India has a rich and diverse legacy of children’s literature in different languages. Panchatantra, Hitopadesha, Jataka Tales, Kathasaritasagar, Ramayan, Mahabharata, Tales of Akbar and Birbal, Tenali Raman, Gopal Bhand, Sinhasan Battisi, et al.
These myriad tales cover every genre – fantasy, moral tales, humorous stories, myths, legends, folk lore etc. These travelled from one generation to the other down the ages, earlier by word of mouth and later by means of the printed word. In the recent past there has been a plethora of retold versions of these stories in almost every Indian language. These timeless classics have eternal appeal. While this appeal will never lose its lustre I would like to put forth a strong case for a different genre of writing – not to replace or substitute but to supplement this rich tradition.
I would like to take the liberty of naming this genre of writing – Here and Now genre.
Here and Now
What do I mean by Here and Now writing? This is the writing which is set in today, not in the once upon a time? It is concerned not with the past perfect but the present (tense or otherwise). Kids of today face problems, get opportunities and counter predicaments which their earlier generations never did. This scenario throws up greater challenges as well as higher levels of responsibility. The situations which the children face can be categorized as follows:
- Information and entertainment explosion :
With the advent of satellite TV and the internet, the kids have literally been swamped by information and entertainment. From terrorism to tourism, sex to science, politics to pollution, fashion to food, cricket to cuisine –the information is there for the asking. All it it needs is a flick of the remote or the click of the mouse.
A surfeit of channels offering films, music, sports, cartoons etc have brought the world of entertainment into the drawing room. This exposure at an early age to the twin towers of entertainment and information has given the child greater data, diversion and distraction but whether it has given her greater knowledge and wisdom is a question which needs to be asked.
Not only in the metros, even in smaller towns, the joint family is becoming more an exception rather than the rule. The child of yesterday used to grow up in the tender care of his grandparents and in the company of her siblings, cousins, uncles and aunts. Today she has only her parents and if she is lucky another sibling. The grandparents are a distant entity whom she meets during festivals or holidays.
One wonders whether the idiot box can ever be a surrogate grandma and the computer a surrogate grandpa.
- The single parent phenomenon :
With divorces and separations on the rise and with many couples living apart on account of transfers or other compulsions of work, many kids grow up with one parent. The other one only makes guest appearances. This leads to a lot of unexplained questions, unsatisfied hunger for attention and love and a feeling of incompleteness. The child sometimes may end up blaming either himself for his fractured existence or one of the parents. This anger directed within or without can be harmful for the child, leaving permanent scars. Dealing with this issue can be a real challenge for any writer.
In recent times a new breed of couples has arrived on the scene. This breed is the – working couple. More and more women are going out to work as a result children frequently come home to an empty house and using their keys gain entry. These are the ‘latch-key’ kids. Instead of a welcoming smile from their moms they are greeted by closed doors. Instead of an attentive ear, a loving touch, a warm embrace, they have the idiot box, the micro-wave oven and the refrigerator for company. With more money in the family kitty the kids definitely have a better lifestyle, but do they have a happier life? We writers can explore the answers to this question through the various characters in our stories. Without getting into the home-maker versus bread earner debate we should probe the various nuances of the working women issue. We should present our young readers with the different dimensions of the scenario, offer different perspectives, without passing judgement.
- The Child as a performing animal :
Many parents treat their child like a performing animal – someone through whom they can meet there unfulfilled aspirations, someone whose achievements they can wear like a badge on their chest, someone whose brilliance can enhance their status in society.
The child is monitored every hour and every minute of the day– what he studies, what he plays, what he eats, what he reads, what he sees – to get the best results. It is not academics alone that the child has to excel in – the kid of the 21st century has to be a blend of Einstein, Beethoven, Da Vinci and Tiger Woods. Coaching for studies, music and painting alone will not suffice, he or she has to also be trained in cricket or football or any other sport which offers the possibility of greater name, fame and monetary gain in the future.
In this circus of school, tuitions, coaching, training and more tuitions, the child has hardly any time for himself. But no one cares. In fact we are smothering the ‘child’ in every child and turning out efficient robots or performing monkeys.
