Non-fiction Posts

Of holy men like Rasputin

Douglas Smith’s Rasputin is a detailed and a fascinating biography of a holy man who was extremely close to Tsar Nicholas II and Empress Alexandra. It is a slow but satisfying to read for it describes Russia at the turn of the twentieth century, decline of the Russian empire, rise of Lenin and the Bolsheviks etc. Rasputin was also shortlisted for the James Tait Black Prize 2017. Here is an excellent review of the book in The Guardian.

Of all the lines in the book it was a description of him in the opening pages which are gripping since it could be a description of any other holy man in a different time, nation and culture. Read on:

Pokrovskoe was the home of the most notorious Russian of the day, a man who in the spring of 1912 became the focus of a scandal that shook Nicholas’s reign like nothing before. Rumors had been circulating about him for years, but it was then that the tsar’s minists and the politicians of the State Duma, Russia’s legislative assembly, first dared to call him out by name and demand that the palace tell the country who precisely this man was and clarify his relationship to the throne. It was said that this man belonged to a bizarre religious sect that embraced the most wicked forms of sexual perversion, that he was a phony holy man who had duped the emperor and empress into embracing him as their spiritual leader, that he had taken over the Russian Orthodox Church and was bending it to his own immoral designs, that he was a filthy peasant who managed not only to worm his way into the palace, but through deceit and cunning was quickly becoming the true power behind the throne. This man, many were beginning to believe, presented a real danger to the church, to the monarchy, and even to Russia itself. This man was Grigory Yefimovich Rasputin. 

Even before his gruesome murder in a Petrograd cellar in the final days of 1916, Rasputin had become in the eyes of much of the world personification of evil. His wickedness was said to recognize no bounds, just like his sexual drive that could never be sated no matter how many women he took to his bed. A brutish, drunken satyr with the manners of a barnyard animal, Rasputin had the inborn cunning of the Russian peasant and knew how to play the simple man of God when in front of the tsar and tsarita. 

Douglas Smith Rasputin Macmillan, London, 2016. Pb. pp. Rs 599

11 Sept 2017 

The Erotic in the Indian Imagination

Amrita Narayanan has edited Parrots of Desire: 3,000 Years of Indian Erotica , an anthology consisting of extracts from literature published in India over centuries. There are pieces from Rig Veda; the Tamil Sangam poets; Bhakti poets Antal and Mahadeviyakka, who describe women’s fantasies of men (whether human or godly); short stories by Kamala Das that have been out of print for decades; excerpts from the work of contemporary writers like Mridula Garg, Ginu Kamani, Tarun Tejpal, Deepti Kapoor, Sudhir Kakar et al. It is not as comprehensive in its survey as say the two volumes of Women Writing in India were and thus falls short of one’s expectations. Having said that Parrots of Desire is a start maybe to be added to later in a revised edition? 

Here is an extract from the opening pages of the well-written introduction published with permission. This section is “Erotic in the Indian Imagination”. 

To read centuries of voices writing on the erotic is to become keenly aware of a deep argument that exists in the geography of the subcontinent, an argument between literary romantics—who embrace the erotic for the gloss it adds to life—and religious traditionalists[1]—who caution against the erotic, for its disorderly nature and potential to cause chaos. While romantic and traditionalist voices are unanimous in their belief that the erotic holds an extraordinary power and attraction for human beings, each does something very different with that belief. Romantics are erotically positive: they believe life is made worthwhile by its erotic aspects, that the best life is one in which our understanding and awareness of the erotic are maximally enhanced. Traditionalists, on the other hand, are erotically anxious: they believe that a worthwhile life is one in which the four goals of life[2] are in balance; they do not favour the promotion of the erotic, worrying that if not tightly controlled, the erotic could undermine the other three goals of life. Aficionados of the romantic project used the arts as a vehicle of articulation; their literature, music, drama, even grammar, was thought to be imbued with the erotic and capable of enhancing our understanding of the erotic. Traditionalists used both religious writing and the social contract to articulate the dangers of the erotic, believing that the erotic must be kept on the sidelines, aside from its necessary use as a vehicle for reproduction. Romantics believe that coupling is a central life force, and they appreciate the energy that comes from all couplings, whether man-woman, woman-woman, men who identify as women (and are fantasizing about male gods), or (wo)men with God. Traditionalists believe in the notion of an ‘ideal couple’: heterosexually and monogamously married, with children and extended family in the foreground and a willingness and ability to keep the erotic in the background.

