Children’s Fiction in India: An Old Tree in Bloom - Sulabha Devpurkar

When we had Panchatantra before us, very few civilizations could boast of such an elaborate text for children. It has a frame story with a neat design and an agenda very clearly put forth, to educate children through stories. A certain pandit Vishnusharma, takes a challenge to make the four dumb students, all princes, compatible in the world and be good rulers. Panchtantra is considered to be the source of all fables and therefore at the basis of the art of storytelling. Hitopadesh is an offspring of Panchatantra.
Apart from Sanskrit, there are stories in the oral tradition in all Indian languages. I would like to quote a story from Marathi which is meant only for toddlers.

There was a sparrow and her little ones in a nest. A wet crow knocks at the door. The sparrow asks him to wait, meanwhile washes her little ones, feeds them, lulls them to sleep, heats a frying pan on the chul (fire) and then opens the door. The crow comes in. She offers the frying pan to the crow for sitting. The crow’s bums are burned.
The stories of oral tradition have certain rhythm, if that is removed, the fun would be missing. Jhaverchund Meghani, the leading Gujarati folklorist has pointed out this in his preface to Dadajini Vato: “…oral tradition has drawn our attention but (we) have spoiled the charm by dressing her in new language and new emotions. It is as if the children playing in mud on the riverbank have been dressed in heavy gold embroidered clothes.” The tales of grandmother and grandfather have been preserved in fragments, Meghani says and it is difficult to find a complete story. It is like a loss of memory.

I was going to speak only of writing in English or translations into English but there is always another way round. In a country where child marriage prevailed, polygamy, cruelty of widowhood and illiteracy ruled there is little scope for stories for children that are sunny and warm. Yes. Stories with stepmothers, co-wives, unjust rulers, a princess marrying a beggar are quite casual. Dhruv had a stepmother, not after the demise of his own mother but because Kings and other men could marry as many times as they chose. This could create problem with the younger generation. How did Ram get exiled? The Kings had two queens, three queens and the children as well as their mothers were often neglected or even killed by the conniving co-wives, stepmothers and such relatives. The Hindu families boast of unity and strength of love but the stories reveal the other side also. The step mothers are never good, as a law of stories, be it Snow white or Cinderella or of Ram or Dhruv or any other legend or folk or fairy tale.
Wit and humor have enjoyed a specific place in children’s fiction. A character linked with the Mughal court, Birbal, the favorite of Akbar is an icon of Indian wisdom. Tenali Rama is another similar character from the south India. There is a sense of justice and truth in Birbal’s stories. The proverbial Birbal ki Khichdi suggests the delayed matter but actually hints at the way he made the Badshah realize his mistake and so reward the poor Brahmin.

Along with the writing for grown ups stories for children also came up in English in India. With the establishment of the National Book Trust, Nehru Bal Pustakalaya, Children’s Book Trust and many other houses which published children’s books and thus the literature for children in English by Indian writers blossomed.

From the beginning of the Indian writing in English children’s literature exists. Stories with less complexity always attracted the attention of the publishers and they were eager to publish such books for school children and adult readers as well.

Tagore may be considered the first important writer of children’s literature whose stories were soon available in English. He has written specially for children and some of his stories can be enjoyed by both the children as well as adults. Kabuliwallah is a unique example of such happy union.

Among other major writers who have also written for children as well the names of Manoj Das, Shankar, Mulk Raj Anand, R. K. Narayan, Satyajit Ray, Ruskin Bond, Shashi Deshpande, Suniti Namjoshi, Manjula Padmanabhan, and Vikram Seth are the contributors to this genre.

