Children’s literature in Bangla started to develop during the age of colonial modernity, write Dipankar Roy and Saurav Dasthakur, editors of a new anthology of classic children’s tales from Bengal.
David Lowenthal, in his famous book The Past is a Foreign Country, makes an interesting observation about time travellers. According to him, the golden age the travellers revisit bears little resemblance to any time that ever was. For him, they often end up creating a past out of a childhood divested of responsibilities and an imagined landscape invested with elements they find missing in the present-day world. Lowenthal’s view can be used as an entry point for a discussion on the origin and development of Bangla children’s and young adults’ literature. The reasons are more than one. First, this strand of Bangla literature, like a few others, took definitive shape in colonial times; a period in India’s history when creative artists were trying hard to come to terms with the ignominy of the foreign rule. Writers who started to write with the idea of children and young boys as readers in their minds were also, in a way, time travellers searching for the past glory of a precolonial India. Secondly, as it so often happens in literatures in many other parts of the world, adult individuals who took up pens to write for children in Bangla also gave way to a strong fantasy element and a desire to revisit childhood in their efforts to assume “child-like” (in contradistinction to being “childish”) personae so that they could address their young readers in an effective manner. A return, through the creation of imaginative literature, to an almost irretrievably “lost past” of childhood— “childhood divested of responsibilities”—as a kind of “wish fulfilment” (something very Freudian in nature, one must say) has been a conspicuous motif in the world of Bangla children’s literature since its early days. Thirdly, the formative years of this branch of Bangla sahitya when the writers were trying hard to find their own voice and diction were also the same years in which this part of India witnessed an unprecedented inroad of the marauding forces of modernity into a culture steeped in millennia-old traditions. From the mid-nineteenth century to the early decades of the twentieth, Bengali subjects, to their great surprise, found the world around them changing and changing so fast. Changes in the spheres of political economy and governance, industry and technology, language and education, rural and urban societies and so forth obviously resulted in the disappearance of a number of features and practices of pre-modern ways of life. So, the question might arise, can the evolving nature of Bangla children’s literature be viewed as a means of creating an “imagined landscape” where the missing elements from the bygone era can be accommodated? This is a significant issue because Bangla children’s literature is really the field where we see the meeting of—or even an “encounter” between—the age-old oral traditions of folk tales, rhymes and puzzles, myths and stories belonging to rituals on the one hand and the newly arrived “print capitalism” on the other taking place.
But, before we begin somewhat sketchily mapping the terrain of Bangla children’s literature, let us pen down a few preliminary remarks. So far as children’s literature is concerned, let us remember first of all that there is nothing “natural” about childhood. It is culturally defined and created. It is also a matter of human choice. Factors like consciousness of childhood, patterns of child-rearing and the social role of the child are shaped and controlled by political and psychological forces. The quotations at the beginning of this essay are significant pointers to this particular aspect of the subject under discussion. We have to, therefore, try and contextualise (historically as well as culturally) the child/young-adult figure in the arena of Bangla literature. The diachronic changes in popular perceptions of this figure in Bengal, from a period starting sometime in the middle of the nineteenth century through the twentieth till contemporary times, are significant from this perspective.
In this context, we need to understand the forces at work in the very production of Bangla children’s literature in its book form, the form in which it reaches us. In an attempt to study the modes of production of Bangla children’s literature dialectically we face a few pertinent questions. They are important because in the Bengali book market today books meant for children and the young adult sell more than books for adults. If one takes a look at the weekly bestsellers’ list, published by a leading Bangla daily, one will find that children’s books always top the chart. Production of books for children is big business. Hence, we need to ask, who writes for children? For whom are the books written? How and under what conditions are the books produced? Why are the books written? Where and when, in a comparative manner of speaking, do the writers and the readers for such books exist? How, and with what kinds of distribution system and machineries, do the texts reach from the authors to the readers?
Bangla children’s literature started to develop during the age of colonial modernity. It is common knowledge that issues like identity formation and nation-building project have been central to the history of this literature (Dakshinaranjan Mitra Majumder’s works like Thakurmar Jhuli, published in 1907, when the Swadeshi Movement reached its zenith is an obvious example). However, in the larger societal dynamics, the child has been seen as the future of the nation and at the same time a subject thoroughly excluded from the debates about where the future of India should go in a country where most people, more than half a century after the end of colonial rule, cannot afford the luxury of a “childhood”. Furthermore, the categories of gender, class, caste and religion have played crucial roles in the formation of this discourse. Also, here too, like anywhere else in the world, children’s literature is written, published as well as bought primarily by the adult. Its target readers have little to say about the entire process. It will not perhaps be a weak strategy if one begins to trace the major trajectories of the history of Bangla children’s literature with the premise that the chief agency in this discursive field is the urban, Hindu, western-educated, middle-class/upper-middle-class, middle-aged bhadralok male who has utilised this genre both as a form and a forum of endless debates about what is “fit” for children to read.
Excerpted with permissions from Timeless Tales from Bengal: An Anthology of Bangla Children’s and Young Adults’ Stories, published by Niyogi Books