To further understand the argument between traditionalists and romantics, consider a brief history of the time that traditionalism and romanticism have held sway. The purview of this anthology begins about 1000 BCE in ancient India. For the first 800 years or so of this time period, that is, beginning with the Vedas, traditionalist sentiments prevail. During this time, the destabilizing dangers of the erotic are far better articulated in the literature than are its pleasures. From the Vedas onwards, traditionalist literature, which is largely in the form of religious texts, is squarely articulate on the need to manage the destablizing potential of the erotic. Beginning in 200 BCE, however, and continuing for several centuries, literary voices sang the glories of the erotic and their dedication to it—in Tamil, Sanskrit, and Maharashtrian Prakrit. From the second to the sixth century, an Indian literary-erotic-nature idiom was spelt out from Tamil Nadu to Maharashtra and up to Madhya Pradesh. Here the poets embraced the erotic along with its problems, accepting that though the erotic often brought anger, grief and shame, it was still worth embracing for its pleasures. During this medieval period emerged the Tamil Sangam poets and the Maharashtrian Prakrit Gatha Saptasati, the prose and poetry of Kalidasa and Bhartrihari, as well as the Kama Sutra itself. After this golden age of the Romantics, puritanism once again holds sway and the next major erotic work—at least the one that has survived—is the collection of romantic poems known as the Amarusataka, written in Sanskrit in the seventh or eighth century and attributed to King Amaru of Kashmir. From the eighth century onwards there is again a long period in which very few important works have survived, the next set being from the Bhakti poets who compose discontinuously from the ninth to the fifteenth centuries in praise of erotic love with God himself. The fact that Bhakti poets praise erotic love only in language that involves a deity suggests that this was considered the most elegant and refined expression of romanticism at that time. Alternatively, perhaps, the social climate—which by this time included both Hindu and Muslim puritans—did not support an articulation of a more explicit person-to-person erotic love. The taboos on self-expression of erotic love might have impinged particularly on women poets and the re-direction of this love to the divine might have spared them the censorship that might have otherwise been forthcoming. Another way of thinking about it is that, dispirited with the limitations of romantic love between humans, some of these poets were able to find a more elevated idiom with the gods.

Following the Bhakti period, the proliferation of the Urdu language and the culture of refinement associated with Islamic courtly love played an important pro-romantic influence; but as the Hindu and Muslim puritans were joined by the British puritans in the seventeenth century, one has the sense that romanticism was very much in the dark ages. Nevertheless, important works continued to emerge in a more scattered fashion. Amongst these individual works are those written by courtesans, such as the Telugu Radhika Santawanam (The Appeasement of Radhika) by Muddupalani, in the eighteenth century. Another is the erotic proponent of the Lucknow school of poetry, Qalandar Bakhsh Jur’at, known for his bawdy yet spiritual imaginings of women in sexual union. As the reader advances towards and past the twentieth century, individual writers offer an exploration of contemporary erotic problems alternating with the past. Contemporary Indian writers who match and build on the efforts of their ancestors write in, among other languages, English, Tamil and Malayalam, and continue to shed profound light on the erotic. In this anthology the contemporary writers I have chosen include those who have made a searing commentary on the relationship between kama and society: Perumal Murugan, Kamala Das; those whose reverential treatment of the erotic couple recalls the glorious medieval period: Pritish Nandy, K. Satchidanandan, Tarun Tejpal; writers like Manto and Ambai whose erotic-nostalgic writings make us feel lustful and tender at once; modern Bhakti poets like Arundhathi Subramaniam and Kala Krishnan Ramesh; and those who have treated in great depth the extraordinary conflicts that the erotic poses for an individual life: here found in the works of Mridula Garg, Deepti Kapoor and Ginu Kamani

[1]I chose the word traditionalist and not puritan because of the historical origins of puritanism that are not pertinent to India. However I thought it worth mentioning that the traditionalist argument is close in nature to the puritan argument. Here puritan is used in the sense of against pleasure, see for example, H. L. Mencken, who sardonically defined Puritanism as ‘the haunting fear that someone, somewhere may be happy’.

[2]The four aims of life (purusharthas): artha (wealth), kama (desire), dharma (duty) and moksha (salvation from the cycle of life and death).

Amrita Narayanan ( ed.) Parrots of Desire: 3,000 Years of Indian Erotica Aleph Book Company, New Delhi, 2017. Hb. pp. 304 

8 Sept 2017 

Angela Duckworth’s “Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance”

“Grit is about working on something you care about so much that you’re willing to stay loyal to it.”

Angela Duckworth‘s Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance is an analysis of how those who are successful in life are primarily due to their grit, their passion and perseverance rather than talent or being naturally gifted at it. This is the conclusion she came to after studying students and professionals across the spectrum. She wortked with the cadets at West Point to sales people, to school children and interviewed many achievers to understand what made them tick. Surprisingly it was not the IQ scores that determined whether a child/person would succeed at their task. It was dedicated hardwork, perseverance and a passion to excel. Sometimes the hardwork involved in the attempt to excel can be exhausting but it is at this precise moment that the grit of the person decides whether s/he will finish their task. Angela Duckworth interviewed Bill Gates too who said that when he used to screen applicants for Microsoft he inevitably selected the candidate who had completed the tough programming task he had given. He appreciated the candidate’s stamina to stick on till the end rather than give up in frustration. There are many, many examples strewn through the book that confirm her hypothesis that grit determines success, not necessarily talent and IQ. This is a strength of character she states is a good quality to inculcate in children too. The satisfaction of doing something important and doing it well even though it’s so very hard. Children “recognize complacency has its charms, but none worth trading for the fulfillment of realizing their potential.”

Grit is one of those exceptional thought-provoking books that will be influential for a very, very long time. More so since it takes one idea and explore it satisfactorily providing sufficient empirical evidence to make it plausible.  Here is a short TED talk Angela Duckworth made based on her research. It does share the gist of her wonderful book although it is advisable to read the book for the concept to really seep in.

Angela Duckworth Grit Vermilion, an imprint of Ebury Publishing, Penguin Random House, London, 2016. Pb. pp 340

Books on advice for women

Three books of advice for women spread across more than a century is a great way of mapping the enormous strides women have made over the decades. Don’ts for Wives by Blanche Ebbutt ( 1913) is a list of instructions to women advising them on how to survive, particularly on how to manage their husbands. Tucked away in it are some gems like this:

Don’t forget that you have a right to some money to spend as you like; you earn it as wife, and mother, and housekeeper. Very likely you will spend it on the house or the children when you get it; but that doesn’t matter — it is yours to spend as you like. 

