Between literacy and reading

The story of one publisher’s ‘new’ genre: the Tamil picture book.

Several years ago, a Madras-based publisher called Tara Books brought out English translations of two Bangla-language works for children, Four Heroes and a Haunted House and Four Heroes and a Green Beard, both by the Calcutta writer Narayan Gangopadhyay. At that time, the publishing house (of which this writer was and remains a part) included a dedicated page in all of its volumes titled, 'What this book does', which placed the particular book in context for the parent, teacher or whoever had bought the title. The page for the two Four Heroes titles suggestively argued that children in India, especially those who are English-speaking, grow up thinking that fun, adventure and fantasy can happen only elsewhere, in exotic foreign climes. With the new translations from local languages, then, the hope was to demonstrate that this need not be the case.

This intent emerged as central to Tara Books' Tamil list for children. Acquainting Tamil-speaking children with worlds that are both familiar and fascinating was deemed important for several reasons. For one, both the Tamil- and English-language textbooks that are used in most Tamil-medium schools today unthinkingly celebrate a flat, middle-class, consumerist 'everyday'. Children in these schools, both in rural and urban Tamil Nadu, end up thinking of this world as a given, an immutable ideal towards which everyone, irrespective of what they want or where they are, ought to gravitate. As far as the child is concerned, this produces a kind of alienation – children do not associate excitement and play with their own contexts. More disturbing, they learn to value education for helping them to move away from these contexts into these more desirable and attractive worlds. It seemed important, then, to create books in Tamil that dealt with the lived, felt and imaginative worlds of the child – and not substitute for it a timeless folk wisdom or the cute certainties of a childhood produced by advertisements and the media.

Second, there seemed little reason not to create books that children actually enjoy reading. In most of the languages of the Subcontinent, reading is seldom linked to pleasure, but rather its worth is measured in terms of the salutary effect it produces on distracted young minds – either by way of conveying information or proposing a moral. Third and finally, the new strain of Tamil books that Tara eventually created attempted to reflect the characteristic linguistic 'register' of childhood, which, for reasons explored below, often eludes the children's storybook.

New register
This undertaking did not begin with ideas or theories, however, but with books, and the initial ones adapted existing English-language works to the Tamil context. At the same time, this was not meant as a mere exercise in translation; instead, the Tamil versions were meant to be at home in the Tamil language. Since many of these early titles were drawn either from characteristic Tamil contexts, or that strange twilight zone of the imagination where animals and humans meet, there was little problem in thus working the English texts into their Tamil incarnations. Some examples from these early works were the Tamil versions of Trash: On ragpicker children and recycling, Mala: A woman's tale, Landscapes: Children's voices and several others.

But these Tamil versions raised as many questions as they answered, especially with regard to register. Like many Indian languages, Tamil is what is known as diglossic, with the spoken and written versions of the language being significantly different. Grammatical as well as social protocols value the written over the spoken word and, consequently, the language of everyday life is seldom found in Tamil textbooks – the only printed matter that most Tamil-speaking children are likely to encounter (in addition to wall writing, running text on television shows and film posters). Furthermore, children are taught in school to 'get over' the irregularities of the spoken tongue and, instead, to use the purer written form. As far as imaginative literature for adults is concerned, of course, this rule is easily and happily bent, with modern Tamil literature delighting in all existing varieties of speech and register, and with poets and novelists filling their works with words and usages specific to regions, castes, social classes and generations. Writing for children, on the other hand, has yet to move in that direction. As such, there was no literary precedent for the new translations.

After deliberation, the Tara editors eventually decided to deploy the spoken register, or at least a written form closer to the spoken. The idea here, again, was to enable children to take to the texts they are given to read. But this proved easier said than done. For one, there is no one single spoken form of Tamil. Second, the language has not evolved a standardised spelling and syntax, which could enable one to 'write' the spoken form easily and systematically. In the event, the publisher's first-generation Tamil titles used a mixture of the spoken and the written, and their reception was mixed, with some parents and educators expressing their unease with the whole experiment. Some argued that the books did not appear to teach 'proper' Tamil usage. Others observed that children were used to the formal written words and sentence structures, and thus would find it hard to decipher the spoken.

Given this reception, it became clear that some important questions did indeed need to be addressed, particularly dealing with language pedagogy and reading. For instance, if one was to continue to publish for children in Tamil, would not a register and general approach that expressed the publisher's vision of language and society be needed? What about the child's own relationship to language – do children feel at home in the formal, stiff language of existing (text) books? Likewise, do these books help a child to develop the confidence to express herself, as the spirit prompts her, in her mother tongue? What about other books meant for children?

