The Indian Children’s Writer at cross roads

The Indian Children’s Writer at cross roads

At least a dozen seminars and workshops have been convened by different organisations during the past decade on aspects of the state of children’s literature in India today. Of the last two World Book Fairs in New Delhi (in the years 2000 and 2002), while the first one was devoted to an exposition of this genre of creativity in several countries of the world vis-à-vis India, the theme of the major discussions on both the occasions had been the problems and prospects of children’s literature in India.

Can Indian children’s literature compete with the kind of Potters and potboilers churned out in the West? Is there any meaning in a conscious competition of that kind? Is there any promise of success in that regard for the Indian writer of children’s literature even in a reasonably distant future?

A reflection on the issues will irresistibly remind us of a few guiding facts. Indian civilisation is credited with the world’s most systematically developed literary tradition — the Vedas leading to theUpanishads, the latter leading to the Epics, followed by theMahapuranas, Puranas, Upapuranas and the Sthalapuranas and, keeping pace with the two last genres of literature, the growth of the robust line of drama and poetry inaugurated by Vasa (not to be confused with Vyasa) and Kalidasa as well as sublime didactic compositions, the classic example of which is Thiruvalluvar’s Kural.

But this is only one aspect of the tradition. The other aspect, at a different plane, is no less formidable or significant. We can tentatively call that the pragmatic lore. That consists of Gunadhya’s Brihat Kathawritten probably in the 1st Century and probably the world’s earliest collection of fiction, but only a part of which is available to us asKathasaritsagara, courtesy Somadeva of the 11th Century; thePanchatantra of the master storyteller Vishnu Sharma and the Jataka Tales, the genesis of which is traced to the time of the Buddha who is believed to have narrated the first few of them, among a plethora of tales and verses constituting India’s vast folklore. There was even a third branch of literature, sometimes written but mostly oral, the tales told by mystics — at once profound in their content and absorbing for their construction as pure stories. We can call that genre the literature of prudence.

With this colossal heritage forming its backdrop, what was children’s literature in India like? Every language had its stock of lullabies, nursery rhymes, nonsense verses, fairytales and simple stories of light and delight. But significantly, the major part of children’s literature was made of stories drawn from the classical stock, both of the first and the second lines of our heritage, that is, from the epics and from the works belonging to the pragmatic lore. As we know, most of the modern Indian languages achieved maturity through a recreation of the epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. ThePanchatantra tales had an incredible knack of sneaking into every literature. Children’s literature, in most of our languages, was a judicious blending of the epic stories of valour, sacrifice and idealism and tales of wit and wisdom from the second and third lines of our literary heritage. These stories have a kind of uncanny quality in them so that they can be meaningful to both the grown up and the young.

It is a significant fact of history that long before the modern means of communication and the zeal for exchange and fraternity among nations had come into vogue, children in so many parts of the world had together started dreaming and enjoying exercises in imaginativeness of broadly the same variety. It was of course a one-way traffic — almost. The Indian stories flooded the Western world. If a scholar like Joseph Jacob says that at least one-third of the world’s total treasure of stories is of Indian origin, there are folklorists to go to the extent of declaring that practically all the stories were born in India, barring some emanating from the Euphrates Valley. The most popular of the stories to be found in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales — the story of three young men entering a cave in order to kill a demon but forgetting their goal on seeing a heap of gems inside and destroying themselves in their bid to outwit one another in possessing the entire wealth, is a story from the Jatakas.

Take the case of the influence exercised by the Panchatantra. A physician named Burzoe translated it into Pehlevi in 6th Century A.D. A Syrian version prepared by Bud followed and that was translated into Arabic by Abdulla Mogaffa in the 8th Century. This Arabic version became the source for several European renderings — Greek in the 11th Century, Hebrew in the 12th, Latin in the 13th, German in the 15th, Italian in the 16th and French in the 17th Century. As Hertel puts it, “The Panchatantra is a work which has made an unparalleled triumphal progress from its native land over all the civilised parts of the globe and which for more than fifteen hundred years has delighted young and old, educated and uneducated, rich and poor, high and low, and still delights them. Even the greatest obstacles whether of language or customs or religion have not been able to check that triumphal progress. It is not only the oldest extant work of Hindu artistic fiction, but it is also the one which has exerted a greater influence than any other work of India upon the literature of the world.”