Published in 2017 are Little Black Book by Otegha Uwagba ( HarperCollins)  and The Whole Shebang: Sticky Bits of Being a Woman  by Lalita Iyer ( Bloomsbury India) are two handybooks on what it takes to be a professional woman while juggling a million other responsibilities. There is plenty of sound advice offered by Otegha Uwagba whereas Lalita Iyer imparts similar nuggets of information but in a more personal way through anecdotes. There are many, many more books of a similar nature being published and of late there is practically a deluge of these books since the women reader market is burgeoning. Suddenly from a niche area it has become a mainstream market so there is a range of information available. All said and done all the books advise that women need to focus on self-preservation, maintaining their sanity, identity and self-respect and not necessarily capitulating to all that is expected of them. Sharing stories is one way of being able to get through to other women.

16 August 2017 

“Eclectic Response”

My article “Eclectic Response” on Partition literature was published in the Hindu on 6 August 2011. I am c&p the text below. 

Each successive generation has confronted the collective guilt of the Partition in its own different way…

August 14/15, 1947 carved the Indian subcontinent into two nations, Pakistan and India. In a second partition in 1971, Bangladesh was created. 1947 saw the largest mass migration, accompanied by genocide. It uprooted and displaced people of all communities — Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Sikhs. But, as Pakistani literary journalist Muneeza Shamsie says, in literature “the response of South English novelists to an event of such magnitude has been comparatively limited. One of the problems is that Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs were both perpetrators and the victims. Therefore, unlike the Holocaust victims, their moral stand, as individual communities, has been eroded. This has led to a collective guilt, which South Asians find difficult to confront” (Dawn, August 14, 2001).

We know that the literary repercussions of the French Revolution were different on successive generations. The first generation of British romantic poets, for example, was preoccupied with the events as they happened. Similarly, the virtual canon of Partition literature by those who knew undivided India is a moving documentation — Atia Hosain’s Sunlight on a Broken Column; Khushwant Singh’s Train to Pakistan; Saadat Hasan Manto’s “Toba Tek Singh”; Chaman Nahal’s Azadi; Bhishm Sahni’s Tamas; Ahmed Ali’s Twilight in Delhi; Mumtaz Shahnawaz’s The Heart Divided; Aangan by Khadija Mastur; Akhteruzzaman Elias’s Khoabnama; Surja-Dighal Bari by Abu Ishaque, and Shahidullah Kaiser’s Sangsaptak.

The first post-Partition generation of Indian writers in English was silent for a time. Then, from about the 1970s to the 1990s, there was a surge of Partition memoirs and oral history projects. Seminal examples of these are Stern Reckoning: A Survey of the Events Leading Up to and following the Partition of India, G.D. Khosla; Borders and Boundaries: Women in India’s Partition, (eds.) Ritu Menon and Kamla Bhasin; The Other Side of Silence: Voices from the Partition of India, Urvashi Butalia; India’s Partition: Process, Strategy and Mobilization, (Ed.) Mushirul Hasan; Stories about the Partition of India (Ed.) Alok Bhalla, 3 volumes; Pangs of Partition, Volume I: The Parting of Ways and Volume II: The Human Dimension, (Eds.) S. Settar and Indira B. Gupta. In India, the Teen Murti Library’s Oral History programme began to be enriched with recordings of those who had witnessed Partition and/or had been administratively/politically involved in it — a rich source of empirical data preserved for posterity. The small crop of Partition fiction in English included Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie; Clear Light of Day, Anita Desai; What the Body Remembers, Shauna Singh Baldwin; Looking Through Glass, Mukul Kesavan; Shadow Lines, Amitav Ghosh; Ice-Candy Man, Bapsi Sidhwa; Padma Meghna Jamuna, Abu Jafar Shamsuddin. In many of these, realism is replaced by formal and linguistic displays, and individual memory replaces actual events of Partition — a measure of the writers’ distance from actual events.

The literature of the third post-Partition generation is markedly different in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. The two partitions of 1947 and 1971 resonate in the literature from Pakistan and Bangladesh. The treatment is sophisticated and nuanced in works like Salt and Saffron, Kamila Shamsie; A Golden Age and The Good Muslim, Tahmima Anam; The Search, Shaheen Akhtar; Ojogor and Mohajer by Haripada Dutta; Agunpakhi, Hasan Azizul Huq; Rain and the Rebels, Syed Shamsul Haq, and Agun Pakhi, Hasan Azizul Haq. In Bangladesh, all genres, poetry, drama, short stories and other forms of prose, are equally important for a discussion of ideas and history. India, however, has little or no fiction from the third post-Partition generation, but much non-fiction documentation of the past. Some examples: Partition Dialogues: Memories of a Lost Home, Alok Bhalla; The Trauma and the Triumph: Gender and Partition in Eastern India, (Eds.) Jasodhara Bagchi and Subhoranjan Dasgupta; The Partitions of Memory: The Afterlife of the Division of India (Ed.) Suvir Kaul; Translating Partition, (Eds.) Ravi Kant and Tarun K. Saint; Amritsar to Lahore: A Journey Across the India-Pakistan Border, Stephen Alter; Witnessing Partition: Memory, History, Fiction, Tarun Saint; and Changing Homelands: Hindu Politics and the Partition of India, Neeti Nair.