A 'modern' fantasy
Tamil books for children have been in circulation for nearly a century now. Typically, early children's books were published by Christian missions and, from the beginning of the 20th century, by nationalist ideologues. Packed with 'useful' information and edifying morals, these texts were determined to 'reform' the child, teach him or her hygiene and good habits, and instil a love for school. Nationalist versions of these books were different in tone and choice of content, but they were equally given to instruction and morality. In some instances, existing oral narratives that sustained many a child's imagination were translated into decorous moral tales.

In post-Independence India, Azha Valliappa wrote delightful verse for children. Though he wrote in standard written Tamil, his verses were light and cheerful, and brought to the child's attention quirky details of the everyday world. Valliappa had several imitators, but none possessed his sureness of touch. Meanwhile, authors came to produce a substantial number of 'retold' tales, drawn from the Panchatantra, the Vikram and Betal corpus, and from various other received traditions, including Christian. Books that featured 'modern' situations, however, remained rare; when works did so it was only in a generic way, without attempting to recreate a lifelike world that might delight a child. In their anxiety to avoid the indecencies of caste and the tensions of faith-related issues, those few 'modern' tales courted a decorous artifice, and created happy nuclear or extended households that abounded in moral stereotypes: the good father, the indulgent grandmother, the naughty younger brother and so on. Names of characters were self-consciously Tamil, as if this took care of caste and other identities. While poverty, labour and the natural world were part of these fictional universes, they were present as mere rhetorical tropes rather than as descriptions of existing situations.

There was also an assortment of children's magazines available at that time, with Kannan, Ambulimama and Gokulam among the most prominent. Today, there are likewise several children's supplements that come with the news dailies and weeklies, but their content has changed little over the years – informative essays, riddles, colouring pages, cautionary tales, comic strips and how-to sections remain the mainstay of these sections. Although no longer published, Kannan was for a while unique in its attempts to speak to the 'modern' child. It was self-consciously nationalist in the immediate post-Independence days, but lively enough to survive its politics and appeal to the child's imagination.

Also during the era immediately following Independence, Tamil publishing gained from an unexpected quarter. As happened in other languages of the region, the publishing scene was enlivened by books from the Soviet Union. Though the translations were often literal and even tendentious, these works made available to young readers far and wide wonderfully visual worlds that were novel. Furthermore, the brilliantly sure plots, the magic of poetic-sounding places and names, and the diverse universes that came alive in these books sustained several generations of young readers. Through all of this, however, avid young readers were – and remain – a small group, often restricted to those from the middle and lower-middle classes, with only a smattering of children from peasant and working-class households. Family reading habits, the openness or otherwise of local librarians, and the interest that the occasional teacher might show in a child's linguistic development were crucial factors in creating and sustaining a child's love for books.

Significantly, the question of language and context does not appear to have been important to those who wrote for children. Valliappa, writing verse, surmounted the problem of formal language through his choice of form: even though he did not often draw on speech, his work was replete with rhythm and 'music' that rendered it appealing. The language of comics is also formal, but the startlingly modern contexts of comics, rendered from the English, have unsettled and opened up reading options. In most other instances, the formal register of texts reflects, even as it produces, the reinvented folk world and the pronounced didacticism that was characteristic of much of children's literature – so much so that, in retrospect, it is clear that register and theme are inseparable. That is, one cannot expect complex modern children's books so long as the language of these books appears arcane and formal.

In the context of Tara's undertaking, a further problem had to be acknowledged: that this formalism was not merely a feature of the written form, but also an aspect of 'doing Tamil' in the modern period. Since the 1950s, there has emerged a pseudo-classical style of writing that mimics the sonority of staged speech and political declarations. It is this style – sometimes elegant, other times heavy but at all times an instance of elaborate artifice – that has limited and shaped writing for children in Tamil.

State as publisher
For publishers interested in developing a Tamil children's list, it becomes important, then, to understand not only what is available for the child, and the issues to do with language learning, but with the questions posed by such learning practices at the primary-school level today. For the last two decades at least, after all, primary-level classrooms have experienced profound transformation throughout India. More and more children from the so-called Most Backward and Dalit castes are going to school today. Many of them find the linguistic world of the school far removed from that of their homes and neighbourhoods. Importantly, they are told that in order to be properly schooled, they will need to de-learn what they habitually know, whether it be a turn of phrase, the use of certain words or ways of articulation. This meant that a child came to a textbook with a sense of dread and hopelessness, and, worse, felt uncomfortable with the world of which he or she was a part. In such contexts, reading became a painful experience, and until recently very little time was spent on developing a learning approach that would help a child understand and process these differences between the language of the school and that of the home.

With an eye towards the larger process of creating books that took into account the lived linguistic realities of children, Tara undertook a series of workshops with educators, to re-examine  common biases – including among participants – towards the spoken tongue. For one, it is hard to say where one caste dialect ends and another begins; and even if one does mark out a boundary, these are invariably contentious. The spoken word also carries the marks of lived caste and gender relationships, not merely in terms of semantics but of structure as well. Verb endings, syntactical differences and forms of expression, as much as content, mark caste and gender identities. As such, to adopt the spoken tongue would seem to mean that one would have to adopt the hurtful prejudices as well.

