While most books for children on Indian festivals are filled with pictures and factual descriptions, this series is unusual since it has original fiction in the form of short stories by some new and some well known children’s authors, in addition to historical and mythological facts, things to do and make to celebrate the festival and a diary to be filled with personal memories. Despite the unique idea, the series disappoints and does not stand out as an exemplary effort.
An anthology of short stories is highly unlikely to enthrall all readers, in any case. On top of it, to have a series of anthologies on preselected topics is a risky task. The protagonist could have been of any faith and the stories could have been published under “mystery/detective” genre or “myths and folktales” for example. Real issues such as cyber and hostel bullying, self confidence or pending arrival of sibling, all relevant in the context of growing up, appear to be “made to fit” under a festival theme, in most cases.
The cover illustrations for all four books are by Greystroke, the “pen name” of Shyam Madhavan Sarada, an editor for Hachette’s magazines, who has also illustrated books for Pratham and Karadi Tales Publishers. The cartoon style used is not particularly appealing to children. The only logical reason for selecting this style could perhaps be that books with cartoon characters have been quite popular for the 6-12 age group of readers, especially boys, in the international market, recently (“Diary of a Wimpy Kid” series as well as Hachette’s “Diary of Amos Lee”). While this might have been the inspiration, these books are not personal accounts.
Moving to the short stories themselves, in today’s age of sophisticated editing tools being easily available, it is extremely disturbing to find grammatical errors in books by reputed publishing houses. Repetition of words, for example, in the Eid information section could have been easily avoided. Similarly, it is not at all clear why two mysteries had to appear in the Durga Pooja book, two army children stories in the Eid title, two step family stories in the Rakhi section and two stories set in chawls in the Christmas book?
Another point that needs to be made is the lack of clarity vis-a-vis the target age group of readers for the stories. While many will be understood by only those above 10 years in age, the mixing of age groups might have been better achieved had there been simple black and white illustrations, to accompany some stories.
A brief look at the each of the books:
Roopa Pai’s story about communal harmony, with no Christian characters or names at all, was exceptional! The choice of the doll to be infant Jesus at Christmas, the tree to be decorated, and sweets for Santa – her originality has to be applauded!
Another well written piece was by Swapna Duta, tracing the historic origins of a popular Christmas carol.
Most stories, unfortunately, seem to be falling into the traps of stereotypingstep mother, single parent, and such. The following passage from Rituparna Chatterjee’s story, set in Shillong strikes one to be really odd:
“They crossed a series of small dilapidated houses. The cracked foggy windows of the houses revealed the humble life of their residents…. A few of them had bowed their heads, probably in prayer…But what struck the Crawford twins especially, even from so far, was the joy on their faces.” Today’s children are smarter than to believe such wishful descriptions.
The “All About Christmas” section claims, “It is one of the most enjoyable holidays of the year for children as they believe that Santa Claus will come with bags full of Christmas presents for them”. This reinforces the stereotype and misses the whole sharing message of Christmas. In one of the activities, addresses for Santa have been provided for Canada, Finland, Britain, USA encouraging children to write postcards.
Now, it is possible that the publisher wanted to target NRIs for these books as the prices are also printed in US dollars on the back jacket, along with Indian Rupee price. However, if the book is being sold in India, then “Elf Droppings and Snowman Poop” are somewhat out of context as is the activity requiring licorice sticks for cookies – nowhere is it mentioned that licorice in India is known as mulethi and is a staple for ayurvedic medicines!
Ramender Kumar’s story truly addresses Hindu-Muslim friendship , in an age appropriate manner. Better editing could have linked the ending to the beginning more suitably, though.
Anu Kumar’s story, the only in the entire series written in the form of letters, is sweet and simple. Incidentally, she alone has contributed a sci-fi story to the Christmas selection. In Madhumita Bhattacharyya’s story, the passage, “…and that there were some things you just couldn’t expect a woman to grasp” from a young boy’s pen strikes one as reinforcing undesirable stereotypes.
The more than twenty pages long “All about Eid” section is very text-bookish. The couplet attributed to Jehangir and Nur Jahan about his abstinence from alcohol during Ramadan is inappropriate given the context and target age group of the audience.
There is no mention of adult supervision in the activities section which includes using electrical blenders for paper and water mush, no exact measures for either recipes or craft activities requiring glue, soap, colours all of which are not inexpensive, and some of the instructions are even vague at times.
RAKHI AND BHAI DOOJ
The themes of broken homes and step siblings seem to be recurring. Also, where the children are not city brats, they belong to the domestic helpers’ families, whether maids or drivers. The repeated reference to Facebook and its unsupervised use by young, urban children seems to be disturbing, yet realistic. While a feeble attempt at a ghost story has been made in the Rakhi book, strangely, no pet appears in any story in any of the four books. The Activity Section with ancient Hindi film songs and movies seems too narrow in focus and the lack of any regional flavours makes it bland.
DURGA POOJA AND DUSSEHRA
Roopa Pai has once again succeeded in getting rid of stereotypes in a grand manner with no mention of Dussehra at all in the delightful short story spread over nine nights. However, where was the need for so many Durga Pooja stories from Bengal, with food pandal themes?
Overall, opportunity has been lost on several fronts by the publishers.
The overwhelming majority of the stories seem to be set in either cities or chawls, making one wonder what happened to all the towns and villages? Also, regional diversification could have made the stories more appealing to a larger audience. Dussehra is not celebrated in just Bengal and Eid is also celebrated in Kashmir, by the same token.
Furthermore, why should endorsements of products or restaurants be acceptable in children’s literature? Just as television is criticized for “suggesting” things to be purchased by parents for their children, every time a brand name appears in a story, it raises similar alarm bells.
The fact that international publishers of children’s books in India are perhaps trying to explore unchartered territories is a good thing. On the one hand, stereotypes are being smashed by examples such as “Pancakes and maple syrup” being eaten for breakfast on Eid by a mother and son, and a “comforter” not blanket or quilt being used in another story. On the other end of the spectrum, we still have stale chapattis being served by a poor mother and insufficient money for paints for a drawing competition in a chawl. So, while our children are living in many Indias as are we, why can we not have our literature be shared by all Indian children? Is it necessary to make distinctions based on what we own rather than celebrate similarities in emotions and anxieties, shared joys and fears with minimal use of labels?
To end this review on a somewhat positive note, school teachers and parents are sure to welcome many suggestions from the activities sections. Grandparents are bound to share their own versions of the mythological and historical facts, making the children enjoy festival traditions that have been handed down for generations. And if any of the stories strike a chord with the reader – the observations made in this review can be taken with a pinch of salt.
Dussehra & Durga Puja
Rakhi and Bhai Dooj
Publisher: All published by Hachette India , 2012
Page: 144 pages each
Price: Rs. 195 each
Subject category: Contemporary/Story collection/anthology/History/Mythology/Activity