But, as writer Shauna Singh Baldwin said in an e-mail to me, “We need more exploration and translations of books on Partition, by fiction and non-fiction writers from all over the world, by people of Indo-Pak and British descent and those who wish to understand modern genocides and imagine alternatives for individuals to resist the descent into group-think spirals. Imagination is our one possession that is truly free.”

Future forms

At present, literature from, on or about Partition is not in the printed word alone. The Internet is a vast repository of video and audio clips, online discussion forums, blogs, and photographs. There’s new historical fiction, particularly for young adults, about Partition and surrounding debates by authors like Irfan Master, Jamila Gavin, Anwara Syed Haq, and Selina Hossain, while professional story tellers Mahmood Farooqui and Danish Husain have a newly created dastango on Partition, dastan taqseem-e hind ki. Fourth post-Partition generation literature may well be born here.

“No Touch” A picture book on child sexual abuse ( CSA)

Not a day goes by without the morning newspapers reporting the horrendous sexual attacks upon children. It is frightening and deeply disturbing. In a manner of speaking CSA ( child sexual abuse) has replaced the news about dowry deaths which used to fill the papers in the 1980s.

It becomes extremely difficult to discuss child sexual abuse particularly in a society like India where any conversation remotely linked to sex is considered moral taboo. It is not uncommon to hear of young couples getting married and clueless about how babies are born! In such a scenario teaching a child to recognise and articulate uncomfortable scenarios which are probably in the purview of CSA becomes challenging. Hence a picture book like No Touch published by Scholastic India is relevant and useful.

In fact an innovative way of getting this book read has been by having copies of the book dropped off by book fairies on the Delhi metro.

Child sexual abuse is absolutely horrific and what is truly alarming is the perpetrators are mostly known to the children abused. There have been many concerted campaigns such as this animated video on child sexual abuse made in English and Hindi by CHILDLINEIndia. In 2014 noted filmmaker Pankaj Butalia published Dark Room: Child Sexuality in India with the hope to open this conversation outside of the specialized, academic circles. Another brilliant attempt was made by Scholastic India author Ken Spillman in his short story “A bubble of shared knowing”. After the December 2013 dastardly act of raping a young girl in Delhi the conversations about child sexual abuse and rape opened up and for the first time these filtered into public spaces and collective consciousnesses. As a result the case of writer and rape survivor Sohaila Abdulali who had been gang-raped in the 1980s began to be discussed once more. In fact she was brave enough to write about the incident in an NYT article “I Was Wounded; My Honor Wasn’t” ( 7 Jan 2013). A few months later she co-authored a forceful article in the Guardian asking for children to be made aware of rape and sexual assault, the discourse must be brought home. ( “To protect our children, we must talk to them about rape” 26 April 2013).

No Touch a picture book is a step in the right direction. The book needs to be read, shared and disseminated widely. These difficult conversations must be had in every household and schools.

No Touch published by Scholastic India. Hb. 2017 

3 August 2017 

Theme of Independence in children’s literature in India

(The following article was commissioned in 2015 by Sarah Odedina for the Read Quarterly. With her permission I am posting it here.  On 15 August 2017  India celebrates it’s seventieth anniversary of independence from the British. )

15 August 1947 India won its independence from the British. It had been a long freedom struggle. Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, “Father of the Nation”, is recognised as one of its leaders especially with his non-violent method of protest. His birthday, 2 October, is a national holiday. When the British decided to leave the subcontinent they did so after partitioning it into two nations—India and Pakistan.

The uprising of 1857[1] was influential in instilling in the Indians “a rudimentary sense of national unity” that when a genuine Indian freedom movement began within a few decades later it inspired the leaders with the hope that their British masters could be defeated. Significant highlights were the Partition of Bengal, new words such as Swaraj ( “self-rule”), Swadeshi (self-reliance) and Boycott ( of all foreign goods and products), Satyagraha, Jallianwala Bagh ( massacre of peaceful protestors by General Dyer in Amritsar), Chauri Chaura ( burning of a police station, killing 22 policemen on duty), rise of communalism with “parties based on religion like the Muslim League, the Hindu Mahasabha and the Rashtriya Swayam Sevak Sangh …these parties only cared for their own communities, it was to their advantage if they could divide the country around religion.”[2]The Dandi March or the salt satyagraha, the Civil Disobedience Movement, Quit India Movement, and Independence.

It is now nearly 70 years since Independence, three generations removed from the momentous events. The freedom struggle still exists in living memory as it is not too far back in time. Yet for children, history is a mish-mash in their minds — the Harappan civilisation, the Mughals, Mauryan Empire and British India/freedom struggle are a blur. This is where literature plays a crucial role in offering perspectives.

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Globally children’s literature is understood to include fiction and non-fiction, a category distinct from literature used as textbooks and supplementary readers in schools. In India these fine lines are blurred. For the toddlers and primary school students there is variety of material available – fiction, folktales, mythology, non-fiction. As the pressure of school curriculum increases on students the focus shifts from reading for pleasure to textbooks. Till recently this attitude was deeply ingrained in society. Now the slow shift to reading for pleasure is perceptible. It is a coalescing of multiple factors –an increase in income of parents allowing disposable income available for purchase of books, a rise in publishing and retailing for children, establishment of specialist bookshops, increase in direct marketing efforts by publishers like book fairs and book clubs in schools and growth in popularity of children’s literature festivals like Bookaroo[3] has made the category of children and young adult book publishing the fastest growing and lucrative category in India. (It also helps when the target audience/market of less than 25 year olds constitutes 40% of the 1.3 billion Indians.)

