Up front and captive: Randomly Reading to Children

Sandhya Rao, writer, for The Book Review, November 2007

At the Labrynth Children’s Museum in Berlin last September, we had a reading from Indian books. There were about 50 children and seven or eight adults at the activity centre that afternoon, mostly 11 to 13-year-olds. At the end of the session as the supervising adults gave thanks that their charges had ‘behaved’, a clutch of excitable kids surrounded me.

“You can dance?” a dark-eyed teen asked. Turkish. “If you will sing,” I replied. “Okay,” he said and burst into “Bole choodiyaan, bole kangana, hai mai ho gayee tere saajana, tere bin jeeyo naiyo lagda mai te mar jaavaan, lejja lejja…’” rendering the Punjabi lyrics brilliantly. Others joined him. Meanwhile, a young girl, her head covered with a hijab, thrust a book into my hands, a scrapbook filled with pictures of Indian filmstars: Shahrukh Khan, Preity Zinta, Kareena Kapoor, Hrithik Roshan. “They are soooo beautiful!” she drooled. Another girl whispered, “You are Sandhya Rao. I know Amrita Rao!”

          These children know a lot more than we adults in the garb of teachers, librarians, parents give them credit for. That’s for sure and that’s one thing I have understood through interactions with children in various parts of the world. Thanks to the Frankfurt Bookfair I had some opportunities to spend time in the company of many different kinds of children in Frankfurt and Berlin.

          At the Frankfurt International School, for instance, the librarian was quite obviously agitated that the children were going to be read a text (from a book for children of course) about what goes on in the mind of a child who has lived through the tsunami of December 2004. Necessarily, the text touches upon death and loss and grief.

          In deference to her concern, I read aloud only up to a point where the details of the tragedy are impending. But the children wanted more and they pressed me to read on. They wanted to hear it all out and, more than that, they wanted to share what they themselves knew. In an after school in Berlin, the children disclosed how a teacher and a child from their own elementary school had gone missing in Indonesia in the tsunami. They wanted to talk about it and understand what had happened. These children were only about nine years old. In Chennai, children who had been directly and traumatically affected confided that they felt comforted by the fact that now at least others were getting to hear their stories through the book.

          Adults argue about stories and pictures and words that they are sometimes “too region-specific,” or “culturally alien”. Often they will actively shield their children from books that are supposedly ‘different’ from what they know or see or are familiar with. Yet, in schools across Sweden, for instance, children 10 years and above know about the practice of caste discrimination in India. In every class in every school came this opening salvo: “Why do you have castes in India?” Shocked, I asked how they knew, at that age. “It’s in our textbook,” they replied. And there it is: There are four different castes in India, etc etc etc. So they want to know all about it and keep asking questions. We had discussions on this in every class.

          In Sweden, adults asked how children would understand the adventure story of Pippi Longstrump, a highly independent nine-year-old girl who lives alone and who puts adults firmly in their place. “Will you change names, or adapt the story to Indian conditions? Will they understand?” they worried. The answer came after reading aloud to a group of girls in a Mumbai municipal school in Santa Cruz about how Pippi rides to school on her horse just so she can enjoy Christmas holidays like other children, and then makes a fool of the teacher by asking some fundamental questions that I am sure children often want to ask… There were no concessions to cultural differences, Pippi came packaged as she appears in the original Swedish. The answer came after the girls got over the initial shock of discovering the existence of such rebelliousness in a book, then discovering that it must be ‘okay’ since an adult was reading it out aloud to them, and then sitting back to enjoy the story and identifying with Pippi in spirit and in some cases perhaps even in fact, in their imaginations...

          Then, there was a group of 7 to 9-year-olds who loved to roll their tongues over all the Swedish words and names in the Pippi stories. “Villa Villakulla! Villa Villakulla!” they would chant like a mantra. “Pippi Lambemoze! Pippilotta Ephraimsdotter something something something Longstrump!”

          Is it that we adults have the problems? That we prefer a world of children’s books that we can control? No complex questions? No funny ideas? And certainly no questions for which we don’t have answers? Can’t really blame ourselves sometimes, though. I remember a time, some years ago, with a group of kids in a local Chennai school. Would you like to change the end of the story, I had asked thinking maybe at least this would engage their interest. That was all. Salivating, they pounced on my poor little harmless grandma’s tale and transformed it into a bloodbath while I concentrated on exercising maximum restraint on facial and other muscles.

          Kids at SOS Tambaram also salivated and pounced upon this same grandma’s tale at their resource centre. One pulled out the English version and started to read out, herself, hesitatingly, aloud. Another pounced upon the Tamil version. Taking turns, they read aloud the whole book, page by page. By the time they finished, a crowd had collected and then it was a free for all with everybody pulling out English and Tamil versions of books and wanting to read aloud in pairs. We had to pay attention!

          As I couldn’t but notice young Ekatha the moment I spotted her, the only brown face in a sea of peaches and cream and roses at the Jens Nydahl Grundshule in Kreuzberg, Berlin. As my friend Tina and I walked into the hall, “Vanakkam!” the very German children chorused. “You?” I asked, looking towards the brown face. Yes, she nodded and exchanged secret smiles with her classfellows. When she heard I was from India, she said, “I am from Sri Lanka. Do you know my father?”

          Yes, children recognise no boundaries. They are the T20 generation. They know more than we give them credit for.