The curious case of the Indian reader in childhood
Illustration by Sefi George
In Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader, Anne Fadiman tells her readers “it has long been my belief that everyone's library contains an Odd Shelf. On this shelf rests a small, mysterious corpus of volumes whose subject matter is completely unrelated to the rest of the library, yet which, upon closer inspection, reveals a good deal about its owner.” My odd shelf would tell you its owner was either a zealous tiny Bhakt in the making, or a teenager going through some serious feelings- and there’s no in between. If this seems odd, well, it is in a way, but upon closer inspection of the factors which decided what I would read, it makes complete sense.
Sumana Roy writes in her essay The Provincial Reader, “the dearth of reading material in towns and villages in socialist India is hard to imagine, and it produced two categories of people: those who stopped reading after school or college, and those — including children — who read anything they could find. I read road signs with the enthusiasm that attaches to reading thrillers.” So much of what you read during your formative years comes down to one simple deciding factor- its availability. I grew up in a “middle-class” Bengali household. When my parents married, so did their bookshelves. My father’s Grey’s Anatomy laid the foundation on which my mother’s volumes of Buddhadeb Guha, Shankar, and Rabindranath Tagore rested. Like most of their friends, they knew that the way forward was to arrange for an English medium convent education for me, but my parents had only read English as their second language. I learnt to write my name first in English, and much later in Bengali. So even though there was no dearth of Bengali books for me to read as a child because during my birthdays a steady supply of Chotoder Panchatantra, Thakumar Jhuli and Khirer Putul trickled in, I still struggled to find stories that I could relate to and read effortlessly. The only English books that lay around my house were five volumes of Tell Me Why and Enid Blyton’s Wishing Chair series, gifts from relatives who had overestimated the reading capabilities of a four-year-old.
The school library was out of reach, because only didis from class 3 and above could access it. Stuck in this limbo, my only escape was the car rides to Yogyadan on alternate Fridays of the month. This place contained everything a child would hate- mandatory maintenance of silence, pretty flowers you can’t touch, a water fountain you can’t dip your toes in, a garden where you can’t run around. Why did I love it then? Its main office had a tiny bookstore. The spread wasn’t extensive- Ramayana, Mahabharata, and the lives of Swami Vivekananda, Ramakrishna and Sarada Devi but the important detail here is they were all available in English. During every other visit I would pick up a slim, illustrated volume, and devour it- not because they were exceptional works of literature, but because that’s all I had access to. Some of the content did pique my curiosity- how come the women didn’t wear blouses with their sarees? Why did Ramakrishna 23, marry Sarada, a child of 5? Why was Rama’s skin blue? But the core stories made sense, the plots were simple enough. Devout men went through challenges in their lives, sometimes they fought battles with rakshashes and asked their wives to walk through the fire and prove their chastity. Reasonable demands were made and fulfilled, the good always defeated the evil, and I went to sleep dreaming of the Panchabati forest or Jayrambati in technicolour.
Then came the year 2003, the first year my parents took me to the Kolkata Book Fair. I picked up Navneet Publishers’ Sumi and Hippo, which claimed to be a part of a series that were “interesting original stories for children”. It was relieving to see an illustration of Sumi’s friends, brown-skinned, hand-in-hand singing ring-a-ring-a-roses. I didn’t even realize that until that day I had probably never seen an Indian mother or an Indian household illustrated in a book. Late 1990s and early 2000s were also the decades of liberalization, globalization and privatization - school education became predominantly “English-medium” in most cities and semi-urban areas, and private publishing companies like Scholastic and Ratna Sagar entered the market to fill the existing gap in the market of children’s books written in English by Indian authors.