Children’s literature with the theme of independence is found in school material and trade lists. In the 40s (actually from 30s onward if not earlier) the best children’s literature came out in Bal Sakha – a Hindi Magazine brought out by Bengalis settled in Allahabad, Uttar Pradesh. Some of the best writers, including Premchand, were first published here. This magazine dealt with the issue of independence, presenting it to children in what still seems a fairly contemporary way[4]. In 1957 two publishing houses were established – National Book Trust ( NBT) [5]and Children’s Book Trust ( CBT)[6]. According to Navin Menon, editor, CBT, every year in August Children’s World “publish[es] content related to Independence either written by children or stories/ articles contributed by adults.” Amar Chitra Katha (ACK)[7], specialise in comics, usually the first introduction to children on folktales, Indian mythology and stories about the freedom struggle published its first title on freedom struggle, Rani of Jhansi[8] on 1 Feb 1974, around the 25th anniversary of Independence. Historical accounts by writer and niece of India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, Nayantara Sahgal’s The Story of India’s Freedom Movement (1970) continues to be in print[9]. As she told me in an email, “The freedom movement is part of our modern history. Obviously it is important for young people to know their country’s history.”


Writing for children about the independence movement began to pick up pace in the early 1980s when CBT published writers like Nilima Sinha’s Adventure before Midnight[10]. In 1984 after the assassination of the prime minister, Delhi saw terrible communal clashes. It led to writers like Urvashi Butalia, Ritu Menon and Amitav Ghosh drawing parallels between their experiences with that of Partition. In the 1990s preparations for the fiftieth anniversary celebrations of Indian independence began. To commemorate it there were a deluge of books. For instance, Shashi Deshpande’s novel The Narayanpur Incident and Macmillan published The First Patriots (series editor, Mini Krishnan) consisting of short illustrated biographies[11]. Biographies, bordering on hagiographies, are the most popular genre for introducing children to this period in history. These books sell extremely well since it supplements school textbooks. Scholastic India with its Great Lives[12], Puffin India with Puffin Lives and Hachette India with What they did, What they Said? series have profiled freedom fighters registering steady sales too. Gandhi is a popular subject of biographies. From picture books ( A Man Called Bapu and We call her Ba on his wife, Kasturba), standard biographical accounts, profusely illustrated with photographs like DK India’s Eyewitness Gandhi and graphic novels like Gandhi: My Life is my message ( Gandhi – Mera Jeevan Hi Mera Sandesh). [13] An unusual book is Everyone’s Gandhi by Subir Shukla[14] which looked at Gandhi from children’s point of view. It asked provocative questions. It was syndicated in some 75 newspapers (English and regional languages) and the author used to get 500 postcards every week from children across the country, proving that it is possible to approach independence in a manner that generates serious response. Paro Anand, writer and founder, Literature in Action[15] says “I loved this book because it brought me closer to Gandhi. It took the capital letter out of it because made me see him like a human being who I could be not a saint or god who I could never aspire to be. I have used the book often with kids urging them to be a Gandhi for 5 minutes every day, in a single act of kindness or a single act of care. To me empathy is a very important component of kid lit.”

Now there are a variety of books available in terms of writing styles and formats. For instance late Justice Leila Seth’s fabulous book on the Preamble of the Indian Constitution – We, The Children of India[16]; graded readers with pictures like Bharati Jagannathan’s movingly told One Day in August[17], Nina Sabnani’s heart-warming animation film (later book) based on a true story Mukund and Riaz [18]and Samina Mishra’s Hina in the Old City[19] — all focused on Partition and Ruby Hembrom’s award-winning picture book Disaibon Hul on the Santhal Rebellion of 1855[20]. Young adult fiction inevitably has the story of one person caught up in the dynamics of the movement. So the author tries to take a micro level view and build upon that. For instance, Chitra Bannerjee Divakurni’s Neela: A Victory Song[21], Jamila Gavin’s Surya trilogy — The Wheel of Surya (1992), The Eye of the Horse (1994) and The Track of the Wind (1997)[22], Irfan Master’s A Beautiful Lie[23],[24] Siddharth Sharma’s award-winning debut novel The Grasshopper’s Run[25] which focuses on the Kohima war and Mathangi Subramanian’s Dear Mrs. Naidu[26] about a young girl who corresponds with Sarojini Naidu through her diary. Forthcoming is the retelling in English of Khwaja Ahmad Abbas’s Bharat Mata ke Paanch Roop ( Urdu) by his niece Syeeda Hameed[27]. Award winning historian-turned-writer, Subhadra Sen Gupta has written a clutch of biographies, historical fiction, picture books and nonfiction titles with the freedom struggle as the literary backdrop[28]. Roshen Dalal has published India at 70 ( 2017) chronicling the seven decades since Independence.

