Since the l960s, children’s books in the West have tended to ‘critically address tendencies to assume that the world is white, male and middle class’ (John Stephens). Those children’s stories in Bangla that reproduce real life situations, too, have been peopled by the middle class, espoused its values and focalized on the ubiquitously urban and urbane male child protagonist. When there are persons outside this comfortable, complacent, respectable, male universe, the characters are either criminals, or underprivileged children in need of patronage or charity. Sometimes, they are interesting servants, street acquaintances, magicians and jugglers living in the peripheries who lure the children into exciting alternate ways of life. The endings of the stories, however, confirm that these outlets are not viable in the long run.
But Nabaneeta Dev Sen’s story is refreshingly different. Sen is a well-known children’s writer, apart from being a reputed academic and writer for adults too. This long short story by her is beautifully designed and illustrated by Proiti Roy, and an Eklavya publication that is easy on the pocket. It begins typically with two children on a holiday with their parents who go off on a picnic, described by the blurb to be an ‘adventurous trip’. But it is not the kind of adventure one would expect—getting lost, kidnapped or encountering criminals that would entail the solving of a mystery. The children here do not face any threat to their safety that is happily removed to get them back on the rails of their cushioned lives. In fact, they do meet a criminal, but he becomes an object of their curiosity, compassion, and eventually camaraderie. Initially, he is a sad, blind but somewhat scary figure who claims he lives like an outcast in the unpeopled hill they climb, crossing the threshold of their secure holiday retreat. He eats the flesh of small lizards and birds to survive. Thereafter, he confides in them that he was a Naxalite who got caught robbing a bank in a step towards removing the gap between the rich and the poor. Later, he was blinded by police brutality and managed to escape from prison. Although he has ever since realized that terrorism cannot cure any social evil and has leaned towards being a Gandhian, to the children he is still an ostracized man who was punished for his anti-social act. Yet they not only give their food to him, but empathize with him and promise to come back and visit him. The escapade certainly provides a space for them to rethink their middle class morality, cautioning them to keep such criminals at arm’s length. Sen’s story leaves room for negotiating a feasible relationship between these characters from radically disparate backgrounds.
It is in its treatment of the subject of the ‘other’ that the story is at its complex best. Unlike politically correct attempts in western children’s fiction to integrate within the world of the text people belonging to other racial identities, ethnic minorities and less privileged classes with an attempt to blur the interface between the two, this one uncovers an awareness that there is no getting away from the reality of this divide . Although Mangal, the gardener’s son who guides them through their climb up the hill, is given the same food and first aid packet as the two children by the parents, and participates equally with them in an effort at naming a meadow at the source of a hilly stream, we are told that he wears slippers while the other two wear sneakers. The blind old man, too, despite the children’s well-meaning intention to come back with food for him, suggestive of a potential interaction, continues to live his life of solitude away from the community of decent folk. The children befriend the former Naxalite militant at some level, and in the process, they also overcome any fear associated with his wild pet civet, offering some nuanced food for thought about including within our scheme of things beasts that are not amenable to be tamed. The finale is not really a happy one that neatly rounds off everything in the narrative, but open ended. Without committing itself to a ‘lived happily ever after’, it promises a growing bonding between two middle class children, the son of a gardener, an escaped criminal living a life of solitary incarceration in an uninhabited space and an undomesticated civet.
The English translation by Deepankar Biswas reads fluently. The Hindi one is a little less smooth, possibly due to the use of some highly Sanskritized words that are not very child-friendly. There is, however, a very interesting word-play. When the children try to name a beautiful spot from which the river Moul originates, Mitul is told off for not having any originality. In the Hindi version, the word ‘originality’ is interestingly translated as maulikata, which resonates with the name of the river. But when the children say that they have come to Palashpur for a change, the Hindi rendition is Ham yahan badlaav lane waale hain (We are going to bring about change here). Such little hiccups apart, the texts in both languages are well worth spending a laid back hour over for youngsters who have just learnt to savour the pleasure of reading independently.
Nivedita Sen teaches English at Hansraj College, University of Delhi, and also specializes in Bangla children’s fiction.