Learning difference: through the lens of stories

Deepa Sreenivas

I felt the power of stories long before I started academic research on how stories and narratives connect with and shape social and cultural worlds – our lives, tastes, aspirations, anxieties, friendships, likes, and dislikes. Like many others, I have forgotten much of what I was taught during my school days. However, certain stories and poems have stayed with me. For instance, we had a poem by William Wordsworth titled “We Are Seven” in middle school. It was about a little girl who insisted “We are seven”, even though two of her siblings, from a family of seven brothers and sisters, were dead. The poem was set in the British countryside, and most of the details escaped me. However, I identified with the girl – that is precisely how I would count my siblings even if one of them were gone. It spoke to me about attachment, love, and loss. Many years later, after the loss of two of my siblings, this poem would return to me at unexpected moments. Post-colonial studies tell us about English literature’s colonial affiliations and the racist, Anglocentric worldview implicit in it. It has trained us to look at canonical texts critically and historically. Critical theory has alerted us to the hidden ideological underpinnings of dominant narratives. At the same time, we know that it is difficult to fix the meaning of texts; children make sense by pulling alien texts into their contexts – identifying, questioning, and sometimes subverting dominant interpretations.

The problem arises when children’s imaginations are regulated, directing them to read in unilinear, pre-determined ways. Sadly, our dominant education system often demands such an uncritical, homogenizing approach. In my childhood, as soon as I learnt reading (initially in my mother tongue Odia; English would come later) I devoured books in all shapes and forms. Textbooks formed a small part of my readings. The knowledge that I gained from the school curriculum was impacted by the books I read outside of the curriculum. There were times when my teachers and parents would view some of my readings with suspicion; perhaps they found those to be a bit inappropriate for my age! But I am glad I grew up in a fairly relaxed environment where everyone was happy if a child was reading and off their hands. As I started reading canonical texts in English (such as the poems of Wordsworth or abridged plays of Shakespeare), I would make sense by connecting them with my immediate, local contexts. However, in high school and subsequently in college and university, I would gradually realize that only reading in expected ways fetched marks. This would lead me to be disinterested in my subjects and my grades would deteriorate.

Children’s literature: combining delight with instruction
Several years later, as a student of cultural studies, I would look at texts as deeply embedded in structures of power. This is a bewildering idea, especially if applied to children’s literature – an area viewed as fun, entertaining, and free from the burden of ideology. However, contemporary scholars of children’s literature point to a different trajectory. From its very beginning in the mid 17th century, children’s literature has carried the responsibility of teaching appropriate bourgeois values to children, combining delight with instruction. It is represented as an arena of innocence, mirroring the norms underpinning the idea of ‘“childhood” – purity, innocence, and transparency. Tracking the controversies around one of the most iconic representatives of innocence, Peter Pan, Jacqueline Rose writes that it plays out the fantasy of childhood that actually is an effect of adult desire.1 Perry Nodelman has discussed how the producers of children’s literature must make judgments about what to produce based not on what they believe will appeal to children but rather on what they believe adult consumers – parents, teachers, librarians, etc. – believe will appeal to children.2 A fallout of such framing of children’s literature has been the invisiblization of non-normative childhoods.

Below, I discuss how a story can serve as an effective pedagogic tool through a brief analysis of the Amar Chitra Katha (ACK) phenomenon. I then go on to reflect on the need to bring in more stories and narratives from the lives of children from marginalized backgrounds into our school curriculum and children’s writing, in order to pave the way for a more democratic, inclusive system of education and society.