- The omnipresence of sex and violence :
There is much greater exposure to sex and violence than ever before. Domestic violence, riots on the streets, terrorism, war, WWE, obscenity, molestations, rapes - the child cannot escape the blood, gore and sleaze. The philosophy of an eye for an eye is all pervasive. In the entertainment industry the greatest challenge is to push the threshold of violence and sex as much as possible.
As far as the depiction of violence, in children’s literature, is concerned many publishers and editors suffer from the ‘ostrich syndrome’. The other day one editor told me that a story with even a hint of violence is totally unacceptable to her. I feel that rather than avoid dealing with violence in stories, we writers should handle this sensitive issue in a sensible manner; delineate the various aspects of violence without glorifying it.
The old values are crumbling at the altar of materialism. In the razzmatazz of conspicuous consumption and no holds barred greed, Money is the God of all things. In the past a person who relinquished his material possessions was considered a great soul. Today a person who acquires is considered a big man. In this world of where Mammon is the monarch, Greed rocks and how!!
- Technology driven universe :
Cell phones, I Pods, Play Stations – technology is intruding more and more into the child’s universe. As a result relationships are gradually getting marginalised.
- Battling with adversity :
Children often face adverse situations, which are difficult to cope with. Loss of a parent on account of death or divorce, loss of a limb as a result of an accident, sudden exposure to a strange environment consequent to a transfer, all these can cause a lot of trauma. Children can, through the medium of stories be gently ‘taught’ the art and science of coping with these adversities.
Points to Ponder
While writing for the genre, Here and Now, we writers, in my humble opinion, may keep in mind a few points:
The stories, even though they may at times reflect stark reality of life such as communal violence, separation, death etc, should always end on a note of hope. The child should not be given a pessimistic view of the world. However grim and realistic the story, if the dénouement is optimistic then it will leave behind a ‘feel good’ flavour and give the child a more optimistic and less cynical view of the world.
The characters may, as far as possible be clearly etched out. Like Charles Dickens’ writing there should be a clear distinction between the black and white – not too many shades of grey please. Let us not confuse the kids for, as it is there is enough chaos in the world. The children should clearly know the difference between good and evil, between Judas and Jesus, God and Satan.
The writing should also reflect the changing roles, responsibilities and the relationship in the family. The typecast ‘bread earner’ father and the ‘home maker’ mother is no longer true. Similarly the soft and touch me not girl and the rough and tough boy are also fast becoming misnomers. Stereotyping communities, races and religions should also be shunned. This only increases prejudices and gives the child a distorted view of the society she lives in.
Sadly children’s literature the world over doesn’t have enough of humour. And whatever there is, is of ‘the slipping on the banana peel’, ‘the pajama string coming undone’ types.
I feel even if we are writing about Here and Now concerns there is enough scope for humour and gentle satire. Our holier than thou politicians, our self serving bureaucrats, our larger than life celebrity dons and divas and the everyday situations that we come across can offer enough opportunities for a creative writer to not merely tickle the funny bone or the laughing rib but also to awaken in us the ability to laugh at ourselves.
Here and Now writing has been going on for years, though in a more modest measure than I think is desirable. Here are a few examples of how writers have dealt with concerns of the child in modern times in a sensitive and skilful manner without compromising on the entertainment value of the story.
Ashamana Babu’s dog is an amusing Bengali tale by Satyajit Ray. Using humour (a rarity in most Indian writing for children) and imagination Ray brings out evocatively the moral that money can’t buy everything.
Ashok Mitran’s Tamil story Yugadharmam sketches evocatively the protagonist Balu’s predicament as he waits feverishly for the mark sheet of class ten examination to be handed over. As he waits Balu goes through, in his mind, the entire rigmarole of getting the mark sheet and transfer certificates, making copies, getting them attested and then approaching various colleges for admission. The story also hints at the role of money, position and power play in today’s education. Any child of today will be able to empathise with Balu in more ways than one.
