When I treat myself to a book-browsing spree these days, I feel so jealous. Growing up, many of us didn’t have access to the wealth of children’s books that kids today seem to enjoy. I see picture pop-up books, Chhota Bheem, Wimpy Kid, Geronimo Stilton. I see adventure stories, science fiction, educational books. Alas that I wasn’t born a couple of generations later!
Still, as reading material goes, I wasn’t completely deprived. I grew up on a healthy diet of adventure stories, most of which, in those days (I’m talking about the eighties and nineties) were written by British authors. So naturally, Enid Blyton figured high on this list.
Yes, Blyton. The very name seems like a blight on (ha ha, I feel so clever) children’s literature today. And yet, if I may be permitted to offer my two rupaiyas worth, reading her books wasn’t half the horrible, racially discriminatory experience that today’s commentators seem to suggest. I enjoyed Malory Towers and St. Clare’s (but never felt the tug of boarding school myself, thank you very much.) I idolized George of the Famous Five – because she was the bravest, most reckless of her gang, because she was headstrong and stubborn and her most baseless instincts always proved right in the end, because she scorned tears and acted tough in the face of danger, but most of all, because she had a dog named Timothy who slept on her feet at night. But my love for all things Blyton didn’t blind me to the murkier aspects of her writing. I instinctively realised that Ern was treated very patronizingly by the Five Find-Outers – even before I knew what ‘patronizing’ meant. Why wasn’t he considered a bonafide member of the Find-Outers – why was he always the outsider, even though his detective contributions were more than some of the others? Why was his pronunciation of English so markedly different from the other kids? So you see, I, like most other readers, questioned Blyton as much as we enjoyed her writing – and without the benefit of someone else pointing out her flaws to us. In my opinion, that’s much better than having a book that is antiseptically politically correct but low on excitement and adventure. (Incidentally, you might enjoy this parody of George and the other Famous Fives – I loved it.)
Tinkle was another childhood standby, and I thank Uncle Pai (who has also faced criticism for being pro-Brahmin, male-centric and pro-fair skin) for his farsightedness in starting an Indian children’s magazine, with Indian characters like Shikari Shambu the cowardly hunter, Tantri the ever-unsuccessful mantri, Kalia the clever crow and Suppandi the foolish manservant. Indian names, Indian ethos, Indian scenarios … a bi-monthly dose of fun that I awaited impatiently and devoured without belching (to add an Indianism! Translate into Hindi for maximum effect).
I missed out on Ruskin Bond and R. K. Narayan, growing up, and was introduced to them only in adulthood. The same goes for Feluda, Satyajit Ray’s gentleman detective. Instead, I immersed myself in Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys and Three Investigators… books that dominated the children’s section of libraries then. When Indian literary stalwarts, such as Khushwant Singh or Mulk Raj Anand, made their way into our syllabus, it was unfortunately their most uncontroversial stories that were included. Even today, that’s something the at hasn’t changed – the adult insistence on ruthlessly sanitising the educational material being fed to kids. Which shows how dumb the educational authorities are: they seem to believe that Indian kids rely on their textbooks for knowledge of the world. Oh no, dear sirs; what they rely on their textbooks for, is a high score in the board exams, and nothing else.
Coming back to books though, it’s particularly fantastic to see rows and rows of children’s books, many by Indian authors (check out our list of the best Indian children’s books) in bookshops today. Not to mention the endless variety available online. Oh, if only I could revert to childhood, just to savour these books as a child might do!
Tell us: what did you read as a child? If you’re a parent, what do you read to your kids? Do you insist on politically correct books and authors only? Or do you believe in letting kids choose for themselves? And last but not the least: who’s your favourite Indian author for children?