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Why I write Indian stories for Indian children

Sometimes, I think of my generation – the kids who grew up in the seventies and eighties and read, thought and dreamt primarily in English – as the schizophrenic generation.

On one side was the inescapable third-world-ness of our immediate circumstances – lockable televisions that played just one dreary channel, engineering and medicine as the only two careers (so they told us in South India) that would keep us off the dung-heap in the dark, dystopian future, and our own embarrassed acceptance, borne out of long experience, that Indian-made goods were always, always inferior to anything ‘foreign-made’.

On the other side was our own misplaced superiority over our countrymen to whom English did not come quite as easily, our eager (and looking back now, pathetic) assumption of the already-outmoded manners of a cool green island where girls played lacrosse and ate scones for tea, and, saddest of all, our desperation to un-identify ourselves with anything to do with our ‘backward’ native country.

While our parents were partly responsible for perpetuating the vague shame we felt about many things Indian, the books that were available to us to read were equally to blame. Amar Chitra Katha comics and Chandamama were beloved, and, in hindsight, kept us rooted to our culture and mythology through their stories, but they did not reflect our urban, English-speaking realities. Our folk and mythological stories were wonderful and complex, but they were certainly not ‘cool’. In our gut, we suspected that the constant harking back to a glorious past was the adult’s way of keeping us from dwelling on what was clearly the uninspiring present.

Then, when I was around eight or so, everything changed. I got a subscription to a monthly magazine called Children’s World (CW). Packed within its covers was a wonderful mix of informative articles and lovely stories, beautifully illustrated, about Indian children exactly like me. Suddenly, through the filters provided by CW’s writers and artists, I began to see that my humdrum idli-sambar life (humdrum only when compared to the Famous Five’s!) was, precisely because of its weirdness and different-ness, a very unique (and very fun) experience, a thing to be cherished, not despised.

A couple of years later, a children’s magazine called Target exploded into my world. Target was broadly cast in the CW mould – it celebrated Indian-ness – but it was leagues smarter, funner and with-it than CW had ever been. It instantly created a hierarchy among reading Indian children everywhere. If you were a Target reader, you were one of us, if you were a Chandamama-Champak aficionado, we-ell, it was nice knowing you (needless to say, us elite ‘Target readers’ continued to read Chandamama ‘in the closet’).

But the real game-changer was Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. I was too young to understand it (not that I let that prevent me from trying!) when it first came out in 1981, but I knew instantly a tectonic shift had occurred. An Indian writer who wrote luminously and unapologetically in ‘chutnified’ Indian English, while telling an Indian story, had arrived, and nothing would ever be the same again.

In one stroke, Rushdie showed me that it was possible to be as Indian as railway-station chai while also being as cool – no, cooler – than anyone else in the world. He made me wonder why there weren’t more authors like him around; he made me seek out other stories set in Indian contexts. Most importantly, he helped me understand, with blinding clarity, that true appreciation, respect for, and acceptance of ‘the other’ – her literature, culture, manners and values – can only happen when you are comfortable and confident in your own skin, warts and all; when you meet the other as an equal.

And that’s why I, and an entire generation of writers today who were first set on their chosen path by magazines like Target and writers like Salman Rushdie, Vikram Seth and Amitav Ghosh, write the stories that we do for children. Stories rooted in our particular kind of chaos, stories that reflect our confounding but wonderful diversity, stories that celebrate our world-view while holding up a mirror to its flaws. For while we believe strongly that all of humankind is, or should be, one big happy family, we also understand, through lived experience, that it will remain a distant dream unless we, and our children, start by knowing and loving ourselves today.

Some of my favourite books by Indian authors for children

Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie (Penguin India)

Beastly Tales from Here and There by Vikram Seth (Penguin India)

The Room on the Roof by Ruskin Bond (Penguin India)

The Ghost Rider of Darbhanga and Other Stories by Sigrun Srivastav (Ratna Sagar)

I’m Not Butter Chicken and Other Stories by Paro Anand (Roli Books)

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