Some other examples of literature are listed by writer Deepa Agarwal, “Subhadra Kumari Chauhan’s popular poem Jhansi ki Rani and Makhanlal Chaturvedi’s Pushp ki Abhilasha. Outstanding historical novels on patriotic themes were written by Manhar Chauhan, like Lucknow ki Loot (The looting of Lucknow) and Bihar ke Bahadur (Brave men of Bihar) both published by National Publishing Company in 1978. His series of sixteen novels about British rule Angrez Aaye aur Gaye (The British came and went) is a monumental work with each book standing alone and yet connected with the others. In Urdu Allama Iqbal’s collection Hindustani Bacchon ke Qaumi Geet and Zakir Hussain’s Abbu Khan ki Bakri are on the theme of freedom. Pandit Brij Narain Chakbast’s patriotic poems,  Hamara Watan dil se Pyara, Watan Ko Hum Watan Humo Mubarak, from the collection Subhe Watan were meant for children. In Marathi V.H. Hadap wrote patriotic stories ranging from historical to modern times; his Sattavanachi Satyakatha is about the heroes of the 1857 revolution like Mangal Pande, Tatya Tope and Rani Laxmibai. In fact the centenary … was celebrated in 1957 with many books for children about the people who participated. Vasant Varkhedkar’s Sattavancha Senani is a novel on the life of Tatya Tope.” In Telugu Komuram Bheem: A children’s Novel on a Tribal Hero by Bhupal is about the tribal rebel from Telengana, published by Vennela Prachuranalu (Telugu)[29]. CBT also has a book on Gunda Dhar/ Bhumkal revolt of the Bastar tribal area.

Apart from written literature in India oral histories play a very important role too. Target, a popular children’s magazine, started a comic strip in the mid-eighties called “Freedom’s Children”, where a freedom fighter was profiled based upon extensive interviews. Prominent writers and illustrators collaborated for this project. At the end of each strip a photograph of the actual person was published. Now some schools organise interactions between grandparents with students to recount their memories of independence movement. Many times it is discovered that the children are unaware of the trauma the older generation experienced as if the elders want to protect the younger generation from the horrors they witnessed.

Vatsala Kaul-Banerjee, Publisher, Children & Reference Books, Hachette India says, “General response to these books is quite good. Our children take their cues from USA/ UK, so they do not look at India too much. … I do not think there is enough experimentation in children’s writing to create fiction in this area, so far.” Tina Narang, publisher, Scholastic India adds “Since this is a period in our recent history for which a wealth of detail is available, relevant research material is easy to come by for authors[30] who have written Independence-themed stories. But that I think is the biggest stumbling block. Most such stories tend to become stereotypical in their portrayal of that period and of independence as a valiant struggle by a group of noble and brave souls. There is little or no independent analysis of this struggle or attempt to question the motives, methods or outcomes (partition included).” Sudeshna Shome Ghosh, (then) Editorial Director, Red Turtle echoes this, “We do need to do more books that present a more diverse view of  the independence movement and that talks about the role of women or tribals or gives other kinds of alternate views.” Radhika Menon, founder, Tulika Books agrees, “Now we would like to do something that includes the contemporary discourses on the freedom struggle. Something that reflects a more inclusive idea of the freedom struggle with all its complexities so that the reader is urged to think and question rather than be left with certainties about history in her/his mind which tend to be rigid. The challenge is of course to make such a book reader friendly for the pre-teen age group.” Ruby Hembrom, publisher, Adivaani is clear when she says, “If we were to do a book on this period, I wouldn’t feature the Indian Nationalists who have been done to death in textbooks first and have hijacked the ‘independence’ space. I would do Jaipal Singh Munda and his eclipsed role in the constituent Assembly for example.”

Writing about Indian independence and the freedom movement for children is a tricky area since it raises more questions than helps map it. There is an apparent shift in the styles of writing over the generations of writers. From the writer like their subject (usually evident in biographies) have a sense of pride at being an independent and self-reliant nation to contemporary writers whose fiction is based research for using history to comment upon the present politics and social status of marginalised groups. Disaibon Hul is ostensibly about the revolt as mentioned in the book, the introduction refers to “outsiders”, and the story is about the fight against the British. It concludes with “Almost 160 years have passed since the Hul. We are alive but still not the owners of our lives? What will it take for us to be really free?” The term “outsider” is left open-ended. Siddhartha Sharma says he wrote The Grasshopper Run because “I wanted to explain how the Assamese and Nagas got along earlier, unlike today. To contemporary Indians, I wanted to show what the people of the region are like, and how history turned out for us.” [31] Mathangi began writing Dear Mrs Naidu when working in government schools and angadwadis and discovered Sarojini Naidu whose letters she was reading. Mathani realised that Naidu was so human compared to the “demigods of independence” students learned about. She adds, “I think there is a lot of literature on the theme of independence that focuses on a couple of the male freedom fighters, and I’d like to see this change. History is such a powerful force: it shapes the way we think about ourselves, and the way we think about the possibilities for our futures. I want to see more histories of women freedom fighters, and freedom fighters who were not elite. I want to see more literature that helps children understands that heroes are just people with a lot of guts and passion, and that everyone has the capacity for greatness.”[32]

I asked eminent historian Romila Thapar, “What are the events/perspectives and aspects of the freedom struggle that you would recommend are also included in the narratives of the freedom movement?” She replied via email, “You have posed a difficult question. My reaction would be that we need to acquaint children with situations that went into the making of what one may call a ‘wholesome’ society. Not the stories that encourage divisiveness and violence but stories that underline in subtle ways the values of a plural society that we once were. This is disappearing fast and it will be an uphill task to retrieve this as we shall have to do in future years. The goal of the national movement was such that communities came together for a cause and set aside what separated them. It is these moments that need to be remembered in the present times. Often they can be more easily seen in activities related to regional and local history. It may be worth doing a little investigation into how people in rural areas and small towns remember the recent past.”

