A world beyond the mainstream

Shalini B

booksAs a child growing up in a fairly well-off middle class family I had everything I asked for. A good education, wonderful books to read, access to all kinds of resources, in other words I didn’t experience a lack of anything. The fact that my parents earned a decent living allowed me a carefree childhood devoid of any responsibility. But is this how every child grows up? Does childhood bring back happy-go-lucky days to every adult? Unfortunately no. While the ideal childhood, often depicted in storybooks, maybe more or less true for children from the middle class, it is not so for those children removed from what we may consider the mainstream – for those less privileged or marginalized.

These children also go to school, although a majority of them never make it through school. They also read the same textbooks and some of the same storybooks. While the child from the mainstream can identify with the lessons or stories he is reading (as they largely depict his life), the child from the margins of society cannot. There are few stories about this child, no textbook details his life. It is this gap in children’s literature that Different Tales, a series of 13 children’s books telling the stories of children from the marginalized sections of the society seeks to fill. Anveshi Research Centre for Women’s Studies has brought out the Telugu versions of these books, and the Malayalam and English versions have been published by DC Books.

Although of late, publishers of children’s books have been telling stories about children from villages and tribes, Different Tales explores a hitherto uncharted territory. While Tulika’s The Village Fair and Kali and the Rat Snake depict marginalization of different kinds—mostly social and economic, but Different Tales tells the stories of children who are culturally marginalized.

Most of us from privileged backgrounds might assume that stories about marginalized children would be sad and apologetic evoking sympathy. But the children depicted in the 13 stories are brave, energetic, determined and confident. The stories in Different Tales are not about victimhood but about how these children manage their lives. They work, play and study all at the same time. These stories are not about conforming to the standard but in a way challenging the existing naturalized literature. Khadeer Babu’s Head Curry (one of the books in the series), for instance, is a story about the pleasure of eating meat, in this case a ram’s head. How often have we heard even a mention, let alone an entire story, of non-vegetarianism in Indian children’s books?

These children are ‘little adults’. Working with their parents, even while studying is the only way of life they know. Even as children they are part of major decisions in the family, are witness to the constant struggle of their parents. Gopu Shyamala’s Tataki Wins Again and Braveheart Badeyya, two stories in Different Tales show you this picture. Work is very central in the lives of Tataki and Badeyya. Despite their experiences, self-respect and a love for their community is quite evident in these children’s lives.

While the stories in Different Tales are mainly meant to provide the marginalized children strong and powerful images of their lives, their readership is not restricted. These stories are also meant to educate the mainstream children about the lives of children from different backgrounds.

Different Tales is certainly a new leaf in the field of children’s literature, but whether it is attractive and enticing enough for the target readership is a question that still needs to be answered. The popularity of fairy tales, fantasy tales and super hero stories tell us that children read storybooks to escape their contexts as much as to understand it. Therefore, do the marginalized children need to be shown a mirror or would they much rather read something ‘different’?