Thus, for centuries, the great teacher Vishnu Sharma has been talking to the children at home and to the children in several parts of the wide world.

No doubt, the situation has changed. Innumerable new factors have come to influence the child and children’s literature and among them are some of the epoch-making developments in science and technology, the communication revolution and the systematic presentation of violence and other aberrations through the electronic media. The unexpected has taken the traditional children’s writer by surprise; it has caused bewilderment. We can very well say that there is a crisis of conscience for many writers in several countries of the world and particularly in India. The essence of the question facing them is this: should we follow the trends set by some writers in the West? Some of the products of such trends have proved to be an impressive success by the market yardstick. They have no less an impact on the Indian market and, needless to say, consequently on the mind of the Indian child. What should the Indian children’s writer do? Does the dictum Swadharme nidhanam shreyah; parodharma bhayavahah (“Better to die clinging to one’s inner nature than to imitate someone else’s”) apply to him or her in regard to this issue? Or should he try to renovate his ideas and remould his inspiration keeping with the exotic?

A formidable question indeed. But the right answer should emerge from a few unavoidable basic facts. First, no scientific or technological discovery or invention can alter the basic human emotions, sensations and feelings. Social, economic and political values may change, but the evolutionary values ingrained in the consciousness cannot change — values that account for our growth.

Secondly, adults decide what to write and what to read. The child cannot do that. You have to decide what he should read, to an extent, as you decide what he should eat. “Be firm. You wouldn’t allow your child to eat garbage, would you? Why, then, let him put it in his head,” was the slogan with which an American journalist, Ann Landers, tried to mobilise parents against the dangerous effect of vulgarity and violence in the films and the TV on the child.

Needless to say, it will be fatal to dismiss the statement as moralistic. It concerns the child’s survival as a decent, intelligent, meaningful and happy individual. He can choose to go his way when he has grown up, but if someone else has the opportunity to influence the child, he cannot have the right to inflict on him ideas that have been repeatedly proved to be destructive. In other words — and honestly — the children’s writer does not have the kind of freedom, not to speak of license, which the writer for the grown up has.

Now I come to a truth which is even more important than this. Just as a child’s body hankers for the kind of nourishment that is indispensable for its growth, the child’s psyche also demands elements that are necessary for its growth. What are the qualities that nurture the child? We need not be pedantic about it; they are, simply, faith and love, to begin with. No infant can survive even the trauma of birth, not to speak of survival into childhood, without these two elements playing their role at the very dawn of its life. In fact, the very first cry the child gives out is an instinctive assertion of faith — the faith that there is help for its utterly helpless state.

Next, what the child needs — to stand up, to toddle on despite falls — is courage. Even a wee bit of exercise in such courage is a thrill, an adventure for him. Next, being innocent and helpless, he needs to be protected against mischief and crookedness. Hence an instinctive appreciation of such qualities is inherent in the child. Thus he is happy when the brave triumphs, when the wicked falls. It is not a question of our ethical patronisation of the child, but the child’s psychic demand. Then, last but not the least, he demands joy — the secret of existence and the elixir of life.

If the magic of the writer can provide the child with these elements through the creative literature produced for him, it matters little what form, what innovation the writer had taken recourse to. An experiment with form is always welcome if it is not an experiment for the sake of it or if it is not something spurious in the guise of an experiment.

The child has an inbuilt faith in the writer. The writer too must have faith in the capacity for comprehension potentially present in the child — when the fare offered to him has in it the ingredients of faith, love, courage and joy.

The child today may be more intelligent, but let us not think that he is bereft of the need for the classical fantasy. His realism is different from the adult’s. He does not look at the giant and the fairy from the angle of genetic possibility. They are a spontaneous exercise for his imaginativeness — a quality that alone can enable him to look at life as bigger and greater than what it is at the gross plane.


About Manoj Das

For thousands of men, women and children of the past two or three generations, Manoj Das has been the very synonym of light and delight, whose writings in Odia and English inspire in his countless readers faith in the purpose of life and also open up concealed horizons of confidence and compassion in humanity a dire need today.