No Child’s Play: Writing For Kids in Local Tongues

I am convinced more and more that some of the best writing that is happening in India is not in English. Especially in the realm of children’s literature. I was at a seminar organised by the Sahitya Akademi and chairing a session on new challenges in children’s literature. The panelists were from four corners of the country. Bandita Phukan from Assam, Vinod Chandra Pandey from UP, Rajiv Tambe from Maharashtra and Harish GB from Karnataka. It probably was one of the liveliest sessions I have ever chaired. For the panelists brought into their talks more than just the customary whingeing of how TV and the Internet have destroyed the reading habit. Instead they talked about how to grab the imagination of the new millennium child.

Bandita Phukan is an engineer who also writes pure science books for children explaining how appliances work. So from how ATMs function to what makes the automated glass sliding doors open and shut, she draws children by tapping into that streak of curiosity that is so part of a child’s mind.

Across the country is Rajiv Tambe who innovates with writing stories that don’t use words but sounds. “If I don’t write well enough to make a child pick a book, and the child prefers to watch Chota Bhim, it means the child is bored with what is available,” he said. Rajiv Tambe is funny, irreverent and vocal about how children’s writers are treated. “We are second class citizens,” he said. “That children’s literature is considered a ‘by the way’ arm of literature is obvious by how it is treated by the government, media and the publishing industry itself.”

“The welfare of the child lies in children’s literature,” Vinod Chandra Pandey said. But who is listening?

Language just as content can be a device to reach the child. Harish GB demonstrated that with a quick recital of a Purandaradasa poem about Yashodara urging Krishna to eat, where he uses rhyme and child words. So a ‘mamu’, which is food in Kannada, as well as Malayalam, is used instead of ‘ahara’.

I had discovered the joy of reading very early and by the age of eight had begun to devour books with the rapacious appetite of a silver fish. These were children books, mostly by Enid Blyton, Russian stories sold by the travelling bookshops of the former USSR and comics. But none of these books fed more than my basic need for stories.

It was with R M Ballantyne’s The Coral Island, enhanced by line drawings and colour plates by Leo Bates, that I thought I was entering a magical cavern. I remember the first time I browsed through the book. I remember pausing at the first colour plate of an island chief with a cock under his arm talking to the Captain of the ship while a young boy looked on. It had me mesmerized.

Imagine this: an eight-year-old girl in pigtails and soda-bottle glasses holding a book so close to her nose that she sniffs at the old sweet smell of the pages even as her eyes race across the print. A spell is cast by words and pictures. Somewhere beyond the suburb she lived in, a little military township where they made armored tanks, was a whole world waiting. A world of sharks and candle nuts, phosphorescence in caves and penguins, blowholes and strange customs.

Much as I loved my Enid Blyton and Richmal Crompton, my Coral Island and my Anne of the Green Gables, one of my all-time favourites is the Fables of Fun and Fancy by Mali Madhavan Nair. It had one of the most brilliant stories I have ever read —The Arithmetic Goat, a story about a goat that ate a Math textbook and became this arithmetic whiz.

It is sad that as parents and readers, most of us do not look beyond what has been dished out to us by the west. And I am ashamed to admit that I forgot about Fables of Fun and Fancy when I pulled out books from my library for my son to read when he was a child. The world of Harry Potter or The Lord of The Rings is incredible. But so is the world created by writers in many Indian languages. If only one would seek it out.

- The Literary Citizen The New Indian Express November 2014








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