Of Light and Delight
Manoj Das, the master story-teller, answers our questions about his children's books.
(Published in August 2011 issue of “THE GOLDEN CHAIN” Alumni Journal of Sri Aurobindo International Centre of Education, Pondicherry)
Your first book for children was titled Legends of India's Temples. It was followed by Legends of India's Rivers, Tales from Many Lands and Persian Tales of Wit and Delight. Each one of them saw several reprints. You also contributed three or four scripts to the Amar Chitra Katha series. Can you tell us how you first started writing for children and about these first books?
That was in the mid-sixties of the last century. Through the questions I put to my students in the class it became evident that most of them did not have much idea about the wonderful myths and legends behind India's premier monuments and natural splendours. I resided at Home of Progress. Once we were quarantined for a fortnight because of a bout of chicken-pox. I took advantage of the holidays imposed on us and wrote out the first book. I then felt that it could very well serve a larger circle of interested people. India Book House of Bombay (now Mumbai), then one of the premier publishing institutions in the country, had launched a series for the young and I thought that my tiny book could fit into it. I wrote to them. The series had an exceptionally brilliant editor, not only suave and courteous, but also one with a feel for the worthy stuff, Mrs. Neera Benegal, wife of Mr. Shyam Benegal — the latter yet to become a celebrity movie director. Neeraji was already familiar with my writing, for I was then contributing to several periodicals and newspapers. She welcomed the project. As soon as the book was published she went on encouraging me to write another and yet another book. I must say I was also fascinated by our myths and I felt the urge to share them with the young. Just think of it: how was the river Narmada born?
Once while Lord Siva remained lost in meditation, the calm, the serenity, the splendid peace He radiated suddenly took the form of a damsel. She bowed to the Lord who blessed her and said, "My child, you have inspired in my heart a feeling of tenderness. Hence be known as Narmada (the giver of tenderness)."
Now, can we dream of better poetry than this charming concept — the calm the Lord exuded taking a form? Well, since I began narrating the legend, let me finish it. The Lord offered her a boon. "Bless me that I will ever roam about free," she said. That was granted. But before long the gods spied upon this beautiful damsel fleeting about like a dream. They approached her and, as she remained elusive, chased her. At last one of them caught hold of her. At once she changed into water and slipped through his fingers and flowed on as a river.
The genesis of the Ganga is uniquely significant. But let me stop here. As the mutual trust between the IBH and me increased, I wrote several titles for them.
Two of your children's books have been remarkably successful: Stories of Light and Delight which is probably India's largest selling children's story book during the past half century and Books Forever, a non-fiction work. Can you tell us how these two books came about? What was the intention of writing Books Forever?
I do not know if my young friends like you would remember the unique journal called Shankar's Weekly. Edited by the doyen of India's cartoon culture, Shankar Pillai, it was an intellectual publication teeming with intelligent cartoons and witty articles, a journal avidly read by Nehru, Mountbatten and all those who mattered apart from the general elite. In the sixties I was the only writer whose short stories found a place in that famous journal. Shankar founded the International Dolls Museum and published a monthly, Children's World. Because of my association with them I wrote for the new magazine and my stories at tracted the attention of the noted writer K.S. Duggal who was then the chief executive of the National Book Trust, India. He proposed to publish them as a book and I agreed happily. He commissioned the distinguished cartoonist Mario to illustrate the book. Shankar of course resented my decision when he came to know about it, for he wanted his Children's Book Trust to publish it. I had to request my friend Smt. Nandini Satpathy, then a minister at the Centre, to pacify him.
Yes, the book, Stories of Light and Delight, published in 1970, became a best-seller and it continues to be so over the decades, thousands of copies rolling out of the press in each reprint. Then the NBT asked me for another book and I suggested the theme for Books Forever, introducing to the children the great books of India's past, like the epics, the Panchatantra, the Kathasarit-sagara, the Thirukkural, etc. That too has become equally popular and both the titles are available in most of our major languages, translated by distinguished writers like Kuvempu in Kannada and Leela Majumdar in Bengali.
Incidentally, many people think that the phenomenal popularity of these two books must have brought me a fortune in terms of royalty! Not so. I was paid only a one-time fee of a thousand rupees for each book. The amount was significant in the early seventies. Neither I nor the publishers expected the books to do so well. However, I have no regret. The NBT is our national institution and I am happy that millions have enjoyed the books.
Two of your novelettes, The Fourth Friend and The Legend of the Golden Valley are considered highly original contributions to children's literature. Can you tell us about these two stories?
The Fourth Friend, like so many of my short stories, is an authentic picture of the typical Indian village life of yester year. The characters and incidents reflect much of my own experiences in the rural India of my childhood. Like the village in the story, my own elder sister's village used to become a complete island during floods. In fact I had for my pet a tiger-cub entrapped in that village — an episode I have narrated in my book of childhood reminiscences, Chasing the Rainbow: Growing up in an Indian Village, brought out by the Oxford University Press. The tiger in the novelette of course is a grown up one; but I believe my feeling about the tiger as a creature is correct. By the way, our second home was in the Sundarbans, the abode of the Royal Bengal tiger, where my forefathers had acquired hundreds of acres of land including forests.
The Legend of the Golden Valley is an original fairytale — with an allegorical implication. Like Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, which could be appreciated both by children and grown-ups on two different planes, this novelette has proved to have exercised the same effect.
