Storyboard Books

It’s time we encouraged meaningful literature for the next generation

A child at a book fair in Delhi.   | Photo Credit: Monica Tiwari

I was invited to the 2nd Bal Sahitya Parishad held in Goa and I went because it was Goa and hey, who doesn’t want to go to Goa? And because it was an event that was about writing for children and I have always been a sucker for lost causes.

Think about it for a moment. When was the last time you saw a children’s book reviewed in the mainstream papers? Please let’s not talk about J.K. Rowling and Pottermania because it is the fig leaf with which we all cover our sins. So here’s the thing: newspapers should be thinking about nurturing the next generation of readers. They should be encouraging writing for children by giving considered and considerable coverage to it. Instead, they just blunder on, hoping that children will be reading and that they will eventually get to reading the papers. But children don’t have the vote and children don’t have money. This means they are easy to ignore. This means they are not a section of society anyone has to pander to. Yes, they have pester power, 1% of 1% of 1%. The rest are silenced by ‘one tight slap’ or worse.

So who buys books for children?

Adults.

Adults who?

Well, there’s Aunty and Uncle. Actually, it’s probably Aunty though Uncle gets to sign his name and does so with a flourish. Aunty does the actual work. She goes to the bookshop and asks the shop assistant where the books for children are. The shop assistant points wordlessly to an aisle where the Illustrated Tales from Our Immortal Epics gleam in ten thousand rows of books, all pretty much telling the same stories.

Once upon a time

Here’s one you’re familiar with:

There was once a crane and a fox who were friends. The fox invited the crane to dinner and served it in dishes so the crane couldn’t eat because she couldn’t get her beak into the food. The crane went home hungry and annoyed. So she invited the fox to dinner and served it in tall-necked jars, so the fox couldn’t get his snout into the food.

Heigh ho.

What lesson did you just learn, boys and girls?

We learn that we must eat with our own kind.

Who is my kind?

Oh, for that you must ask Daddy and Mummy, or better still, your grandparents who will parse your kind for you. They have done the math, they know the stats, and they’re sure they know who you can eat with and who you shouldn’t eat with.

I want so much to find a book that has this story in it.

There was once a crane and a fox who were friends. The fox invited the crane to dinner and served it in dishes so the crane couldn’t eat because she couldn’t get her beak into the food. The crane went home hungry and annoyed. So she invited the fox to dinner and served it in tall-necked jars, so the fox couldn’t get his snout into the food. He went home hungry and annoyed too.

But the next day, they met in the market when they were both shopping for food and the fox was buying a long-necked jar and the crane was buying a flat serving plate. And the next week, they both went over to each other’s houses and enjoyed their meals and told stories and had a lot of fun.

Because they are friends, you see, and friends don’t have to be exactly like each other. They just have to be able to adjust a wee bit.

Or here’s another one you’ve probably heard too.

Once upon a time there was a jackal who fell into a pot of blue dye and when the sun rose the next day, he was blue. And all the animals in the jungle thought he was something special and made him king but then one night the moon came out and the jackal howled and they said, ‘Oh he’s nothing but a jackal who’s dyed blue,’ and they beat him black and not-blue.

What did you learn from that one, my wee ones? You learned that whatever you do, you’ll always be you. Now that’s a wonderful lesson to learn, you would think but what if blue was a code word for education. Let’s read that story differently.

Hidden truths

There was once a young potter who thought he could become a doctor. He went and got a doctor’s degree from Oxford and he even played cricket for them so he earned his blue but when he came back to his village, everyone said, ‘He’s still a potter’s son.’

Of course, there are many more books out there and books by Indian authors. But Aunty and Uncle think they should get their nephews and nieces books by British and American authors because they write English better. Perhaps we could get British and American authors to study Tamil and Telugu and Hindi and Nagamese and all our other languages and we could get them to write stories in those languages as well so that our children could be served just a little better.

The Bal Sahitya Parishad was an enjoyable and exciting event. There were some good speeches but here was also a wonderful and strange moment where a woman who is on some kind of panel that deals with textbooks across the country was asked whether there were books that dealt with dark issues. She said there weren’t any Indian books, not yet. She’d missed Paro Anand’s No Guns At My Son’s Funeral (violence and oppression) perhaps. (The Other has just come out, so perhaps she can be excused). She’d missed Himanjali Sankar’s Talking of Muskaan (teen suicide, homosexuality). She’d missed Sheila Dhir’s Why Are You Afraid To Hold My Hand? (disability). She’d missed Sorry, Best Friend!, edited by Shama Futehally and Githa Hariharan (communal harmony).

Perhaps she’d simply given up reading Indian writers because all the books she mentioned were by British and American authors.

Heigh ho.

The author tries to think and write and translate in the cacophony of Mumbai.

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Printable version | Nov 18, 2020 3:27:06 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/its-time-we-encouraged-meaningful-literature-for-the-next-generation/article25144207.ece

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