Our plot against evil

Reading for pleasure: “As young readers, children learn that life could have little ups and downs and that you could get through most of the difficult stuff with kindness and imagination..” A book fair in Guwahati held earlier in the year.

Reading for pleasure: “As young readers, children learn that life could have little ups and downs and that you could get through most of the difficult stuff with kindness and imagination..” A book fair in Guwahati held earlier in the year.   | Photo Credit: PTI

Stories remain among the best ways to teach children how to cultivate empathy and mutual respect

What are we going to do for Children’s Day this year, my children wanted to know. I could sense the build-up of a campaign.

First there was the new kitten.

I came home from work one day to find the boys sitting at the dining table with their homework spread out around them. This had never happened before, so I knew something was up. After some casual remarks about how they missed our previous cat, and didn’t I think it was time to get a new cat, the children announced that our neighbour’s daughter was trying to find a home for a kitten. And then they started jumping up and down chanting, Please-Please-Pleeeeze-Can-We-Please?

Sigh. I rang up my husband. “What are we waiting for?” he said. So I knew the boys had already spoken to him.

Next, I made the children agree to the most unrealistic conditions I could think of: finish your homework every day without me having to yell at you; eat your vegetables every day without me having to yell at you; go to bed on time without me having to yell. “Okay okay okay,” said the ten-year-old, whose philosophy in life is to agree to anything first and renegotiate later. “But you’ll yell at us anyway,” added the eight-year-old, who has to have the last word on everything.

So the new kitten has now taken over our house. She is tiny; she likes to sit inside shoes and crawl into backpacks; and she bosses over our large Labrador.

Story of a night out

Then, there was the special event: Going Out on a School Night.

With neither cable television nor Xbox at home, it is a rare and special treat for my boys to go out on a school night. This week I took them to see a play at Ranga Shankara. I showed them the lobby mural created by S.G. Vasudev. We had dinner at Anju’s Café, on the ground floor of the theatre complex: lemon iced tea, akki roti, their favourite sabudana vada, and pasta alfredo. “Don’t put any vegetables in it, please,” the eight-year-old whispered to the person at the counter while I pretended not to hear.

The play, Plastikatti, was a performance piece created by three artistes from the Accademia Teatro Dimitri in Switzerland. The production has been conceived using recycled waste material — plastic, paper and PET. It made us think about what the indiscriminate use of plastic is doing to our environment. We loved it: a breathtaking mix of shadow play, projections, puppetry, juggling, music, percussion, acrobatics and dance, using plastic bags and discarded bottles.

The third thing we did for Children’s Day was to buy books. Far too many books.

We browsed at the Ranga Shankara bookshop, Paperback, one of my favourites in Bengaluru. My ten-year-old found the new Wimpy Kid book and immediately WhatsApped a picture of the cover to my husband. I bought a copy of Chandan Gowda’s new translation of U.R. Ananthamurthy’s Bara.

I also bought half a dozen picture books, even though my boys have outgrown them; they were irresistible. 8 Ways to Draw an Elephant is a gorgeous new art activity production by Tara Books in which Italian designer Paola Ferrarotti works with Indian artists Karunakara Sahu, Sunita, Joydeb Chitrakar, Harsingh Hamir, Jason Imam, Jagdish Chitara, and Mudrika Devi, to imagine and render the Indian elephant in eight different art styles, including Saora, Meena, Patua, Pithora, and Mata-ni-Pachedi.

I also picked up a set of K.G. Subramanyan’s classic picture books for children, first published between 1972 and 1995 by the M. S. University, Baroda at their Fine Arts Fairs, and later republished by Seagull Books.

Asking the big questions

When my elder son was a toddler, he had a favourite word: Wottappen? What happened? When he saw the picture of a large egg-shaped Humpty Dumpty fallen on the ground, with big tears running down Humpty’s eggy cheeks: Wottappen? What happened?

“What happened?” is a key question in children’s books. They are strong on plot; things happen quickly; they have consequences. You might sit on a wall, and you might have a great fall. You might throw a tantrum, ride off in a boat on a bouncy sea, and meet monsters. You might come sailing home, find that mum has left dinner for you, and it is still hot.

“What happened?” is also about how you feel. Humpty Dumpty was crying because he had fallen down and got hurt. You feel his hurt. You feel sorry for him. You are learning empathy.

Stories remain among the best ways to teach children how to cultivate empathy and mutual respect.

The first great picture book of my son’s early years was Tiger on a Tree. A mild-mannered Sunderbans tiger somehow wanders into a human village and, scared off by a goat, ends up on top of a tree. The villagers get together to catch the tiger and then wonder what to do with him. The book has one of the best endings that any story could have.

The story is recounted in Anushka Ravishankar’s quirky, spirited rhyme, and the typography spiritedly follows the tiger on his adventure. The book is illustrated in a combination of warm orange, black and clotted cream by the gifted Pulak Biswas. It is published by Tara Books, whose every publication is a small work of art.

Stories that strike a chord

My younger son’s favourite picture book was Norbu’s New Shoes. Published by Tulika Books, this was written and illustrated by Chewang Dorji Bhutia. Little Norbu gets a new pair of yellow shoes from his father. When the family goes to the monastery to pray, a curious monkey comes along and picks up the new shoes, thinking they are yellow bananas. Poor Norbu!

Through their warm, humane stories and their vivid illustrations, picture books helped to connect my children to the lives of those far removed from them: a little Buddhist child in Sikkim, a bewildered tiger in the Sunderbans, a group of villagers wondering what to do with a tiger now that they had caught him.

As young readers, the children were learning that life could have little ups and downs; that they might make you feel good or not so good; and that you could get through most of the difficult stuff with kindness, imagination and empathy.

This year my ten-year-old son’s class is reading The Diary of Anne Frank. They are learning about greater losses, about prejudice, and the evil that human beings are capable of. They are reading about one of the terrible stories of twentieth century, and they are learning to ask: What happened? How did it happen? How could it happen? How can we make sure it never happens again?

It gives me hope for the future.

Uma Mahadevan Dasgupta is in the IAS, currently based in Bengaluru.

Why you should pay for quality journalism - Click to know more

Related Topics
Recommended for you
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Printable version | Feb 20, 2020 10:05:55 AM |

Next Story