions which is reflected in our epics, in ancient Tamil Sangam literature, in Jain and Buddhist literature, in the anti-colonial, social reformist literature of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and in other progressive literature. All of them have been responsive to political and cultural change at every point in our history, and have allowed for explorations of form and style, throwing up new shoots at every stage, both in the regional languages and in English.

          However, the history of children’s literature shows none of this vibrancy or responsiveness to the cultural milieu; in fact, it is not even seen as existing in a continuum with Indian literature,  instead it is relegated to an isolated corner. 
          Children’s literature, particularly in the western world, seems to have some puritanical beginnings. Literature was seen as a means to teach children moral lessons, so that they were transformed into good and ideal children. Children were seen as belonging outside the adult world and were brought up protected from its harsh realities.

          In contrast, Indian children, like children from other oral cultures, grew up in joint families, very much part of the adult world with all its complexities. Stories were tools to help children deal with the adult world. The very purpose of moral tales was to assist in the eventual production of an adult and not a perfect child. To quote the wonderfully inspirational poet, translator and folklorist AK Ramanujan, “Even in the most urbane and westernised Indian households there exists, behind the prim exterior, another India. It lives in tales of passion and trouble told to children by their grandmothers and servants as the dusk descends.” Thus, to tell children tales of passion and trouble was seen as the most natural thing to do.

          The world of Indian folklore, like most oral storytelling cultures, is fascinating and complex. There are no taboos and stories were ways of expressing feelings and realities that cannot usually be spoken about. Suppressed desires and feelings like love, betrayal, jealousy, sexuality, cruelty, etc are all freely expressed through stories. To quote Ramanujan again, “As these tales are usually told in the context of family, they are part of the child’s psychological education in facing forbidden feelings and finding narratives that will contain if not resolve them, for the tellers as well as their young listeners.”

          Children’s literature in India, like the rest of our literature, had its beginnings in our oral traditions – but while children’s literature in other countries progressed from being didactic and straitjacketed to becoming extraordinarily creative, in India the reverse seems to have happened. What began as richly imaginative and multilayered narratives for children have deteriorated into stories that neither captivate nor inspire. While we can reason that our colonial past has created a decontextualised education system that is largely responsible for this state of affairs, how do we explain in today’s context the complete lack of awareness among parents, teachers and policy makers?

          What we are discussing are the books that fill the shelves in most bookshops because they are the top-selling ones. They are cheap, some are not even that, and they are usually retellings of our fables, mythological stories and folk tales. These labels seem enough to make the books sell. “Keep the child supplied with these, and the child’s education in Indian culture and tradition is taken care of,” is the attitude of parents and teachers. That they are badly written and badly illustrated never matters.

          I would like to read you some gems collected from a range of published titles for children. In a retelling of the Ramayana for children: Shri Rama is on his way to Sita’s swayamvara with Sage Vishwamitra and brother Lakshman: On the way they saw a beautiful deserted hermitage where Sage Gautama used to live with his wife Ahilya in peace and in Holy meditation. One day Indra disguised as Gautama entered the hut of the Sage in his absence, to have sexual union with the beautiful Ahilya who was vain of her beauty.

In another part of the same book:

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.

The last paragraph in a chapter gorily titled Manthara Kicked Hard by Shatrughan goes:
The moment Shatrughan saw the wicked hearted Manthara clad in her best, he kicked her so hard that her hunch and head were broke.

In another book, the gods are discussing Harishchandra, doubting if he really always spoke the truth:
The talk reached the pinnacle when Vasishtha vouchsafed the quality of speaking truth always of Harishchandra who had ennobled himself among Gods and even leading an austere life and that his fame has pervaded the whole globe.

Did that make any sense? One sentence, no punctuations!

In one version of the story of Krishna and Sudama:
Years past, Krishna and Sudama never met. Krishna was now the king of the country. He had had various adventures, and had fought many battles, he had settled many disputes between kings and between various peoples.

That is the whole of the Mahabharata!

An Akbar-Birbal classic, teaching that all mothers think their own children are the most beautiful, has a picture of a dark, thick-lipped, unkempt baby to show how poor and ugly ‘lower caste’ babies actually look.

          Over the years, Amar Chitra Katha has become synonymous with Indian culture, history, mythology, and religion – at least to a vast majority, and there lies the danger. If anyone were to look at them critically, the huge problems with the narratives in these comics would become obvious. The text comprises banal writing, poor and often wrong use of language, unedited use of dated and inappropriate vocabulary and ideas, plainly chauvinist and insensitive dialogue, blandly rendered narrative, decontextualised perspective. Why then is the series so popular with children?