Illustration: Sunil Chawdiker

The Amar Chitra Katha: “The Route to Our Roots”
ACK, a series of comic books carrying tales from Indian mythology and history, was launched in 1967 by Anant Pai. Deeply troubled by what he perceived as the alienation of the Indian youth from their “roots”, Pai quit a secure job as a journalist at the Times of India to embark on this enterprise. In a market inundated by American comics, Pai faced considerable setbacks in the initial days, with the sales of the ACK titles dipping. Schools would not buy these books for their libraries because comics were widely viewed as frivolous reading material that would corrupt children’s language and morality. There are inspiring accounts of Pai struggling to sell his books during those early days, peddling ACK titles at petrol-pump kiosks. The struggle would soon pay off, and the series would go on to make publishing history in India. Attractively produced, colourfully illustrated, and reasonably priced, the ACK issues would become integral parts of middle-class urban homes, valued as the kind of reading material essential for the proper upbringing of the child. Parents would have the issues carefully bound, and these bound volumes would serve as an encyclopaedia of Indian history and mythology not only for the children, but also for older members of the family. ACK can claim to have shaped the ideas of merit, perseverance, nation, and citizenship for generations of middle-class children growing up in the 70s and 80s. As I have discussed in one of my books, ACK’s representation of mythological and historical figures served to legitimize two premises: a) India had an unbroken, singular Hindu past and b) these figures exemplified individual perseverance and heroism in the face of adversity, thus serving as role models for a competitive individualist ethic.3 ACK’s normative universe, albeit from the past, neatly tied up with the aspirations of a market-oriented middle class in India in the post Nehruvian era, impatient with welfarism. Furthermore, it glided over the divisions and hierarchies among people based on caste, class, community, and/or gender.

Story, history, and the present
ACK combined the comic format with Indian storytelling modes – the scroll, chitrakatha, murals, cinema posters, calendar art – to weave its narratives in innovative and attractive ways. Most important, it consciously distanced itself from the dates-and-facts approach of the school history textbook, dipping into popular history, beliefs, myths, and the common sense of people. It carefully sculpted protagonists who were indomitable yet realistically drawn and humanized, avoiding anything that might be construed as magic or miracle. So the Krishna of ACK is an ordinary child with extraordinary capabilities. Sages (Chanakya, Dayananda, Vivekananda, Chinmayananda and many more) are not recluses but remain in the thick of socio-political ferments, urging their followers to draw upon their innate potential to overcome obstacles and achieve success (read against the backdrop of the critique of Nehruvian welfarism underlying the ACK, this ties up with an individualist discourse). The Indian born astronaut Kalpana Chawla, who lost her life in 2003, aboard the ill-fated space shuttle Columbia, is valorized; yet there’s an underlying message that if women want true equality, they must eschew any demands derived from their historical marginalization based on gender. Paradoxically, Babasaheb Ambedkar, a rallying point for anti-caste politics and self-respect movements, is projected as a “model of excellence”, validating the view that those who have been historically marginalized must aspire to meritorization of the self rather than to any form of affirmative action.

In my research, I have critiqued the competitive individualist ethic underlying ACK but have argued that our dominant pedagogy has failed to effectively tap into popular visual cultures to construct more egalitarian histories and knowledge.

Illustrations from Different Tales

Different tales
I now shift to a set of stories very different from the ACK narratives. In the early 2000s, I was part of a project at the Anveshi Research Centre for Women’s Studies, Hyderabad, that entailed the collection and publication of stories from the experiences and life worlds of children from marginalized cultures and regional languages. Over a substantive period of research and interaction with writers, illustrators, and activists, we collected a set of about 20 stories that dealt with themes and contexts rarely addressed in children’s literature. Written in Telugu and Malayalam originally, these stories were translated into English as well as Malayalam and Telugu respectively, and would eventually be published in a series titled Different Tales.

The idea of Different Tales emerged out of Anveshi’s longstanding engagement with questions of education and marginalization, specifically a study on curricular transactions in 10 government schools in and around Hyderabad.4 A majority of the children who attended these schools were from Dalit and other marginalized backgrounds. Many of the children balanced school with work; their sense of self was constituted by their contribution to familial survival and well-being. Yet, textbooks and classroom transactions were found to be disconnected from their lives. Measured against normative standards, these children appeared ‘unsmart’ and uneducable. Several studies, including the Anveshi study, demonstrate that such stereotyping and alienation at school adversely impacts the confidence of children, driving them to drop out of education.5