This observation gains significant urgency when a Muslim man is lynched by a mob on the outskirts of Delhi for his food habits[33]. Noted Hindi journalist Ravish Kumar’s who met a young man, Prashant, at the site says he showed no remorse at the death of Akhlaq, “Instead, he asked us that after the partition, when it had been decided that Hindus will stay here and Muslims will go to Pakistan, why did Gandhi and Nehru ask Muslims stay back in India?… These are the typical beliefs that keep the pot of communalism boiling.” Ravish says he lost the heated argument and could only wonder dismayed, “Who are those people who have left young men like Prashant to be misled by the purveyors of false histories?” Ironically this happened on 2 October, the birthday of Mahatma Gandhi, a man recognised worldwide for his belief in nonviolence.

[1] In A Children’s History of India Subhadra Sen Gupta refers to the events of 1857 and the widespread anger that ensued being an eye-opener for the British “who believed that they were ruling over a peaceful society reconciled to British rule”.

[2] – ibid-

[3] Bookaroo Children’s Literature Festival 

[4] Email correspondence with Subir Shukla, Principal Coordinator, IGNUS-erg and formerly associated with NBT. He wrote a few books at this time too.

[5] National Book Trust (NBT), India is a part of the Ministry of Human Resource Development, Government of India. It was established in 1957 and publishes in English, Hindi and some other Indian languages. It also organizes the annual World Book Fair, New Delhi to which publishers gravitate from around the world and country.  NBT and CBT between them have published many books, many continue to be in demand such as The Story of Swarajya by Vishnu Prabhakar (Hindi), Jawaharlal Nehru by Tara Ali Baig, Stories From Bapu’s Life by Uma Shankar Joshi (Gujarati), Jallianwala Bagh by Bhisham Sahni (Hindi), Bapu by FC Fretus and How India Won Freedom by Krishna Chaitanya. Email from Rubin DCruz, Editor, NBT. He has also put together an invaluable annotated catalogue of select children’s books in India, Children’s Books 2014, published by National Centre for Children’s Literature, NBT.

[6] Children’s Book Trust ( CBT) established by cartoonist Shankar in 1957. Its objective is the promotion and production of well-written, well-illustrated and well-designed books for children at prices within the reach of the average Indian child. CBT publications include an illustrated monthly magazine in English, Children’s World. Shankar also set up the Association of Writers and Illustrators for Children (AWIC). Shankar started the Shankar’s International Children’s Competition in 1949, and as a part of it, the Shankar’s On-the-Spot Painting Competition for Children in 1952. He instituted an annual Competition for Writers of Children’s Books in 1978. Some of the CBT titles are Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose by Dr. Lakshmi Sahgal  & Col. P.K. Sahgal, Adventure before Midnight  by Nilima Sinha, The Return Home by Sarojini Sinha, The  Treasure Box by Sarojini Sinha, Kamla’s Story: The Saga Of Our Freedom by Surekha Panandiker, Ira Saxena, & Nilima Sinha,  A Pinch Of Salt Rocks an Empire by Sarojini Sinha and Operation Polo by A. K. Srikumar and the 12 volumes on freedom fighters Our Leaders or Mahan Vyaktitwa ( English and Hindi). Some of the original titles in Hindi are Aprajita, Hamare Yuva Balidani and Barah Baras ka Vijeta. Email sent by Navin Menon

[7] Amar Chitra Katha (ACK) founded by Anant Pai or Uncle Pai specializes in publishing comics. These comics are usually the first introduction to children about stories of the freedom struggle stories. The ACK titles are Rani of Jhansi (date of publication, 1 Feb 1974), Subhash Chandra Bose (1 March 1975), Chandrashekhar Azad (15 August 1977), the Rani of Kittur ( 1 July 1978), Bhagat Singh ( 15 March 1981), Rash Behari Bose ( 15 May 1982), Veer Savarkar ( 15 May 1984), Mangal Pande ( 1 June 1985), Jallianwala Bagh ( 1 June 1986), Beni Madho and Pir Ali (1st Sept.1983), Velu Thampi (1st May 1980), Senapati Bapat ( 1 February 1984), Surjya Sen (October 2010), Vivekananda (15th October 1977), Rabindranath Tagore (20th may 1977), Babasaheb Ambedkar (15th April 1979), Lokmanya Tilak (1st August 1980), Lal Bahadur Shastri (1st October 1982), Mahatma Gandhi – The Early days (1st June 1989), Jayaprakash Narayan (15th January 1980), Jawaharlal Nehru (November 1991), Subramania Bharati (1st December 1982), Deshbandhu Chitaranjan Das         (1st November 1985), The Story of the Freedom Struggle (August 1997)

[8] Rani Lakshmibai was one of the leaders of the uprising of 1857. She also became a symbol of the resistance to British Rule.

[9] Nayantara Sahgal The Story of India’s Freedom Red Turtle, an imprint of Rupa Publications, New Delhi, 2013. First published 1970.

[10] Midnight refers to the coming of Freedom and this book describes the events that preceded it. It is about a group of teenagers who participated in the Quit India movement and tried to hoist the tricolour in Patna. It was selected for the International White Raven List for libraries.

[11] Tipu Sultan, The Rani of Jhansi, Kattabomman (the rebel of Pudukottai), Pazhassi Raja (Kerala) and Bhagat Singh. The idea for these series was to write about various legendary heroes and heroines who played a pioneering part in the un-enslaving of the country. According to biographer Shreekumar Varma, “Pazhassi Raja Kerala Varma was one of the earliest such freedom fighters. He fought the marauding armies of both the British and Tipu Sultan. His story is full of adventure and thrill, intrigue and treachery, a case-book of bravery. The book is profusely illustrated. It was heavily researched. The surviving members of the Raja’s family were interviewed at Pazhassi and information was gathered from many books and historical records. The text in the book is but a fraction of the material actually obtained.”