How different is creating a fresh story from retelling a mythological or folk tale? Where did the inspiration for the latter category come from?
Very different. You create a story out of your own creative inspiration. You retell a mythological story or a folktale because you find it interesting or educative and feel the urge to convey a bit of the original author's inspiration to readers of your time. The original inspiration is not yours, yours is an exercise in appreciation of it. I have retold many such stories for children and a hundred stories under the title Tales told by Mystics, published by the Sahitya Akademi, for readers of all ages. That too is a best-selling Akademi publication.
I have also used old stories of all-time relevance to drive a point of contemporary relevance home. I have taken the end-point of a Panchatantra or a Jataka story and have built up on it. I have a collection of stories of this genre entitled The Lady who died One and a Half Times and other Fantasies. That, of course, is for adults.
You have always been known as a wonderful story-teller. How different is writing a story for children from writing for adults? Do you just make it simpler? Or are there other factors you have to keep in mind?
No doubt several other factors apart from the need for a simpler style. As some years ago the journalist Ann Landers, spearheading a movement to alert parents about the dangerous consequences of vulgarity and violence in the media, asked, "Would you allow your child to eat garbage? Why then let him put it in his head?" Adults choose what they would read; the children do not. It is not only the parents' responsibility to choose for them, but also the authors' responsibility to choose themes for them. Even when you retell an old story, which aspect of it you emphasize means much. A wrong emphasis to amuse the reader can cause a subtle damage.
What role do stories play in shaping the child's mind? In shaping his/her values? Does the retelling of mythological stories play an important role in this regard?
All depends on the artistry and discernment of the re-teller. Mythology, the epics Ramayana and Mahabharata in particular, had a perennial appeal for all, children not excluded. There was a young entrepreneur who loved to spend an hour with his little son when back from his office. "What did you learn today?" one evening the youngman asked his child. "Our Didi (the lady teacher) told us a story called the Ramayana" informed the boy.
The father asked the child to narrate the story, but the boy was quite unwilling to oblige him, saying that he (the father) would not enjoy it. But as the father insisted on hearing it, he thought for a moment and narrated, rather reluctantly, "The hero and the heroine went into the forest for a picnic. The villain kidnapped the heroine. The hero sent an SOS to his pals. They invaded the villain's den and rescued the lady."
"What?" asked the flabbergasted father, "Is this what your teacher told you as the Ramayana?”
Displaying an indulgent smile, said the boy, "Father, what she said was charming — simply wonderful. But you won't believe it!"
That is to say, the child had enjoyed the outline of the original epic; but he feared that his father, a newfangled materialistic fellow, would probably laugh at his teacher's naivety. Hence he edited her version for the sake of his father.
The epics have an inexplicable quality and charm and whatever elements of violence or grossness they seem to have, do not leave any adverse impact on the child when narrated in their context. The epics leave great s'cope for the narrator to prove his or her innovative and imaginative skill.
You have also had a long association with Chandamama, the children's magazine, and have written stories for it. Can you tell us something about the association? What was your intention in being involved?
It was a chance meeting with its manager at the residence of Shri V. Subramaniam, our S. Ravi's father, a devotee of the Mother and a top executive of the Higginbothams set-up. The manager introduced me to its publisher Viswam Shri B. Viswanatha Reddy, the worthy son of its founder, the famous Nagi Reddy, Dadasasheb Phalke Award winning producer. I have rarely come across a young man of Viswam's qualities, honest, upright and unassuming. In their dignified humility I saw in him and his wife Rani-ji a genuine younger brother and sister. Probably you know that Viswam also published The Heritage, which I edited for five years. That was the last literary-cultural English magazine in India, for today all such magazines have been swallowed by newsmagazines — thanks to our demoniac hunger for sensations. The Heritage ran on loss
— lakhs every year because we refused to publish advertisements that were not conducive to the character of the publication thereby hurting the ego of the advertisers.
Our first meeting itself made me interested in Chandamama, Asia's — or could it be the world's? — largest circulated Children's magazine, published in twelve languages including Sanskrit and Braille. Barring the English edition, all other editions had the same content. I helped in editing the English edition which commanded an international circulation. With perfect editorial collaboration between Viswam and me, its circulation went on increasing. I found it an unparalleled medium for carrying light and delight for children? It was an adventure par excellence. Unfortunately a number of misfortunes befell the family of my publishers and the magazine was taken over by others. I do not know how it is faring now.
The Harry Potter series, which is all about magic and occult worlds, seems to have renewed interest in reading among children. Have you read any book in the series? What is your impression? Where does the author draw her inspiration from? Would you recommend it as reading material for children?
I attempted reading a couple of volumes, but could not proceed beyond some twenty pages. Too contrived, bereft of any genuine inspiration. Hence I do not qualify to answer your questions.
What is your reaction to what you see of children's movies, cartoons and TV serials?
I have hardly seen any. Sorry.
Do you see any interesting or encouraging trends in Indian publishing for children? In English? In vernacular languages?
Yes, encouraging surely — but relatively. Keeping in mind the vastness of the country and the rising population of literate children, we are lagging far behind the minimum need, both in content and form.
Keeping in mind what the Mother has said regarding what the children should or should not be exposed to, what advice would you give someone who wants to write stories for children?
To remember the words of the Mother and look for inspiration from within and to remain alert about the responsibility that goes with one's right to speak to the vulnerable mind of the child. Thank you so much.