I got by somehow till class 3, with two copies of Noddy’s adventures from a bookshop at a hospital (yes, really, a hospital), a few volumes of Tinkle and Amar Chitra Katha, a second-hand illustrated version of Frances Burnett’s A Little Princess, an illustrated Heidi, a tattered copy of The Little Prince from our local bookshop owner.Tinkle was the first English magazine I was introduced to that had interactive puzzles, suggestions of fun activities and quizzes which one was supposed to fill up, cut the page and physically mail to their main office. The idea seems ridiculous now, but in the early 2000s this was pretty much the norm. Later, I found that my parents only pretended to mail the slips, but they had stored it away safely in a file high on the cupboard, lest I find out. However, the very possibility of being the winner of one of these quizzes, the fact that it meant there were more readers like me all over India formed a solid sense of belonging to a larger reading public that I was previously unaware of. Before the era of online shopping and library genesis, each book I owned had a story. I found A Little Princess at the Rath-mela in July. Unexpectedly, there was a second-hand book shop selling all its books for 30 rupees. Through sleazy Mills and Boons covers, the picture of a brown-skinned girl with blue eyes in a white dress peaked at me. The story was illustrated and abridged, a typical tale of a young girl struggling at a faraway boarding school. Throw into the mix: a cruel principal, a kind friend, and a discovery that she’s actually rich and loveable! Seemed like the ideal fairytale to me. Heidi was the first book my mother bought for me. My mother didn’t read much English, but she knew Heidi’s story by heart. I think my love for mountains stemmed from Heidi, as I spent hours trying to copy the illustrations of the green fields and pink flowers, warm bread and small sheep on pastures. The Little Prince was the last book my neighbourhood bookseller gifted to me before he closed his shop. What a fitting goodbye gift. It was the first book that broke my heart, and held my hand to guide me through the heartbreak.
Leela Gandhi in her 1998 book Postcolonial Theory writes that one way of looking at postcolonial theory or thinking is by linking it to the colloquial Hindi word ‘jugaad’ – whose meaning is to make do with what limited resources are available at hand. This way of frugal engineering often brings together things that don’t essentially belong together, but their surprising combination is ‘effective and innovative’. This would very well sum up my reading material from the ages of four to fourteen. I read what I could lay my hands on.
Class 3 was special for two reasons. The first thing I checked for in my class 3 diary was a new page titled ‘LIBRARY RECORD’. It quickly filled up with the Magic School Bus series- Mrs. Frizzle and her group of students exploring space or the ocean on their adventures. When you’re a child, you have a high threshold for what’s believable- but before you know it you begin noticing the shift in your worldview that comes with adolescence. Yes, it’s so fun to read St. Clare’s and Malory Towers, it’s fascinating to imagine the Secret Seven having scones and ginger ale, and the Famous Five going on picnics unsupervised by adults- but one question hung like a dark cloud while reading these stories: how did their parents allow them? Why doesn’t Georgina’s mother insist that she wear the scarf no matter how uncool she looks for she’ll certainly catch a cold! How are there no tiffin cakes and bananas for picnic breakfast, no humming to Bollywood songs on the bus? Even though I could not relate it to my lived and known reality, it did not create any barriers in meaning making. It pushed me harder to relate to universals rather than specifics.
I also got my first period in class 3. My mother cried and told me that this is something that will happen for a few days every month of the year. Nothing I had read or seen prepared me for it. Then some golden advice was passed on in hushed tones by my friends and seniors: names of books I could borrow from the library. Getting hold of them wasn’t easy. After the seminal Pink Pages by Scholastic, which could predict your entire future with one quiz, Chicken Soup for the Indian Teenage Soul was the book that was always in circulation. It had a long waiting list of people wanting to take it home for the week and read it under the comfort of their blanket. It was unanimously decided by the people on the waitlist, that by virtue of me getting my period, I certainly deserved to be bumped up to the first position. Chicken Soup was truly like a warm hug on a cold day. Here there were people my age, writing about how difficult it was to convince their mothers to let them try on a training bra and how their fathers tried to awkwardly guide them through the science behind menstruation. At that moment I knew that distracting myself with some elite school politics between Patricia and Isabel could wait, but these were the kind of stories I wanted to read now.
Finding these books was a challenge. There was no lack of reading material for young adults, but there was very little written by Indian women in English. There were no Goodreads lists, no way to order books online, no www.literature-map.com. I had a PC I only used for MS Paint, my father had a Nokia mobile that was a novelty I wasn’t allowed to touch. During this time, my school would have makeshift book fairs on its basketball court. Either Scholastic or Insight Books would set up shop, we would be informed a day ago, and we could browse the collection during break time or after the final bell rang. After convincing my mother that the only thing that stood between me and my excellence in academic performance was the possession of these story books, I picked up On A Holiday Trip by Maya S. Achar, History,Mystery, Dal and Biryani by Subdhadra Sen Gupta and My Favourite Stories by Christine Gomez.