Swapna Dutta’s poignant story ‘The Journey’ subtly deals with the emotions of a child whose parents are separated. The author doesn’t pass judgement nor indulges in sloppy sentimentality. Instead she brings in another child whose mother died when she was an infant to point out to the protagonist that he is lucky to have a mother – even if she lives somewhere else.
Sundar and Spotted Tail is a Malayalam story that explores the relationship between a cow herd and a cow. Written by Karoor Nilkanth Pillai it describes how even after being treated shabbily by Sundar, his cow –‘spotted tail’ escapes from her shed, goes in search of Sundar who is lying injured in the jungle and ultimately rescues him. When the search party reaches it finds the cow feeding the cowherd like a mother suckles her child. Nature and nurture are beautifully brought out in this story.
Pannalal Patel’s ‘Adal-Badal : The Exchange’ is a Gujarati story that describes the affection between two boys one of whom is a Hindu and the other a Muslim. Amrit who lives with his father and mother makes a small sacrifice for his best friend Isab who is motherless. Through Amrit’s little act of sacrifice the author shows that empathy and brotherhood are values which adults can sometimes learn from children.
‘Sorry, Best Friend’, is a tender tale by Hemangini Ranade about the friendship between six year old Sonu and Rahiman who is of the same age. While Sonu is a lonely child staying with his mother in a Bombay flat, Rahiman, whose mother works in Sonu’s house stays in a slum. Sonu and Rahiman become best friends. But when Sonu’s mother pays Rahiman her ‘salary’ for spending time with Sonu, he gets wild. The reconciliation is brought about in a sensitive and pragmatic way by Sonu’s mother. The loneliness of a ‘single-parent’ child and the stark contrast between the rich and the poor are handled with great sensitivity by the writer.
The Jagannath Cult
Here I would like to change tracks slightly and illustrate how writers of the here and now genre can achieve dove tail ancient tradition and modern idiom and achieve synthesis. To drive home my point I shall draw upon the Jagannath Cult and how its values and ideals can be skilfully synergised in the ‘Here and Now’ to fashion and sculpt a literature which is interesting, absorbing and contemporary.
Jagannath Cult is not merely a religious belief; it is a way of life. It transgresses boundaries of caste, creed, religion and race to enhance the entire humankind. I bring to you a few nuggets:
I have written many stories which are an honest attempt to dovetail the Here and Now concerns with the values enshrined in the Jagannath Cult as well as the other treasures of Indian heritage. Here are a few examples:
- In temples the Lord is usually seen with his consort. The Jagannath Temple is the only temple in the world where the Lord appears with his brother Lord Balabhadra and sister Devi Subhadra. Can there be a more evocative illustration of family values and the concept of Vasudhev Kutumbakam?
- The three images of Lord Jagannath, Devi Subhadra and Lord Balabhadra represent the three colours of humankind – black, yellow and white. Thus they epitomise the brotherhood of man.
- Lord Jagannath is the one God who is worshipped by people of all faiths and castes.
- The images are not beautiful in a traditional way. They thus drive home the message that beauty is only skin deep, it lies in the eye of the beholder and it is not the physical pulchritude, but the beauty of the heart and the soul that matters.
- The images are made of wood. They signify the commitment to the environment.
- The images are incomplete, the hands and limbs are not fully formed. They denote respect for the physically challenged.
- There is a ritual during the Ratha Yathra when the Raja of Puri performs ‘Chhera Panhara” i.e. he sweeps the path on which the deities are to make their way. He thus send out a very important message that of dignity of labour. He thus bridges the gap between the rich and the poor, the low caste and the high caste.
Here I would like to share with you the abstract of one such story:
(You can read the full story at http://www.ramendra.com/childrenstory/a_father_and_a_patriot.html )
A FATHER AND A PATRIOT
It is the story of Major Tiger of the Indian army who leads his men during the Kargil war with Pakistan. His objective is to capture the all important peak Point 4130 which he achieves but not before a heroic battle with a Captain of the Pakistan army who dies.
Later in the Captain’s wallet he finds a photograph and a letter written by his daughter Ayesha to her father in which he asks him to get six red, four green and two blue bangles from Delhi after the Pakistan army has captured it. The Major is moved to tears since Ayesha reminds him of his own daughter whom he lost some years ago.