          One powerful incentive is the comic format, which is visually appealing to the reader. Children tune into comics very quickly and become active readers. Series like ACK or Tinkle (a better series than ACK, I think) and many similar ones that have followed are extremely market-friendly. They are cheap, packaged uniformly, and the comic series format ensures a devoted readership. Amar Chitra Katha’s USP is, of course, the teaching of Indian culture in neat packages. To the Indian parent or teacher, a comic that does that is beyond reproach. Many teachers and parents who are aware of the poor quality still buy these comics because there are no other comics that serve this all-important purpose.

          I am not dismissing the comic genre or the series reader. When authors, illustrators and publishers create books about myths, legends and folk stories with a narrow understanding of the power of those narratives, we get moral lessons or meaningless glorifications of a past with no relevance to the present. Myth and legend appeal to children because they are so rich in metaphor and imagery. Their retelling should open up to children whole new possibilities of using the language, both in terms of ideas and words.

          To my mind the biggest problem with the ACK series are the pictures. By using the comic format, much of the narrative is conveyed through the visuals. The world that emerges through these pictures is a world of tall, strapping gods, kings and princes, and coy, curvaceous, half-clad goddesses, queens and princesses. That they are fair and beautiful naturally follow. The baddies are by contrast short, stocky, dark-skinned and thick-lipped. The inferences are clear: fair is beautiful and good; dark is ugly and bad. The caste and gender biases in these books are obvious.

          A narrative that is retold is as much a cultural experience as the original story, but the kind of retelling our writers indulge in is often vacuous and banal, adapted as it is from the western style of oversimplification of narrative, while eliminating the felicity of language used by very many western writers. But despite the limitations dictated by the standardisation of format, authors can rise to these challenges with tales that are masterpieces of economy, invention and even poetry.

          As I mentioned earlier, we have unquestioningly adopted this dumbing down of style, which we find particularly in American books. Significantly, in the west, there is a critical backlash against such books from teachers, writers and academicians. One of them, educationist Julia Eccleshare, deplores the style of writing that “…reads as if a series of shots is being fired from a gun. Short sentences are easier to read, once hooked you might go on, especially if the children have short silly names and do short silly things”.

Here is an example of what she is talking about from an American book, Jenny is My Big Sister:
Jenny says I am too little to ride my bike with her.
Jenny says I am too little to skate with her.
Jenny says I am too little to play with her friends.
Jenny says, “Get lost, Becka!”
Someday I will not be too little.
Someday Jenny will want to play with me but I will not play with her.
I will say, “Get lost, Jenny!”
Jenny will be sad.
I will say, “Don’t cry, Jenny.”
Jenny and I will play together.
See how much fun we have together.

Here is an Indian example of such writing:
Once upon a time there was a man called Day, he had a beautiful wife called Night, they had a bright little daughter called Moon and a brilliant son called Sun. They all lived happily. One day the children went out for a long walk. They saw beautiful flowers and butterflies, chirpy birds and happy animals. They walked and walked. Suddenly they found themselves in the middle of a huge forest. They had lost their way…

           Why, when we know that our children can and do engage with the complexities of our oral narratives, do we offer them trivialised texts in our books for them? Fundamental questions that any debate on reading must address are, “What kind of books?” “What kind of reading?” “What kind of readers?”

          I would now like to read from a well-loved and extremely popular book published by Tulika, Ekki Dokki. The author, Sandhya Rao, retells a story capturing the spirit of the original that she heard her grandmother tell again and again. Simple, never simplistic, using the device of the storyteller by slipping in a couple of asides, sprinkling the story with a couple of Marathi words – offering multi-lingual text to the reader, which actually enriches the language in which the story is written – it is not difficult to see why young readers go back to the book again and again:

Ekkesvali and Donkesvali lived in a little house with their mother and father. Ekkesvali had one hair on her head, she was called Ekki; and Donkesvali had two hairs, she was very proud, she was called Dokki. Their mother thought there was no one quite as lovely as Dokki. Their father was very busy; he had no time to think. Dokki was always bullying Ekki. One day Ekki ran away. Into the jungle she ran, and the jungle got deeper and very quiet. Suddenly she heard a voice, “Water! Somebody give me water.” Ekki stopped in her tracks and turned around. There was nobody there. Then she spotted a mangy bush all withered and brown, its leaves rustling. Cupping her hands together, Ekki collected water from a small stream nearby and sprinkled it on the bush, once, twice, several times. “Thank you,” the mangy bush said. Ekki walked on. Suddenly in the silence she heard another voice, “Hungry, I am hungry, please feed me,” the voice said.

And the story goes on in this manner.

A K Ramunajan makes a simple point: “Many south Indian stories were mealtime rather than bedtime stories. They were associated with relaxed, loving figures, with sleep and food. The tales were formative influences and hypnotic. We were trying hard to keep our eyes open by the time we came to the end of the story and the meal, which were aimed to coincide.” This is an experience many of us as listeners and tellers share. I think I was at my inventive best when I managed to make the vegetables or the last mouthfuls into my son’s mouth, so engrossed would he be in my story.

