Children’s Fiction in India: A Contemporary Perspective
Children’s Literature remains an area of debate, an area filled with paradoxes and contradictions. Theorists of children’s literature have looked on this genre from the twin perspectives of ‘text’ and ‘shadow text’ (Nodelman 2008: 8). The text with all its simplicity seems to convey the aesthetic experience to the reader. While the ‘shadow text’ is imbued with ideology, political stands, social and cultural implications. Children’s literature is described as literature for children, about children and by children; however, most of the time it is written by an adult. This also describes the title of Perry Nodelman’s book The Hidden Adult: Defining Children’s Literature. It becomes almost inevitable ‘that adults can and do control the production of children’s literature’ (Hunt 2005: 5). Hence the paradox of being written by adult but written for children. Hence, the contradiction, that if they are simple then why study them as a serious area of research; and, if they are complex enough to be researched, then why to prescribe them for children. Therefore, it tends to become ‘important – and yet it is not’ (Hunt 2005: 2). This paper attempts to look at the some of the recent developments in the writings for children in India.
India did not have a tradition for distinct children’s literature meant exclusively for children. In its oral tradition it has inherited the notion of complex audience, where the narratives were meant for all people irrespective of their age. The notion of children’s literature remains a recent phenomenon that has emerged in the west, especially after the introduction of education system and public schooling in society1. With the advent of the Western tradition of writing for children, Indian writers attempted to write keeping in mind the audience as children. There are writers who have produced works for children but because of the limited audience, problems in publication, the narrowed focus with which children’s literature is seen by the society and the state, it has not been able to flourish2. Therefore, since its journey from the British Raj to the present, children’s literature in India acquires a very liminal status.
Apart from writings by renowned authors like R K Narayan, Mulk Raj Anand, Premchand, Rabindranath Tagore, Ruskin Bond, there were very few writers who came to be associated with writings for children. However, in the recent times ie after the publication of Haroun and the Sea of Stories (1990) one can notice a considerable development in this field. Despite the frugal space occupied by this genre, there are writers who are now writing qualitatively for children. These contemporary writers include Kalpana Swaminathan, Kavitha Mandana, Shreekumar Varma, Sampurna Chattarji, Anushka Ravishankar, Anita Nair, Manjula Padma, Vandana Singh, Poile Sengupta, Kamla Das, Sudha Murthy, Sankara Pillai, Arup Kumar Dutta, Paro Anand, Swapna Dutta, Sandhya Rao, Vayu Naidu, and Zai Whitaker. One can clearly see the difference in the writings of earlier writers and the contemporary writers. Surely with Rushdie’s intervention there occurred a shift from realism to fantasy. This was not a movement from one mode to another, but a postmodern approach that used fantasy to address the reality. While the earlier writers have depicted childhood in the light of their own lived experience, the modern writers have portrayed childhood with an empathetic stand towards children. Earlier writers look on childhood with nostalgia, the contemporary writers look upon childhood as still lived experience. Therefore, the contemporary writers avert from comparing the childhood that they have lived with the childhood in the present scenario. Instead, they produce the picture of childhood, grounded in contemporary issues, concerns and problems that remain peculiar to childhood along with overlapping concerns of race, class, gender, caste, place and community. I. Frones expresses the danger ‘in collectivising children into “childhood” because then the differences (of gender, class, ethnicity, disability, etc.) will be ignored (qtd. in James and Prout 2010)3. The contemporary writers are addressing children’s book imbued with all these concerns.
Poile Sengupta’s Vikramaditya’s Throne (2007), Kavitha Mandana’s Tenali Raman (2006) and Sampurna Chatterji’s Mullah Nasruddin (2008) are the narratives where the children have suffered death, or absence of either parents. These novels also become important because they fuse the element of reality and fantasy along with the techniques of story-telling tradition. The plot is constructed out of various stories narrated by different characters and fabricated into the larger structure of narrative. As suggested by their titles, these novels have the element of legendary-historical-fictional character which interacts with the children. Therefore, in that sense these novels revert from the famous pattern of children’s narrative of ‘home-away-home’ (Nodelman and Reimer 2003) because the child remains inside the home. It is through the fictional character that the children understand the external world. They see life from a different and unconventional perspective that comes from these characters.
Rana Indi’s The Devil in the Dustbin (1992), Shreekumar Varma’s Devils’ Garden (2006) and Anushka Ravishankar’s Moin: The Monster Songster (2012)) address the issue of child being left by itself, to cope with its immediate surroundings. These novels become strangely interesting in deconstructing the popular notion of the monster. These novels present a different sort of problem. The child has a comfortable home and a loving family, despite this fact s/he suffers loneliness. The parents are unable to give them time. Television holds no interest for them. On top of that there are great expectations that their families have from them. In the initial part of the novel Parents fail to understand the needs and phobias of their child. The interest in theis fiction is added by the notorious element that appears in form of the devil or the monster. Devil/monster becomes the new challenge to be faced by the child along with his/her friends.
