Deepa Agarwal (India)

Speaking Time and Room No.: 2006-9-22 14:00-15:30 Room II

Speaker: Deepa Agarwal (India)

Children’s Books in India: Real Worlds and Ideal Worlds


“But trailing clouds of Glory do we come

From God, who is our home:

Heaven lies about us in our infancy!”


The above quote from William Wordsworth’s “Ode, Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood” perhaps illustrates what many of us feel about the world of childhood. And our approach towards children’s literature is sometimes coloured by the same attitude. We cling to this romantic image of childhood, and as adults we are so conscious of our responsibilities towards this impressionable and vulnerable audience, that sometimes we over protect children by projecting a utopian vision of the world.

Thus we continue to write or tell stories which will reinforce platitudes like, “Honesty is the best policy,” “Virtue is always rewarded,” etc. etc.

This was valid to some extent maybe, when a large number of middle and upper class children, very much like the ill-fated Marie-Antoinette, led lives screened from the nasty realities of existence. But today when the electronic media beams vivid images of violence, hunger, need and exploitation and straight into our homes, can a writer continue to sugar coat reality without totally losing credibility?

The predicament, however, is not that easily resolved, particularly in a country like India. There are vast social and economic divides and tradition and religion are powerful forces. A host of problems that directly affect the young but most children’s books ignore them. One reason, of course, is our own conservative mindset. Another is that like many other countries we suffer from what is described as ‘hidden censorship’.

These taboos continue to linger, despite the fact that our audience relishes stories that violate them. To mention a few—when I began writing for children about twenty years back I learnt that ghost stories were not acceptable because they encouraged belief in the supernatural. Characters like a nasty grand-aunt, a corrupt policeman or a villainous army colonel were forbidden. More recently a collection of stories titled What’s Right, What’s Wrong commissioned by an NGO; which dwelt on issues like child labour, gender discrimination, HIV/AIDS and hunger among others, was criticised by other writers and reviewers who felt these topics were not suitable for children. Interestingly, the book went into several editions and in school discussions many children opined that it was important to be aware of such issues. Not too long ago a parent wrote a strong letter to one of my publishers saying that one of my picture book stories turned her child off school because it had a scene where a teacher was scolding her students. Paradoxically, that series of animal stories with mostly mischievous characters is the most popular among all my work. Another revealing experience was when several publishers turned down a picture book story about the exploitation of a child domestic helper. When it found a home eventually, changes were requested because some reviewers felt it might upset readers. The child had to be transformed into a poor relation.

Ironically enough, when we examine our ancient literature—for example the Panchatantra stories, we discover a sturdy pragmatism. To consider the very popular tale of “The Monkey and the Crocodile”, which deals with the painful subject of friendship betrayed. In the end the monkey parts company with his false friend, the crocodile. Would this be acceptable in a modern children’s story? Most likely the traitor would repent of her/his actions and the relationship restored. Similarly the hugely popular Vikram-Vetal series has a gruesome setting—a burning ghat—a place where dead bodies are burned. True, children love horror stories. But while these tales are fascinatingly bizarre the last story concludes with a gruesome execution by the king—albeit a justified one. A large number of myths widely retold for children abound in gore too—like the story of the saintly Prahalad, the son of a demon, who tries to kill him because of his devotion to god. The demon father comes to a grisly end instead, and writer and critic Nandini Nayar comments that: “I cringed when I saw what Prahalad does, his calmness in the face of the horrible death his father suffers.”

However, an overwhelming majority of publishers and parents does not react the same way. These ancient stories possess the sanction of tradition, unlike those written by contemporary writers, so this dichotomy continues.

Fortunately, a small space for realism always existed, which is growing steadily now. Many former readers nostalgically recall a now defunct magazine called Target, edited by Rosalind Wilson, a lady who contributed vastly to the development of children’s literature in India. A large number of stories that addressed the real problems real children faced were regularly published in it.

Books that address real concerns are also being accepted more readily both by readers and publishers. As Manisha Chaudhry, an editor with Pratham Books, an organization that publishes books for first generation learners says, “We have had no adverse reactions from either the children or the gate keepers, such as the Bal Sakhis (children’s friends), librarians or parents. I can say this with a measure of certainty as we have had occasion to get feedback from them, through questionnaires and at meetings… However, it really depends on the treatment of the issue. And it boils down to the authenticity and empathy that the writer either feels or exhibits a lack thereof. I feel children suss out insincerity very fast. I, for one would not reject a manuscript because it deals with a painful aspect of reality. If it brings up something in a way organic to the book and talks to children naturally, I'd go for it.”

Many highly acclaimed children’s books have demonstrated exactly the same quality. Ruskin Bond’s The Angry River is an amazingly calm portrayal of a village girl, Sita coping stoically with calamity—the destruction caused by a flood. Anita Desai’s A Village by the Sea is a sometimes painfully realistic story about two poor children Hari and Lila trying to survive in adverse conditions and growing in strength and maturity. Among more recent books one can mention two IBBY honour list nominees, Devika Rangachari’s Growing Up and Paro Anand’s No Guns at my Son’s Funeral. The first is a realistic depiction of middle-class life, while the second outlines the making of a boy terrorist in Kashmir with compelling, even terrifying clarity. The climax is as brutal as any television image of a terrorist attack though the end strikes a positive note.

Talking about children’s reaction to her book Paro says, “As far as the ideal world goes, yes, we don't live in one and today's young, especially twelve and up, hate to be cottonwooled, they are so much more willing and able

to confront reality and deal with it as reality. As far as the book is concerned, they were actually very affected by the whole thing but what they found too much to handle was when Akram (the hero) is made to kill a puppy and then a kitten during his training. The human deaths were somehow easier to handle for them than the animal deaths. Strange, no? Also, even the extreme science fiction that is attracting the young, especially bringing young boys back into the reading and writing mould, is also, in many ways rooted in reality itself. They may have weird names and locations, but their actual situations as well as their handling of them is very rooted in reality.”

The ultimate in reality—the open-ended children’s book is still not common in Indian children’s fiction. To quote Nandini Nayar again, “To write books that conclude with all strings tied off neatly, no loose ends visible, is unrealistic. But you see this does not happen because of the kind of 'safe' topics that writers in India stick to. Children are protected from reality, so serious subjects are a taboo. And so, obviously, is anything like a reality check in the form of open-ended books.”

Yes, in real life perfect resolutions are rare indeed. But for reasons we all know, children’s books will never or can never be totally realistic. The conventions may have been diluted but are hard to dislodge. As Alison Lurie says in Don’t Tell the Grown-Ups her excellent book on children’s literature, “Though there are some interesting exceptions, even the most subversive of contemporary children’s books usually follow these conventions. They portray an ideal world of perfectible beings, free of the necessity for survival and reproduction: not only a pastoral but a paradisal universe—for without sex and death, humans may become as angels. The romantic child, trailing clouds of glory, is not as far off as we might think.”