The Kargil war comes to an end and normalcy is restored between India & Pakistan. The Major makes desperate efforts to locate Ayesha and finally goes to meet her. She is staying with her grandpa, Mohammad Khan. The Major carries a special gift for her – the bangles she has asked her father to get. Ayesha looks at the bangles and her eyes grow misty.
From that moment Ayesha and the Major get along really well. After a couple of visits Major Tiger makes his proposal : He would like to take Ayesha to India and bring her up as his own daughter. Mohammad Khan is livid but he comes around when he finds that Ayesha herself is keen and the Major assures him that Ayesha will be brought up as a Muslim. Major Tiger manages to persuade Khan also to shift to India.
Later when Ayesha is 18, the Major tells her how her father had died. Ayesha is livid with rage and calls the Major a murderer. The Major tells her, “Little one, both Captain Ejaaz Khan and I were only doing our duty. We were strangers fighting for our respective countries. It was just a chance that he died and I survived. It could have very easily been the other way around. Ayesha, in a war, on both sides there are only patriots and martyrs - there are no murderers. The real murderers are the politicians who unleash a war, not the poor soldiers who give up their lives or take other innocent lives for the sake of their motherland.”
Gradually Ayesha comes around. The whole story is being told by Ayesha’s husband to their daughter Muskaan in response to her question as to why her grandpa goes to the temple while her parents visit the mosque.
“Now, do you know why your Ammi and Abbu visit the Masjid while your Nanaji goes to the Mandir?" Ejaaz Khan asks Muskaan.
"Yes, Abbu I know. But where should I go when I grow up?"
"Anywhere you want, little one. All roads lead to God," tells her father.
Long, long ago a learned Brahman, Vishnu Sharma was asked by a king to teach his three sons niti (the wise conduct of life). Rather than resorting to the tried and tested methods of teaching, Sharma, an inventive and creative scholar, decided to teach them by telling them value based stories. And the result of this unique exercise was the collection of 84 fascinating tales of animals and birds built around simple values called Panchatantra. For centuries, these fables have been entertaining, guiding and inspiring generations of readers, both young and old, across the world.
In modern times writers and critics have developed an antipathy for any story which has a moral. I too, to a large extent, agree. A moral thrust down a young reader’s throat will definitely be rejected. But a riveting tale with a little value subtly tucked in somewhere is what any child would welcome. Kids too have had their surfeit of adventures, mysteries, fantasies. These tales are either about long, long ago…or about characters that are much larger than life. Escaping into adventure and fantasy is okay but many times kids want stories about characters they can relate to. They want to know about ordinary children like them facing extraordinary situations. Many critics and writers feel that first and foremost, a tale should be entertaining. But I would like to submit that a story can captivate as well as instil values – all it needs is creative imagination and skilful writing. And it is such stories which are a blend of ideas, entertainment and values that remain for a long, long time. Pure entertainment is like chewing gum – as long as the flavour remains it is tasty, but after that it begins to pall. To draw a parallel, I am confident, for a child the endearing appeal of ‘ET’ would be far more enduring than the straight-in-the-face, upfront entertainment of the ‘Rush Hour’ saga.
I think the time has come for children’s writers to focus more on this challenging genre of Here and Now writing. The child is being subjected to an overdose of entertainment and information. Her brain is getting more than it can take while her heart and soul are starving of nourishment. What we need are modern day Vishnu Sharmas who will captivate and enthral, as well as inspire and elevate the child of today. What we need is creativity that can reach out to the child in ways neither the idiot box nor the cyber world can. And most importantly, what we need is writing that will cross the boundaries of age, language, region, culture, time and space – since even though its concerns are in the Here and Now, its appeal should be enduring, endearing and eternal.
The well known mythological interpreter Joseph Campbell observed that since the beginning of civilization, the behaviour of every society has been largely moulded by its story tellers and myth makers. Thus we writers are not merely entertainers, we are the pied pipers who can lead the children on the path of greater awareness and awakening and help in creating a society that is responsive and responsible, fearless and free and above all human and humane.