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Suniti on Classics in Children's Literature and other matters

Radhika Menon of Tulika and Suniti Namjoshi, poet and fabulist, attended an international seminar on children's literature in Kochi recently. Radhika writes about Suniti's presentation and reflects on questions raised by the seminar...

Suniti Namjoshi, poet, fabulist (author of the classic Feminist Fables) and the author of the Aditi Adventure series published by Tulika, gave the inaugural address at the international seminar on Re(reading) Classics in Children’s Literature organised by the Department of English, Bharata Mata College, Kochi in November 2010.

This is what the seminar brief said: “Think of reading your favorite childhood books again… Panchatantra, Ramayana, Aesop’s Fables, Little Women, Alice in Wonderland, the Oz books… we all have our own lists. We invite you to celebrate “clouds of glory” in reconsidering the meaning of these books in your own life and especially in your teaching and scholarship. Critics define children’s classics to be those that have success with readers of different classes and different nationalities over several generations and are often best-sellers.” And this is how Suniti opened her talk, entitled Seven to Ten Alice or The Dazzling and Imaginary Child Reader: “Perhaps there’s no such thing as a ‘children’s classic’. The notion of a ‘classic’ requires a literary tradition within which the work has lasted for some time, a literary context within which it can be read and considered among others of its kind, and a literary élite who will pronounce it excellent. Provided children are excluded from all this activity, there’s no problem. We, as academics and as people engaged in things literary, can declare ourselves experts. Those of us who have the scholarship and the temerity can create a canon. And, in our wisdom, we can declare that there are certain books which children ought to read (whether they read them or not) and therefore pronounce them classics.” To me, this succinctly set the seminar in context – that the notion of a ‘classic’ requires a literary tradition. Children’s publishing in India is still nascent and to pronounce a book a classic is premature. I am referring to English publishing of course, as the seminar confined itself to English children’s literature. To begin with, this is problematic. English children’s books cannot be made the standard in a multilingual country like ours. And when we start looking at classics in the different languages the whole notion of what constitutes a classic children’s book is turned on its head. The themes and writing styles are very distinct in each language – quite, quite different from themes that work in the west (and therefore accepted as the best by the English-reading classes in India). So is the readership – there is a huge class difference between the readers of English books and books in other Indian languages. To only talk of English books for children is to ignore a majority of children reading in other languages and that is unacceptable. Since a classic is also defined by the numbers of people who have read them we can’t overlook the fact that in India, the classics in regional languages have probably been read by the generations and many more children of each generation, unlike the books in English. So then, what is an Indian children’s classic?

While Suniti questioned the premise of a children’s classic in her paper, she also gave us invaluable insights into writing and reading, insights that cut across languages. About the influence of classics on her own writing she said: “An ability to understand references is useful. After all, literature is made out of experience and other bits of literature. But was that all I got from the Children’s Classics and the translated classics that is translated into a form suitable for children? Those stories were more potent than that. They entered my imagination. They helped me to explore whatever it was I wanted to explore by mutating within my brain and allowing me to write my own stories and make my own poems. Some of the mutations entered my children’s books and had to be dealt with by Aditi and the other protagonists in those books.” About writing for the Imaginary Child Reader (which she lucidly conveyed through an imagined conversation with a precocious child) she said: “It’s not just children who gain by having books written for them which are also fit for discerning adults. The process of recreating the remembered child gives something valuable back to the adult: the ability to experience emotion directly and to see straight. This is crucial for writing well. The child who blurted out that the emperor was naked is, in her own way, the type of the poet.” The audience comprising faculty and research scholars from literature departments of various colleges in Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Andhra, was enthralled by Suniti’s presentation. In her quintessentially direct and honest manner she questioned many of the academic presumptions about children’s literature, pointing out that they were simplistic at one level or highly academic and analytical on the other. I was disappointed by the lack of original thinking and / or analysis in some of the other presentations I attended, especially as I thought these would have been sparked off by the experience of growing up reading in one’s own languages. Unfortunately, the attention was focused solely on western classics and on western tools of analysis for what were termed Indian classics, meaning Panchatantra and Ramayana, of course.

One of the reasons for this, clearly, was lack of awareness about Indian children’s books being published today or current trends in Indian children’s publishing. This can be rectified only if there is some effort to keep abreast of what is happening in children’s publishing and college libraries / literature departments keep Indian children’s books on their shelves. But what is heartening is that there is so much interest in Indian children’s literature among research scholars. If conferences such as these are organised not merely as isolated academic exercises but are linked to the ground realities of publishing, both in English and in regional languages, it can shape our understanding of Indian’s children’s literature in significant ways. Suniti showed the way not just in her presentation but also in the interactive sessions that followed. Provoking, encouraging, appreciative in turn, she had the participants queuing up for autographs and photographs!

December 16, 2010

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