          When retelling these stories, we often change qualities intrinsic to them – the sense of fantasy, of improbability, of fun, even of the wicked and wickedly funny. I am not questioning the writer’s freedom to adapt and change, but this has to be done with an understanding of the original. When writers let the original guide and inspire them, as in Ekki Dokki, they truly carry forward the ancient story.

          India, unlike the western nation states, and like Africa or Latin America, is multicultural and multilingual. Its diversity is reflected in 1,652 mother tongues (according to the 1961 census) belonging to four language families and written in 10 major scripts and a host of minor ones; 4,600 castes and communities; 4000 faiths and beliefs. Western monolingualism regards one language as the norm and many languages as absurd; the multilingual attitude is the reverse of this – many languages are the norm and one language is absurd. Paradoxically, we have an education system that compartmentalises language learning in terms of “first”, “second”, “third” and “fourth” languages. Books for children are seen as being primarily for improving reading and writing skills. They are therefore in the dominant language, usually English, and offer dull, featureless, homogenised text.

          Books can bring us closest to a multicultural experience, through translations across our many languages. “Multicultural” is the buzz word in children’s publishing now. The perception of multiculturalism itself is very cultural. This has been our experience, for instance if you show publishers an Indian book which has stylised illustrations, they might complain and say that the book does not have enough “kings” and “queens”. So they have already decided what an Indian book for children should be like; it should have miniature-style paintings, flowing skirts and long hair. Only then is it an Indian book. If it is different from their conception of an Indian book, then it is not accepted. Then what is multiculturalism about?

          Children’s literature in the regional languages reveals phases of vibrancy that are missing in English language publishing. For one, the former has a much longer history; like with all literatures in the regional language, there is an integrity and rootedness in the text that is natural. Writer C S Lewis says, “Writing a children’s story is the best art form for something that you have to say.” Many well known writers explored this art form in our Indian languages – Amir Khusrau, Mirza Ghalib, Mohammed Iqbal, Dr Zakir Husain, Premchand in Hindi; Rabindranath Tagore, Satyajit Ray, Sukumar Ray, Mahasweta Devi. Another striking feature is that poetry, drama, travelogue, nonfiction were all explored. It is only through translations that we can reach this rich and diverse genre to all children. Sharing stories across cultures and languages breaks down barriers. Today, more than ever before, the time is right; a new generation is emerging, a generation that is growing up digital, creating a culture of interaction.

          What happens to narratives in translation? Translation is a complex creative process, an area where there is a lot of academic discussion. When it comes to translating books for children, the task is all the more complex as we are also dealing with a young reader’s developing literacy. The challenge for translators and editors of children’s books is that first you have to throw off the baggage that comes with writing for children. Unless we do this and free both language and thought, how can we capture the music of the Indian languages that are enriched by rhymes, rhythms, alliteration and metaphor, particularly in writing for children? Isn’t it this delight that we seek to convey to the English-knowing readers? To go back to the master, Ramanujan: “Translation must not only represent but re-present the original.” To all of us who have been involved in translating for children, this makes immense sense, for there are times we feel as though we have only managed to “re-present” something and not quite represent it closely. We draw comfort from this parable that Ramanujan quotes:

“A Chinese emperor ordered a tunnel to be bored through a great mountain. The engineer decided that the best and quickest way to do it was to begin work on both sides of the mountain, after precise measurements. If the measurements were precise enough then the two tunnels would meet in the centre, making a single bar. “But what if they don’t meet?” asked the Emperor. The councillors in their wisdom answered, “If they don’t meet, we will have two tunnels instead of one. So too, if the representation in another language is not close enough, but still succeeds in carrying the poem in some sense, we will have two poems instead of one.” This is echoed in Sukanta Chaudhuri’s translations of Sukumar Ray’s Nonsense Poems.

          “Why are they always white children?” asked a five-year-old black girl who was looking at a picture book at the Manhattan nursery school in New York. If you only cared to listen, there are many children’s voices in India that ask similar questions. How many of these children find themselves in the books they read? Some books that do make self-conscious attempts end up reflecting the distorted notions of urban middle class people about rural life.                

          Textbook writers, who are unfortunately the only writers who write for the readership outside the urban sections, are seriously hampered by their limited view of the power of narrative for children. Why primary education has performed so poorly is a question that is debated all the time among educators and policy makers. As our involvement with children’s books and their reading grows, we are increasingly convinced that the quality of the reading that the majority of children experience is directly related to poor literacy levels, to a large extent.

          If we can give all children stories in which they can find themselves, stories in which cultural settings are familiar and relevant, children will find reading interesting and meaningful. There is then a chance of retaining these children long enough to make them literate. The high dropout rate is the usual explanation for poor literacy levels. Books, as much as anything else for children in this country, have to take in the reality of all children’s lives in the present as well as in the past, crossing barriers of class, caste, religion and language; only then can we dare to hope that our future generations will build a borderless world.