Move over Enid Blyton: Now, a children's book takes on colonised mindsets
Can multicultural fiction be fun without having to teach other cultures about the meaning of Diwali? Can Indian kids have adventures without an Enid Blyton hangover? Can they dream of batata vada instead of potted meat? Meet a little girl named Maya, a runaway tiger and lost parents.
Maya was about to say that any smart puppy would rather die than have a name like Boothalingam, when the chowkidar of their building barged into the room. He peered here and there as if he was searching for something or someone. Maya froze.
When Meera Nair wrote her first book for children, Maya Saves the Day (Duckbill) she was utterly relieved that it was for the Indian market. “ I could totally have fun with it,” she says. “I could use Boothalingam and batata vada songs.”
That goes like this:
Roti-woti, saag waag,
Idli dosa, hot samosa
Seventeen slices of
Bread and butter.
You get the drift.
Nair says she grew up in India “reading nothing but books about white kids except Amar Chitra Katha”. That means a lot of potted meat sandwiches, scones, strawberries and cream but no idli dosas and hot samosa.
“We were dreaming of potted meat instead of batata vada,” says Nair. “It’s a colonized mindset. Why are we writing about vampires and zombies? Why are we not writing about the ghost who lives in the peepul tree?”
Looking back at her childhood she wonders “when I grew up why was I not given anything Indian.” She felt that lack more when she moved to the West where there is greater anxiety about representation. Now Nair, who lives in New York, says she celebrates almost every Indian festival for her daughter’s sake. Her brother who lives in India barely bothers to celebrate anything.
But there’s a trap in being too self-conscious about redressing a cultural deficit and children’s books especially fall headlong into it. Multicultural fiction often takes its teaching role a little too seriously. It’s as if the books say “Come children, let’s all hold hands and get into the melting pot together. Ravi meet Ali meet Teresa.”
Nair says she was sure she didn’t want “to write another book explaining Diwali.” Or how to make rotis with Dadaji. She didn't want a story set in a village. She wanted to create a character both her niece in India and her daughter in New York would recognize. Maya lives in an apartment in the city. She wants a dog. She goes to malls. Both her parents work. In fact, Nair thought up an entire profile for Maya to help her book’s illustrator – where does maya celebrate her birthday? What’s in her birthday package? Her mother wears salwars and has short hair. What she didn't think up was a moral of the story.
“There is no lesson in my book except be feisty and smart,” says Nair. “The lesson concept is very patronizing to children.”
“Multicultural fiction tries too hard,” says Nair. “Look here is my dumpling. Let me teach you how to make a dumpling.” It’s all about food, festivals and earnest lessons like respect your elders says Nair. Perhaps not unsurprisingly multicultural publishing in the US is largely stagnant. The challenge now is to be truthful without downplaying one’s cultural heritage. And how to make multicultural fiction fun without exoticizing the characters. “This is not Discovery Channel India – look at how quaintly we live in India.” Her complaint is that “books by Indians often feel the need to impart wisdom.” Parents are to blame as well. “You have to educate the parents to move beyond morality tales,” says Nair.
Blyton who has now fallen out of favour with many as a children’s writer also understood the power of the story. “The adventure was the thing,” says Nair. She wrote recently in The Hindu:
In Blyton’s world, parents are either wholly absent or hover unseen like wraiths, only popping up once in a while to hand out a sandwich. Perhaps what attracts my modern, over-scheduled child is the uncomplicated world Blyton conjures — an utopia where kids are left alone to roam the cliffs of Cornwall and pack their summer hols with spying games, surprise picnics and midnight feasts; not Math Enrichment.
In Maya Saves the Day adventure trumps moral of the story as well. Maya in her book is busy with all kinds of issues that trouble a six-year-old – her parents lose her in a shopping mall, she is convinced there is an escaped tiger under her bed, she has to protect stray puppies from the dog catcher. But while her milieu is clearly Indian, Nair doesn’t hammer her readers over the head with ethnic studies style Indian-ness. The Indian-ness is just there in naming a dog Tendulkar or Dhoni or for that matter Rintu, Pintu and Mintu. And the relief comes in not having to explain it. No glossary needed.
“It felt like coming home,” says Nair. Where the streets know your name. With Maya Saves the Day, Nair is presenting a different kind of multicultural fiction. The stories are not particularly Indian in theme though they take off from bits and pieces of her own life. Her father, a journalist, would make up tall tales about escaped tigers. As a child she remembers being traumatized by seeing a dog catcher shooting a dog in front of her and the dog dying in a pool of blood.
But it’s not the adventure that’s Indian, it’s the idiom. And the lack of potted meat sandwiches.
‘Dosas? You gave my dog dosa? Do they look south Indian types to you?”
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