Nestled in the mountains is the home of Character, who lives happily with her mother, father and younger sister. Character has always been a good girl — goes to school every day, comes back to do her homework all by herself (she does ask daddy to help with math every once in a while, but proud about it, nonetheless), talks politely with elders, is compassionate towards all her friends, eats all her greens from her plate, helps mummy with little chores and at night, reads her baby sister a passage from her favourite book. Character is the dream daughter with morals, and a high ground that could be quite intimidating to adults. But even as Character’s life is one (moralistic) step after the other, a dilemma causes her to make a bad decision. But be assured, she emerges out of this, basking in all her righteous glory.
Children’s books have held the fascination of children and adults alike. Creative illustrations merge fluidly with colourful stories. Hidden in between this dreamy world, however, are morals, and lessons that are thrust on children. And this is what author and journalist Jerry Pinto and editorial director of Tara Books, V. Geetha, a children’s literature publisher, sat down to discuss last evening at G5A Foundation for Contemporary Culture.
One of the first things Jerry points out is that children’s books during the Cold War were all propagation tools — captialist or communist. “We all grew up during the Cold War, when our minds became a battlefield for communist and capitalist propaganda,” the children’s writer begins. “Capitalist progranda was effortlessly propagated through the market space — you know, like all the Enid Blyton books, the Disney films. You watched and read then and eventually the ideology was inculcated in your mind,” he continues. He adds that very soon the communists started being aware of this, and in the undecided countries, like the Non-Aligned nations, and the buffer zones, they began to pour in their books at very subsided rates. “And so, we got this wonderfully illustrated Lithuanian folk tales, and what not — which was supposed to illustrate another way of living,” he points out.
Now among the several ways you can look at this situation, one question persists: is it fair to have children read this, to politicise their lives in such a way? While Jerry quips that this is a rather romantic and sentimental view, considering how every children’s story has a moral, he also says, “Moral is only the beginning of political propaganda.”
Another agenda of the discussion was the artwork in these children’s books. “Because almost all Soviet and fascist regimes were anti-modernist in a way, and thought of modernism as a western and a decadent disease, they all had to be kept under control — the artists who were inside the Soviet Union. And they used these children’s illustrations to experiment with modernism and other forms,” he points out.
Jerry adds that he finds it extremely painful when children’s literature is concluded with a moral lesson. But should a child be given the responsibility to deduce the right from wrong all by himself? The author thinks that this makes the best kind of stories. “Open-ended stories are the best kind — the child makes up his thoughts, deductions,” he says.
Jerry cites one of his favourite children’s stories — the open ended kind — Laxmi, The Water Buffalo Who Couldn’t, which is written and illustrated by Mehlli Gobhai. “It is a very simple story of a family in Gujarat, and how they have a water buffalo, who is only milked by the mother. One day, the mother is ill and the father must dress up like the mother in order to milk the water buffalo. That’s the story, is all, it ends there,” he cites. What he likes best about this story is how it leaves room for deduction. “There are many possibilities. Most children will just get a laugh out of it — a father dressed as the mother. Second possibiltiy could be the other subtle suggestion: sometimes, we have to step out of our comfort zones. Third one could be that it doesn’t matter what you dress as,” he lists, adding that when the child is allowed to pick from these possibilties, it is the best kind of book he/she can read.
What upsets Jerry most is how children’s literature is predominantly black and white when it could be so much more. And this, he credits to laziness of different levels. “The writers are lazy to write better stories for children, schools and teachers are lazy to incorporate better stories, parents are lazy to not give their children the space to make a decision and children are lazy to read,” he says, asserting that until this changes, children’s literature will be confined within binaries that desperately call for a change.