Most of the writers of the Different Tales stories are from Dalit and other minority communities, drawing on their childhood experiences to write their stories. The narratives depict the complex ways in which children negotiate and cope with their lives, drawing upon the resources and relationships within the community. Braveheart Badeyya (2008) by Gogu Shyamala, noted Dalit activist and writer from the Telangana region, is based on the childhood of a Dalit professor in a well-known university. This could have been a story of individual triumph, but remains deeply embedded in community contexts. Badeyya, the first one to go to school from his community is made to sit in the last row so that he does not ‘pollute’ other students. However, the focus quickly shifts to the nurturing relationship between him and his community, teaching him everyday skills and the strength to respond to caste-based injustice. The Sackclothman by Jayasree Kalathil is a tender portrayal of the growing friendship between young Anu and the local madman, with a fetish for sackcloth. Anu’s family is struggling to cope with the death of her sister; her mother lies in bed all day, and her father has taken to drinking daily. The sackclothman helps Anu to deal with grief unlike the others around her who look at her as an object of pity. Nuaiman’s Textbook captures a Muslim child’s bewilderment over not finding a single name from his community in his school textbook.6

Illustrations bring alive the lifeworlds of children – work, play, family, food cultures, and so on. In mainstream children’s stories such as the ACK, the illustrations prop up the centrality of the protagonist and reflect the sociocultural worlds of middle-class upper caste children. The artists illustrating Different Tales, developed a visual language that drew on the visual repertoire surrounding children from non-middle-class contexts (posters, cinema, folk art, commercial hoardings, graffiti and so on) while connecting to their lives in meaningful, affirming ways. For instance, an image from the story Textbook shows the central figure trudging to school with a bag and umbrella, with no stereotypical mark that indicates that he is Muslim. Instead, it is only by exploring his landscape’s details – mosque, school, grandmother rolling bidis, friends, and siblings – that the viewer makes assumptions about this figure. The local flavour of the buildings, the trees and plants in the picture, subtly suggest the central role of region in creating this boy’s world.7

Spread stories, spread hope
There are no established channels of dissemination for reading material that deviate from standardized perspectives. The circulation of the DT series has been slow; and yet, over the years, it has been picked up by educators, NGOs, and grassroots organizations that look upon such stories as a much-needed supplement to standard textbooks. Eklavya, a non-profit, non-government organization known for its innovative educational programmes, has republished the complete set of DT books in English. It has also published Hindi translations of some of the books. Abhiruchi Prakashan has published four of the DT books in Kannada, with an added story called ‘Every Day Ajji’ by Du Saraswathi, writer, theatre person, and Dalit activist.

Stories such as the Different Tales, do travel and reach their audience, albeit slowly. There is an immense need for stories, poems, biographies that bring ‘different’ perspectives, mirroring the lives of children from diverse contexts, especially those who have been long excluded. As teachers and educationists, we must find ways of bringing such narratives into our classrooms, into the libraries and into the hands and hearts of children.

References

  1. Rose, J. (1994). The case of Peter Pan, or, the impossibility of children’s fiction. Macmillan.
  2. Nodelman, P. 2008. The Hidden Adult: Defining Children’s Literature. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.
  3. Sreenivas D. 2010. Sculpting a Middle Class: History, Masculinity and the Amar Chitra Katha in India. New Delhi: Routledge & Sreenivas D. 2023. Remaking the Citizen for New Times: History, Pedagogy and the Amar Chitra Katha in India. Kolkata: Seagull Books.
  4. See report, Anveshi Research Centre for Women’s Studies (2003). Curricular transaction in selected government schools in A.P. Report submitted to Sir Ratan Tata Trust, Mumbai. https://www.anveshi.org.in/wp-content/uploads/2021/10/Education-Project-Report.pdf.
  5. See PROBE Team (1999) Public Report on Basic Education in India. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.
  6. These stories are published in the following series: Anveshi Research Centre for Women’s Studies. 2008. Different Tales. Hyderabad: Anveshi.
  7. See Achar, D., & Sreenivas, D. ‘Beyond the ‘national child’: How to create storybooks for a plural world’. Himal Southasian (May 2010). https://www.himalmag.com/archives/beyond-the-national-child.

The author is a professor at the Centre for Women’s Studies, University of Hyderabad. She is the author of Sculpting a Middle Class: History Masculinity and the Amar Chitra Katha in India (Routledge, 2010) and a contributor to A World of Equals: A Textbook on Gender (Orient Blackswan, 2022). She can be reached at deepa.sreenivas@uohyd.ac.in.

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