As a translator, Gandhiji has trans-created a story by Tolstoy, ‘Ivan the Fool and his two Brothers Simon the Soldier and Taros the Stout: and of his Dumb Sister Martha and of the Old Devil and the Three Little Imps.’ titled as ‘Murakhraj ane tena be Bhaio’(Gujarati). The story clearly carries out Bapu’s unhidden agenda of propagating simplicity and hard work and of non-violence. M.K.Gandhi has however changed names of places and people saying: “Thinking that reading of Russian names of places and people might affect the interest (ras) we have entered Hindi names according to our custom.”1He says the reader will understand on his own what Tolstoy wants to say as the story will proceed. (He need not comment on the moral of the story). This story chosen by Gandhiji presents a utopia where in a fool’s kingdom all are happy and content. All work hard and nobody feels temptation with gold or power. Gold coins are toys for children and soldiers are for providing entertainment with music.

Among translations from other languages we can include Jules Verne’s novels in Gujarati by Yashvant Mehta, Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Dhiruben Patel, Totto Chan by Raman lal Soni in and many other classics and popular stories rendered in regional languages.

Translation from regional languages into English has enriched the Indian Children’s fiction in English. Panchatantra was among the first text that got rendered into English and German. Vaitalpanchavishi Kathasaritsagar and other texts received good responses from readers. Among the comics, the first title was Krishna which is an all time hit.The story of Krishnas mischievous pranks have their origin in Bhagwata , so it is also a kind of rendering for children from original Sanskrit. So far as literary translations are concerned, Premchand, , Lila Majumdar, Mahashweta Devi, Durga Bhagwat and Jayant Narlikar are among the writers who have written for children and have been translated into English.

Illustrated Ramayana and Mahabharata and simplification of other mythologies for making them suitable for a child’s reading is a work that is carried out by various scholars and writers from time to time. Rajgopalachari’s Ramayana has provided an easy rendering of the original text keeping in mind the young readers. He says in the preface, “I appeal to the young men in schools and Colleges to read these books…" Earlier, with reference to the moralization, he said in the first preface: "…I had in mind always my very young readers and that this is but English rendering of what I wrote in Tamil.” There is another version that came to my hands, Ramayana, by Mili Acharya. It's a very short book to do any justice to the epic but it is beautifully illustrated and is in a format that children as well adults would love to hold in their hands.

Amar Chitra Katha Series also has a large number of mythological as well as classical stories in the form of picture books and Fantasy was not viewed fit for adult readers so these stories were considered reading material for children.
The range of writing is also wide and colorful. Adventure stories, science fiction, real life fiction, mysteries, fairytales, fables of new and old style, ghost stories, folk tales and new versions of Akbar-Birbal, Mulla Nasruddin stories vivify the market of children’s stories. We have a new generation of writers who address the modern issues in child’s life. Anoushka Ravishankar, Anita Nayar, Nilima Sinha, Sampurna Chatterjee and Sudha Murthy are among the new writers who have brought fresh appetite for stories among children.
There is a world of books that reveal the tribal India. Mahashweta devi has created fiction for children. She selects rural Bengal and the Tribal Children with unbending will to conquer the battles of survival. Birsa Munda Wins The Battle and Ek Kori’s Dream are among those stories which unveil the locale and life of the villagers and foresters very beautifully.

Mulkraj Anand’s Mora is a story of the adventures of a baby elephant, giving details of the hunters and the process of taming an elephant. There are a number of main stream writers who have tried their hand at children’s literature. Anita Desai’s A Village by the Sea, Shashi Deshpande’s three novels for children, A Summer Adventure, The Hidden Treasure, The Only Witness, Vikram Seth’s verse rendering, Salman Rashdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories to mention a few. Such writers do not have an identity linked with children’s fiction yet they have contributed to the children’s fiction. R. K. Narayan’s Malgudi Days and Swami and Friends have attracted children as well as adult readers.

I have just started writing about children’s fiction and I am overwhelmed. There are so many stories of different types and they address different issues, appeal to imagination in one or the other way and present reality in a fantasy and fantasy when it looks real. How can you put such a wide world in a few pages. It is good the critics have neglected this area or genre or corner or lobby or branch of literature, to me it is a tree itself, not branch or twig or leaf or fruit or flower.

And last thing to point out the tree, though old, is in full bloom.