Favourite Stories did live up to its name. There was one story in this book that I read and re-read because of how unusual it was to me- not the story itself, because we all had feelings like that, but because they were never written about. This story was titled ‘First Love’. Sudhir, a 13-year-old boy becomes infatuated with his new English teacher, Ms. Mrilanini. When she informs she is leaving the school to move to a new city, Sudhir confesses his love to her. Ms. Mrinalini patiently explains to him that what he feels is not romantic love, but genuine affection that he misinterprets as love. They bid each other a teary farewell, and Ms. Mrilanini tells Sudhir she will always remember him as one of her best students. The other two books, simple mysteries that could be solved by smart child detectives, satisfied my craving for some desi Enid Blyton content, but I was always on the hunt for more stories that would make me feel less lonely.
Over the years, I found two that stayed with me. The first one was When Amma Went Away by Devika Rangachari, published by Children’s Book Trust, New Delhi. My relationship with my grandmother was quite similar to Nalini’s relationship to her patti. My grandmother bought a sequined black, orange and green skirt for me that I was embarrassed to wear just like patti bought a pavadai for Nalini that she hated. Like my grandmother, patti insisted on offering Nalini unsolicited advice about what to eat, when to eat, what length of hair to maintain and whom to go out with. My friends only saw how lucky I was to eat the delicious meals prepared by her, and I had no one to complain to- I would be shut down for being a spoilt brat. Yes Nalini, I feel you! As I grew older I learnt to navigate the murky relationships that we share with our older generation, and I was surprised by my grandmother’s resilience.
Then there was Up To the Nines by Bubla Basu, a slim copy I had eyed for a week at my local bookstore. The blurb read “There has been hardly any equivalents to Enid Blyton’s school stories, but Bubla Basu bridges the gap fairly satisfactorily”, and I would agree. Of course, adolescent angst isn’t new, but when complications similar to mine were reproduced on printed paper, it gave them a sort of validity, some dignity even.
Unlike my grandparents, my experience of colonialism is not a lived one. I have grown up without being aware of the insidious ways in which the colonial curriculum has shaped my imagination; because for me, there was no alternative. From reciting Humpty-Dumpty as a three-year-old to learning “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day” in middle school, I was used to this disjointed character of literature. It was natural for me to step out to the burning furnace of a playground in early May (some summers were so bad my classmates got heat strokes) and write why Shakespeare compared his lover to a “summer’s day” for my answer in school exams. This disjointedness even felt right, because I had grown up reading these stories and consuming Western media. I knew what a shilling was, I heard my grandfather orating Shakespeare from his memory. This had always been a part of my life.
There are two sides to the debate of “decolonizing” our bookshelves. Some might argue that literature that is truly great is universal- it can transcend boundaries of nationality and appeal to the intrinsic human experience. On the other hand, is there even a “universal” human experience in a world where 25,000 people die of hunger every single day? When one country has oppressed another for hundreds of years? One cannot overlook the vastly different lived experiences of children in developing countries and developed countries. However, “decolonizing” the bookshelf cannot come from a simple dismantling of imperialist structures; it cannot be achieved by merely replacing an Indian author in place of a British one. It is a rigorous process of restructuring all forms of knowledge, beginning with the school curriculum.
Textual politics is intertwined with identity politics. When children see people who look like their parents, who look like them in books, it creates a sense of self-worth in them, for they feeli recognized by the larger world. Stuart Hall, a seminal cultural studies scholar, has researched extensively on the complex links between representation and identity in terms of nationality, gender roles and even seemingly personal and independent attributes like self-esteem. Stephen Mennel points out how identities are socially constructed and determined by wider social, cultural, political and economic contexts, ”each person’s self is formed by a reflexive process, in which our perception of how others see us plays a paramount part… individual self-images and group we-images are not separate things.” Hence representation of our images in society is an important aspect of us finding our place in this world. Edward Casey, in the introduction to the new edition of Jef Malpas’s seminal book, Place and Experience, suggests that Malpas makes a crucial case: “to be a human subject at all—to think, feel, and experience—is to be emplaced.”
