As a child, I often dreamt about treacle pudding. I also developed a deep longing for boarding school, and, in my imagination, boarding school was a place full of girls with names like Hillary, Pat, and Isabel, who had midnight feasts and said things like, “Oh, she’s simply horrid!”
Like many Indian kids, I grew up on Enid Blyton’s books. The world these books represented — a white, western world — was totally and utterly disconnected from the real world I lived in. My own world — where girls with names such as Shweta and Madhu ate dosas and parathas — never really featured in any books that I read as a child. In fact, apart from the vast collection of Amar Chitra Kathas that I owned, I don’t remember reading any books set in India, until I made the transition to adult literature.
As a teacher and an education consultant, I often work with students on creative writing activities. Unfortunately, the literary imagination of young kids in India hasn’t changed much since I was young. Just recently, on a school visit in Chennai, an English teacher showed me a story written by a seventh grade student about a girl named Anne, who lived in a cottage with a cosy fireplace that kept her warm in the snowy winter.
What, you might wonder, are the effects of growing up on books that are totally cut off from your own heritage. In many ways, reading about the other is a wonderful thing. It gives you tremendous exposure to other worlds — wide, open windows into faraway lives. And certainly, books should be windows for us to look out of and see beyond the confines of our own narrow existence.
Yet, if all our books are windows into other worlds, and none of them reflect our own lives (or lives geographically and culturally closer to us), is there something lost? What does that do to our sense of whose stories are important? Whose stories deserve to be told? Whose lives are important and valuable?
What does a story about ourselves and the messy world around us do? It provides us with a mirror — a way of viewing ourselves and our world from the outside. It could get us thinking about the issues and problems that our own society is confronts. It could engender conversations about why we behave the way we do. It could convince us that our own stories are important too.
As a teacher who believes strongly that our children should have a wide range of books that function both as mirrors and as windows, I have been delighted by the growth of Indian writing for children. Today, when I recommend books to teachers and parents, I have a growing range of titles that can be used to initiate conversations about issues that are real and relevant in India.
I have been particularly thrilled with the rise of festivals and awards that celebrate Indian literature for children. The more exposure our children have to high quality children’s literature set in India, the more they will begin to feel that their own stories, set right here in India, have value. While they may still wonder what treacle pudding tastes like, they will also know that it’s perfectly fine for a literary character to eat dosas with sambar and dream about jalebis.
The writer is Founder and Director of TREE, a company that recruits and trains teachers.