Many moons ago...

As one leafs through old copies of Chandamama stashed away in a corner of a cupboard, one realises that the written word is fast disappearing from the life of the modern child. DEEPA GANESH wonders if the grandeur of the world of imagination will ever return.

THE OTHER day, I was passing by a magazine stall that I frequented during my childhood. To my surprise, I found the humble Chandamama sitting there, amidst the other new-age glossies. I knew Chandamama had been relaunched, but to see it in an upmarket IT-savvy Bangalore... it was a bit much. I looked closer and there were more surprises coming my way. Among the stunning, skimpily-clad heroines who adorned the cover pages of film magazines hid another magazine of my childhood, Bala Mitra. And that too in Kannada, Telugu, and Tamil. Unbelievable!

The shopkeeper seemed to understand my state of shock. "We keep very few copies," he said. Who reads them? "Very few children come asking for these. Mostly children from lower middle class, who have Kannada as their medium of instruction," he explained. "There are some parents who force it on their children as a book of their childhood. The children take it most reluctantly," he added. Well, for old times sake, I bought copies, came back home, and stashed it away with the other childrens' books.

My 10-year-old niece came visiting the next day and was looking through the books. While she picked up every other book, she left Chandamama and Bala Mitra untouched. I asked her why and pat came the reply: "It's boring. Who's interested in the story of kings and queens? These books are not even stylish, they look old-fashioned." In a single stroke, my childhood world came crumbling.

We have had a long and strong tradition of story-telling. In fact, stories are told in all cultures. They have been a means of creating solidarity and a common context. Myths, fairy tales, and fables... there are a variety of genres and forms of expression.

Common to all the cultures is also the move from the oral to the written narrative - and later to the visual narrative in films, on TV, video, and the computer. Boluvaru Mohammed Kunhi, in his foreword to Tattu chappale putta magu, a collection of Kannada nursery rhymes put together by him, says that children's literature in the written word was born during the Industrial Revolution (17th Century), when both parents set out to work.

The first-ever magazine that I perhaps read was the Chandamama, in pre-television, pre-Cartoon Network days. Most stories that appeared in Chandamama, Bala Mitra, Bombe Mane and so on were read-aloud stories. I can still remember those warm, summer nights when we slept on the terrace, listening to the stories. Somehow, those summer nights never seemed long enough. Vikram and Betal, the banyan tree (central to most Indian stories), the fairy with beautiful wings, ants and their sense of discipline... comprised our world of fantasy.

There were also short stories that spoke of the values that our great minds lived by - the simplicity of Eshwara Chandra Vidyasagar, how even Bapu was punished for wrong doing, the Neenu Ivaranthagu column in Bala Bharathi, which featured freedom fighters... Even the English comics that we read, such as Tinkle and Champak, told tales of a simple girl, a humble Kalia the crow... nothing on the lines of a grand Barbie, sporting the perfect figure and dressed lavishly.

Not that one did not have problems with these stories. Now, as I look back, I realise how they perpetrated stereotypes of gender, class, and colour. Mother cooked and took care of children, the bad man was dark-skinned...

Yet, there was scope for imagination. While the Chandamamas and Champaks of today have in some way retained the essence of the past, they somehow miss the earlier charm. Is it the killing competition that has done them in, I wonder.

For many years, especially in the West, speculations have emerged if the book, in this interconnected world of media, would survive as a medium? And will children continue to read books? Isn't it a fact that both children and young people, and for that matter, also adults, spend most of their free time sitting in front of a TV now?

But more significantly, the alienating culture of television has taken the place of other forms of communication that at one time tied us together in families and communities, and gave us all the opportunity to participate in creating and passing along our cultural legacy.

For the first time perhaps in human history, children are hearing most of the stories, most of the time, not from their parents or school, in temples or from neighbours, but from a handful of global conglomerates that have something to sell.

It is impossible to estimate the effect this has on the way our children grow up, the way we live, and the way we conduct our affairs. Television is surely more than a set of programmess, but more a mythology - organically connected, repeated every day so that the themes that run through have the effect of cultivating conceptions of reality.

The written word opened up our world of imagination, offered endless scope to fantasy, but the television that has dominated our lives demands nothing but our inertness. It has homogenised us, blurred all things distinct in one shot, providing us all with a uniform set of ideas.

A child of five and an adult of 40 can watch the same programme by the push of a button. Children and adults therefore now talk alike, dress alike, and play the same games.

When Sisu Sangamesha, a Kannada writer of repute, wrote the editorial for Bala Bharathi in October 1980, he recognised the dangers of succumbing to commercial pressures and reiterated his commitment to the overall development of a child. Today, we don't even introduce them to our children.

Not that we should be closed to all ideas now. After all, Kannada children's literature owes a lot to the British missionaries. It was because their academic curiosity went further than religion that they unearthed our own "Nagara haave, havolu hoove" in a sheaf of manuscripts.

Is it that one needs a bit of old world innocence, which children these days lose early in life, to enjoy a Chandamama, an Amar Chitra Katha? On second thoughts, maybe the situation is not so bleak, after all. Even the new generation, whose staple diet is cartoon on the idiot box, took to the magic world of Harry Potter, didn't it?

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