There is a need for children growing up in postcolonial India to feel represented and heard, and publishers, on both regional and national levels, are stepping up to fill this gap in the book industry. This sense of grounding and belonging is what publishers like Katha ( founded in Delhi in 1989), Tara (founded in Chennai in 1994), Tulika (founded in Chennai in 1996) and Pratham (founded in Bangalore in 2004) bring to Indian children today. In a refreshing attempt to shed the colonial bias, these publishers often draw inspiration from folk art, and illustrate Indian children, parents, households, neighbourhoods, and even insert regional terms for certain words.
It’s much later in life, after my teenage years had been traversed; that I discovered that there was no emotion that my teenage self had felt that wasn’t written of in Bengali literature. For P.G Wodehouse there was Shibram Chakraborty, for Ruskin Bond there was Buddhadeb Guha, for Saki and O. Henry there were Bonophul and Parashuram, for Enid Blyton there was Lila Majumder, Ashapurna Devi and Mahasweta Devi, for Hardy Boys there was Satyajit Ray’s Feluda. Alison Waller suggests that most books we read in our childhood have a lifelong impact. She explores such reading in terms of time (that period of variable duration during which it is remembered, reread, and reflected upon) and also in terms of space (the fictional environment of the story and also the physical space where the reading occurred). I suspect I would be a reader with a much lesser capacity for imaginative reconstruction of spaces (and a poorer English vocabulary) had I not read the books I did as a child.
“Trying to speak in the style of their heroes from Europe and America, they forget their own language. And, gradually, a dialect of thought and experience is lost. This too, I think, is the provincial’s destiny — to lose a record of the history that produced them, even while ruing its lack, in an ironic cycle of which they are both authors and victims”, writes Sumana Roy. That’s very true, but all hope isn’t lost. I wouldn’t say it’s a loss- it’s a gradual process of finding yourself again, in bits and pieces. Today, I am grateful for being able to read and access Bengali literature, and I negotiate my way through the juktakkhor (conjunctives) of the Bengali script patiently. Just a few days ago I did take down the dust-laden copies of Bibhutibhushan and read Aam Antir Bhepu from start to finish, didn’t I?
Casey, Edward S. (2018). Foreword. Jef Malpas. Place and Experience: A Philosophical Topography(2nd ed., pp. viii–xiv). London: Routledge.
Fadiman, Anne. (1998). Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader . Penguin UK .
Gandhi, Leela.(1998). Postcolonial Theory: A Critical Introduction. Routledge.
Hall, S. (Ed.). (1997). Culture, media and identities.Representation: Cultural representations and signifying practices. Sage Publications, Inc; Open University Press
Mennell, Stephen. (1994) ‘The Formation of We-Images: A Process Theory’, in C. Calhoun (ed.) Social theory and the Politics of Identity, London: Blackwell.
Roy,Sumana. (April,2020). 'The Provincial Reader', Los Angeles Review of Books. Accessed 15th May, 2021. https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/the-provincial-reader/
Sarkar, Sucharita. (2014) 'Re-discovery of Indias: Contemporary Writing for Children'. De-territorializing Diversities: Literatures of the Indigenous and the Marginalised. New Delhi: Authorspress. pp. 170-186. Accessed 16th May, 2021. https://www.academia.edu/10119634/Re_discovery_of_Indias_Contemporary_Writing_for_Children
Bhakt: Derived from the Sanskrit: भक्ति / Bhakti which means attachment, homage, faith, love, devotion, worship, purity, mostly to deities of Hinduism. In the Indian political context, a Bhakt is a term used to refer to the blind supporters of the ruling party, Bharatiya Janata Party, a majority of whom are driven by religious zeal and a belief in the supremacy of Hindutva.
Chotoder Panchatantra: Panchatantra for Kids
Khirer Putul: Translates to ‘Doll made of Kheer’, a children's fantasy novel written by Abanindranath Tagore in 1896.
Rath-mela: A fair hosted to celebrate Ratha Yatra, also known as Chariot festival, a Hindu festival in Odisha for Jagannath and associated Hindu deities.
Thakumar Jhuli: Translates to ‘Grandma’s bag of stories’ is a collection of Bengali folk tales and fairy tales collated by Dakshinaranjan Mitra Majumder and published in 1907.
Ayantika Nath is currently pursuing her Masters in English from Jadavpur University. She hopes to research in the fields of feminist history, cultural studies and children's literature. She hopes to combine them with her creative pursuits of making art and telling stories.