Why children must be allowed to doubt and choose for themselves

Here are some books for the young ones that let them perceive the morals not as absolute truths.

 |  5-minute read |   15-11-2015
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It’s generally agreed upon that good illustrations go a long way in the making of a successful and enjoyable children’s book. My first encounter, for instance, with Malgudi Days was memorable because of the gently humorous drawings. The drawings can also, however, betray the politics of the creators: one remembers the early 2000s, when the Vidya Bharti (the educational wing of the RSS) made a new syllabus for the NCERT, designed to divide children along communal lines. 

Over the past few years, there have been several occasions when I’ve come across children’s books by NBT and CBT where very subtly, the illustrations were tantamount to a kind of visual indoctrination for the kids: an initiation into social truths (or in many cases, half-truths or outright lies). The overarching perception of the child as “the father of the man”, as innocent (equated with Prelapsarian innocence), paved way for a belief system where children were supposed to be kept in cocoons — free from social fears and anxieties until the day the child emerged, a confident and fully-formed butterfly. As it turns out, this butterfly also becomes complicit in the very order it was taught as a pupa. World famous children’s authors like Neil Gaiman, RL Stine, Roald Dahl have made it clear that this adult concept of a “child paradise” is a myth and children must also be given to read whatever they wished to: horrors, black magic, witchcraft and suffering. 

I believe in the same: children need not always read moral tales (Panchatantra, Aesop Fables, Jataka Tales, Bed time stories told by Grandparents), as morals are tools of self-disciplining too. But, the important point remains: How do we fill up certain knowledge gaps among children (especially those who are born into puritanical families) so that the child perceives these morals not as absolute truths but as negotiation strategies? I don’t pretend to have an exhaustive blueprint at hand, but here are some less-than-famous children’s books in India that I feel are indicative of the kind of change that I’d like to see.


1. Race of the rivers: retold and translated by Esther Syiem

First ever picture book for children in the Khasi language from where it has been translated introduces the oral into the pictorial. This is commendable because while the book busts some of the myths of Khasi origin, it paves the road for newer ones. This tale gives away the ethnic names of flora and fauna abound in the Khasi hills including the reason behind the name Shillong. Encouraging to see how tribals are seen as ecologically conscious as opposed to national beliefs about them as savages owing to their eating habits. It is rare indeed to find unapologetic illustrations of natural Mongoloid features, without making them look comical or stereotypical. Kudos to Benedict!


2. The Honey Hunter: Karthika Nair and Joelle Jolivet

This book tells the story of a poor honey gathering family who wait for the summer in the Char because that it when the Bee goddess gives honey. Their little boy Shonu steals honey but enrages He-whose-name-must-not-be-taken, a sort of nature protector who has a pact with the Bonbibi-guardian diety of the Sundarban. His punishment arouses both wonder and magic—the angry bees become happy at a human-turned-into-a-plant, it will give them plenty of nectar. One of the finest illustrations of the locale of Bangladesh, The Honey Hunter is a life-long asset, a cry from Sonu: “Protect the rivers, the river-islands, the trees and honey bees”!


3. Mukund and Riaz: Nina Sabnani

Recommended by CBSE for schools (Age 5+), this is the story of best friends Mukund and Riaz whose bond suffers the worst kind of fate when the adult world decides to partition the Indian subcontinent into two. A perfect balance of writing and textile illustrations, one of Nina Sabnani’s most gifted work after Taka Boleche (The stitches speak). A larger political comment made through this poignant partition story is the truth about shared histories, crafts, games and how intimately children view these. All pictures use the technique of women’s applique work (Sindh and Gujarat) to render visual sensitivity. I would like to remind one another of her illustrated book My mother’s Sari, which also teaches the child the skill of wearing a sari. Vaidehi’s poem of the same name haunts me every time I read this book. Noteworthy how without being preachy, life lessons are imparted.



4. Hambreelmai’s Loom: Retold by Mamang Dai

A similar work like Nina’s, focusing on the origin of textiles is Mamang Dai’s book Hambreelmai’s Loom. This is a retold folktale from the land of Dibang Valley, Arunachal Pradesh, and the habitat of the Mishmi tribes. We are told about Hambreelmai, who is the first weaver, taught by Goddess Matai and how from her weaves, the soul of Mishmi textiles originate. “Hambreel” is, in Mishmi, a species of little fish, and the illustrations are full of fishes aspiring to the art of the loom. Striking among them is the exquisite Mishmi pattern of the butterfly used to introduce children to ugly human truths like death. An essential document, this remains not just of weaving but of the Mishmi identity in the Northeast. And it is important you tell your children about it!


5. Bulbuli’s Bamboo: Mita Bordoloi

Bulbuli is a lonely kid whose only escape is a world surrounded by Bamboo trees all around her. Bamboo-grooves have been a popular rural spot for lovers, but this time we see them through the tender eyes of Bulbuli. Words communicate the eco-friendly nature of Bamboo, which is the sole, solid constituent of so many tribal houses in remote parts of India. This rhythmic story about the world’s fastest growing grass makes for a soothing read and is sure to stimulate your taste buds for delicacies like Bamboo-shoot pickles.

As Khaled Hosseini, the author of The Kite Runner had said it once “Children aren’t colouring books. You don’t get to fill them with your favourite colours”. Keeping this in mind, we can create spaces and illustrations where we tell children that the world is not all colourful, there are many shades of grey, and that, a lonely child reading Coraline in some corner of the house can also grow up to have the equal perks as the ones who mock solitary reading.


Rini Barman Rini Barman @barman_rini

Freelance writer and researcher, Delhi.

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