Vandana Singh’s Young Uncle in the Himalayas (2005), Anita Nair’s Living Next Door to Alise (2007) and Leela Gour Broome’s Flute in the Forest (2010), deal with ecological concerns, man-animal relationship and how children endeavour to resolve them. Vandana Singh’s Young Uncle in the Himalayas can be described as an adventure-detective story where children expose a rich man of his scandals. The novel is woven with intricacies of deforestation, caste and class problems, the pseudo spiritualists living in Himalayas. In Living Next Door to Alice the interaction of a young boy, Siddharth is shown with the baby elephant named Alice. Siddharth goes on adventures with Alice to defend himself with her help and catches a dacoit. Flute in the forest also acquires its significance because it picks up a differently abled child. Atiya, a young girl is presented with a challenge to handle an old-man, a mad elephant, her unruly classmates and her father, who is divorced by his wife.
Kalpana Swaminathan’s Jaldi’s Friends (2003), Manjula Padma’s Mouse Invaders (2004) and Kamla Das’ Panna (2006) become interesting in their portrayal of animal world which exists along with human world. Jaldi’s Friends by picking up dog world raises the concerns about slums and street children in metaphoric sense. Jaldi along with his friends is able to expose the mafia of Bombay. Swaminathan in an afterword mentions about the conception of this book that they were deteriorating conditions of Bombay that made her raise issues of slums, street dogs, smuggling, kidnappings, mafias in which the city got engulfed. Mouse Invaders on the other hand appears to be an animated version of the mouse world. It too takes a form of adventure-detective story as Arvee is able to unfold the mystery of missing mice and the villainous character that one of his own type assumes to kill his species. Panna becomes important as the protagonists belongs to the fishing community. Kamla Das links her story with a very common geographical phenomenon of whirls formed in sea. Panna is a story of a young, girl, who is poor but beautiful. It describes her dream of becoming a princess in an ironic way, as she is caught by the Fish King in the sea, never to leave. Whereas her brother, Moti is turned into a hawk by the magic of the Fish King, who keeps on searching for Panna in the whirls formed in the sea.
In the approach that these writers have adopted, there is a marked transition from “moral didacticism” to “critical didacticism.” The children are not given moral lessons in isolation from reality. The reality is represented through fiction, fantasy and child psychology, and the ‘shadow text’ in these books try to generate in children the critical awareness about the world around them. The children are not shown as passive receivers of adult education and training, but as active agents. These novels have gained importance because of their treatment of children as thinking individuals, as psychological beings, and as an entity in themselves. As discussed earlier, a child’s world dissociated from the adult world. These texts show not a world divided between adults and children, but a world commonly shared by them. Children cannot exist by themselves, therefore an intervention is required from the adult world; but, at the same time, the child-like innocence and perception can also become a hope for continuously decaying, depraved and degenerating world of adults. Thus, these novels are potentially charged with the optimism that childhood can provide against the widespread pessimism existing in life and society.
1. Philip Aries in his study has discussed about the development of modern families and how this had affected the notion of childhood. So, the childhood which earlier formed a part in adult sphere became distinct with the coming of education and public schooling. The parents adopted the roles of teachers, preachers, priests and moralists in considering it their moral responsibility to educate the children. Aries describe this development as: ‘Family and school together removed the child from adult society. The school shut up a childhood which had hitherto been free within an increasingly severe disciplinary system, which culminated in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in the total claustration of the boarding-school. The solicitude of family, Church, moralists and administrators deprived the child of the freedom he had hitherto enjoyed among adults. It inflicted on him the birch, the prison cell -in a word, the punishments usually reserved for convicts from the lowest strata of society’ (Aries 1982: 413).
2. Regarding the publishing, Meena Khorana discusses various factors associated with children’s books. She discusses about state policy which was concerned only with the publication of text books. She raises issues about literacy. In case of abundant illiteracy the idea of children’s books stand nullified. She refers to the economic conditions of the common people who could barely afford food leave apart education. She also raises the question of motivation for the writers of children’s literature as they do not get neither proper impetus nor proper recognition.
3. Allison James and Alan Prout have discussed the issues involved in the defining of childhood and the factors that affect childhood studies. Regarding the postmodern relativity which brings in the notion of “multiple” childhood, they also raise the concerns that how far could this relativity be taken. That childhood has to be studied against certain parameters which remain peculiar and render experiences been formed by the facts of gender, class, race, etc.
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