Children’s literature in Southasia continues to remain a poor cousin of ‘serious’ literature for adults, in the minds of both authors and readers. This is despite the fact that the genre has acquired increasing popularity and respectability in recent years. Indeed, the stunning success of the Harry Potter series and other Western children’s series has nudged many mainstream publishers into according it increasing importance in their lists. Yet while things may be improving at a global level, children’s literature in Southasia, still often dull and moralistic, has not been able to break free from the shackles of pedagogy. Continuing to reflect centuries-old hang-ups, books aimed at children, it is still felt, must edify and instruct if they are to have any value at all.
For any kind of literature, it is not that a pedagogical link is necessarily a crippling impediment. Rather, in this situation the problem lies in the narrow, outdated concepts that continue to hold sway across much of the region, emphasising rote learning and the uncritical absorption of large chunks of (often useless) information. At its best, an education system should encourage creativity and evoke a sense of wonder, allowing the imagination to roam free. This is something that, in Southasia, education systems signally fail to do – a failure that is, in turn, reflected in the quality of literature written for children.
At the same time, why put all the blame on the education system? After all, parents, who also decide what their children read or do not read, are as responsible for the depressing scenario. It could even be argued that whatever creativity Southasian education systems are able to encourage – and that is often precious little, as outlined in Himal’s January 2010 issue – is regularly stomped upon by parents obsessed with their children’s eventual ‘success’, generally defined as suitability for the job market and ability to earn large amounts of money. This obsession on the part of the Southasian parent is reflected even in the diaspora, where children, while perhaps excelling in spelling bees and quiz competitions, seem to do less well in activities that require creative thinking.
The situation need not be so dismal. In fact, given the rich moorings of Southasian cultures and traditions, and the almost universal importance of oral cultures resulting in an abundance of folktales and folk songs, the base already exists to create children’s literature that appeals, as the cliché has it, not only to the child in the adult but to the adult in the child. Work done to document folktales, by A K Ramanujan in India for one, has revealed a fascinating corpus of tales passed on from generation to generation. Many of these have adult themes, dealing with complex issues of sexuality and conflict; but most of them, even those that would usually be considered ‘adult’, are such that they can be enjoyed by children. Writers and illustrators such as Sukumar Ray drew on these folktales, as well as on the works of Western authors such as Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear, when creating their classics of children’s literature. In addition, the complex narratives and multifaceted characters of the religious mythologies of the Subcontinent also provide an ample resource to draw upon.
In recent times, writers and artists across our region have been breaking free of the limitations imposed by narrow, utilitarian conceptions of pedagogy to create lively, wondrous vistas and characters of the imagination, in which children can delight. Some publishers in Southasia are today dedicated exclusively to publishing children’s books, while mainstream publishers have likewise begun to pay greater attention to this ‘new’ genre. And as this market becomes increasingly defined, there are in turn more and more writers and artists focusing on the production of children’s books in English as well as the vernacular; and, as has always been the case with Bangla literature, alongside there are also writers for adults who have increasingly been experimenting with children’s literature. Hearteningly, while drawing upon children’s literature from the West, these new artists have not been determined or bound by it. Furthermore, efforts by groups such as Eklavya, in Bhopal, have ensured that some of the positive developments in this area have seeped through into schoolbooks, helping to make learning an enjoyable – and thus more productive – activity, rather than a chore.
All told, there is much cause for optimism on this front, today more than ever before. The challenge now is to build upon the start that has been made, and to prioritise the sense of awe and joy that children’s literature, at its best, can evoke. While significant bottom-up progress has already been achieved, there remains an opportunity for top-down support, as well. Governments and publishers need to work towards developing and supporting initiatives towards creating better children’s literature, and ensuring that such literature gets included in and genuinely informs school curricula.
They must also ensure wider distribution of children’s literature. As detailed in this issue, for instance, the innovative libraries for marginalised sections of society set up in Pakistan by the Alif Laila Book Bus Society (see accompanying article, ‘Three decades late’) have yet to receive any government assistance, despite three decades of accomplishment. Along these lines, one notable current example is the successful system that for the past half-century has been run by the Children’s Book Trust, in Delhi. In this, an important component of government involvement would be to figure out acceptable subsidisation of high-quality children’s literature – in the current context, while the efforts of private publishers have been laudable, many of their books have tended to priced be very high. As was the case when tales and histories and lessons were imparted through oral storytelling, such efforts must today ensure that the best of children’s literature is again available to all children.