These workshop discussions resulted in the publishing house's pioneering resource book for Tamil teachers, called Pillaitamizh ('Child-Tamil'), comprising songs, stories and plays that could be used in the primary school language classroom. These essentially oral tales were collected from children across Tamil Nadu, and re-worked into a form of Tamil that approximated to standard speech – a form that political communication, media, and especially cinema,  had helped to create and sustain. In this, however, particular attention was given to retaining the flavour of certain contexts, for instance by retaining nouns and idioms that were specific to that context. Further, sensitivity was emphasised as to the issue of power and language use, to the manner in which language in its spoken form often helps to sustain caste and gender authority.

Pillaitamizh was eventually adopted as a resource book for teachers by the Tamil Nadu State Sarva Shiksha Abhiya (the SSA, meaning 'Education for All'), and Tara became involved in the state's attempt to create a fuller set of picture (reading) books for children. Rather than acquire existing books, the SSA had decided to create its own books. In this, however, there were several obstacles. Most interestingly, the picture book, as it has evolved in Anglo-America, Europe and the former Soviet Union, presumes literacy of a kind that cannot be taken for granted in this region. It assumes that either the parent or the educator would be available as a fellow-reader to the child, and help him or her to move through the pages of successively complex books. 'Reading to the child', in other words, is a cultural given in these contexts, whether this is done at home, at school or in larger community contexts.

In the case of the Indian schoolroom, however, the picture book is to be communally owned – a school would get a set of books, and all children would read them, in turn. A teacher or an older child might or might not help a younger child to read, and certainly they cannot expect to have their parents read to them; for one, there would be no books at home, and it is unlikely that parents of children that go to SSA schools have time to read or are all equally literate in the first place. So, the picture books that eventually were to come out of this process had to be fundamentally different: not part of a leisure context, but a learning context, limited to the schoolroom. In other words, these books had to be self-explanatory.

Here is where the SSA's idea of working with teachers to create these books proved useful, for teachers are familiar with language-competency levels and would know at what level to pitch these particular books. On the other hand, these works also had to challenge the child, and so finding that point of balance between a child's competency and his or her capacity for learning was important. Further, all of this had to be done without a hint of bias or didacticism – and besides, our effort had to appeal to the child's imagination. Against this backdrop, the Tara editors drew up a set of somewhat flexible ground rules. First, it is important to keep in mind that a picture book is essentially a combination of words and images, and it is this that would help to sustain the child's attention. Second, the words used ought to be familiar and common, yet deployed imaginatively. Familiar situations and words drawn from everyday speech are important, but equally important is to use them creatively, in unusual and exciting combinations. (The SSA resolved this problem by requiring that two kinds of books be evolved: graded readers and 'regular' picture books that the precocious reader would pick up and read.)

Third, the books ought to eschew moralising. This does not mean that the books should be packed with mindless fun, but rather that the moral, if any emerges, is in the telling and is not given as a strident add-on. Everyday realities, the timeless world of animals and the forest, worlds of magic and fantasy – all these could inform picture book content, it was decided. Finally, teachers who came up with stories and situations that could be made into stories had to be ready to work, rework and then engage in a significant editing process. It was also important to be aware that a picture book is not complete without the illustrator and designer working to do so.

For all involved, this was both a humbling and fascinating exercise, demonstrating the essential delicacy of the picture book, hemmed in as it is by a politics and history of reading, the circuits of commerce and social habits of reception. The process also underlined the importance of negotiating beauty and worth, art and reading needs, and it became increasingly clear that to actively promote reading in vastly non-literate societies, publishers and the state had to work together. In revolutionary contexts this happens automatically, as it were, with the most creative minds readily supporting and working alongside or even with the state to enhance education and creativity. There exist other models of collaboration as well, including those that go beyond the patron-client model that has come to define art and cultural transactions between the state and civil society in most parts of Southasia today.

This is currently borne out by publishing and education experiments afoot in Latin America, in all those states that have seen exciting political changes over the last decade and more. Experimentation and ideas developed by individuals and groups, when offered to governments who are willing to collaborate in a spirit of openness with civil actors, can have very interesting and often productive consequences. Two other features appear important to these processes: first, that publishers see themselves as offering ideas, rather than finished books, and viewing the state for the important, responsible player that it is, rather than as a distribution service for existing books. Equally important, it would seem, is for the state to view publishers not as clients that state patrons nurture to either's mutual advantage, but rather as civic collaborators who are willing to recognise the importance of sharing resources and ideas with the state. The experience of the SSA process was along these lines, critically underlining an important principle: that of books as important cultural objects, whose form can and must change.

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