[12] Aditi De’s Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi and illustrated by Pooja Pootenkulam in the Great Lives series published by Scholastic India has been released this month.

[13] Gandhi: My life is my message by Jason Quinn, illustrated by Sachin Nagar. It is available in English and Hindi. The translator is Ashok Chakradhar. It is part of Campfire Graphic Novels’s  Heroes Series that introduces readers to historical figures who led lives worth knowing, and whose stories are true life adventures.

[14] It is available freely for circulation since “Mahatma Gandhi cannot be any one person’s property, there is no ‎copyright of this publication.” First edition 1997.

[15] Literature in Action is a programme started by Paro Anand that seeks to bring young people and books together.

[16] It was co-authored by her writer-son, Vikram Seth and illustrated by the late Bindia Thapar, published by Puffin India ( English) and Pratham Books ( Hindi).

[17] Published by Pratham Books

[18]  In an email Nina Sabnani wrote, “Mukand and Riaz was initially an animated film that later became a book. It is a true story about my father Mukand and his friend Riaz. There were several things that brought this project together. My father told me the story of his life very late, close to his death. I wanted to share this with my siblings so I just wrote it up like a story and shared it with them and some friends. My friends persuaded me to think about it as a film. I was quite disturbed by the frequent riots in Ahmedabad that happened and me as a designer did not respond in any way. I thought it maybe  my way of protesting. But protests always forget children. So I wanted to reach children. Fortunately I also received some funds at NID as students were working towards making films on the rights of children for a UNESCO Israel project, Big Small People. Since my father had repeatedly said how much he missed his best friend and how the partition separated them, I thought I would create a film that focused on the rights to home and friendship. I also had a fond hope that if the film was made and Riaz happened to see it he would contact my dad. Of course that did not happen but my father was able to see the film one week before he passed away. I used cloth because he worked in the Textile Mills and was passionate about fabric and prints.” Mukund and Riaz  is published by Tulika Books.

[19] The reader shares moments with 10-year old Hina who lives in Purani Dilli, the walled city of Delhi. She comes from a family of zardozi embroiderers. This exquisite craft is, however, slowly dying as craftspeople find fewer takers for their work or are forced to compromise on care and quality to meet the prosaic demands of the times. Along the way, we get glimpses of life in Old Delhi – its lanes, its ancient mohallas which have seen the pain of Partition. Hina loves where she lives, and warm colour photographs take us right into her world. Guides for projects / discussions and a reading list are provided at the end as further avenues for exploring.

[20] To me it is an example of using history to comment on the present. It is ostensibly about the revolt (and the story calls it a revolt too whereas an uprising would be more accurate given it is written from the perspective of the adivasi), the introduction refers to the “outsiders”, the story is about the fight against the British and then it concludes with “Almost 160 years have passed since the Hul. We are alive but still not the owners of our lives? What will it take for us to be really free?” The term “outsider” is left open-ended. Ruby is the founder-publisher of Adivaani, a publishing house that focuses on  producing literature for an by the adivasis.

[21] Neela: A Victory Song is published by Puffin Books India.

[22] Jamila Gavin’s Surya Trilogy is published by Egmont.

[23] Beautiful Lie was published by Bloomsbury

[24] A book review article I wrote on Partition and Children’s Literature and I interviewed Jamila Gavin and Irfan Master.

[25] The Grasshopper’s Run was first published by Scholastic India and worldwide by Bloomsbury.

[26] Dear Mrs Naidu ( 2015) is a Young Zubaan publication.

[27] Forthcoming by Pratham Books is Khwaja Ahmad Abbas’s Bharat Mata ke Paanch Roop ( The Five Forms of Bharat Mata) which are character sketches of five ordinary women whom he considered as the true faces of the Bharat Mata trope. These are originally in Urdu but have been done for us by his niece Syeda Hameed. According to Manisha Chowdhury, Editorial Head, Pratham Books “we see this as a good way to introduce the idea of subaltern narratives to children and expand the idea of history.”

[28] For instance, Saffron, White and Green: the amazing story of India’s independenceA Flag, A Song and a Pinch of Salt: Freedom Fighters of IndiaPuffin Lives: Mahatma GandhiLet’s Go Time Travelling; fictional biographies of Jahanara and Jodh Bai; a short story collection called History, Mystery, Dal Biryani and a novel called Give us Freedom and most recently the bestseller, A Children’s History of India, published by Red Turtle. Email from Subhadra Sen Gupta.

[29] There is also a book on Alluri Seetharama Raju in Telugu.  He led the ill-fated “Rampa Rebellion” of 1922–24, during which a band of tribal leaders and other sympathizers fought against the British Raj. He was referred to as “Manyam Veerudu” (“Hero of the Jungles”) by the local people

[30] It explains why authors like Deepak Dalal and Nandini Nayar have been able to write historical fiction set in 1857. Research is easy to come by. Deepak Dalal’s historical fiction set in the time of 1857 Sahyadri Adventure series – Anirudh Dreams and Koleshwars Secret. He says, “I have received good feedback about the books. Demand is ok, but nothing to thump my back about. We are into the 3rd edition now. Schools love the books and many have used them as readers. But then most of my books are picked up as readers.” Nandini Nayar’s When children make history: Stories of 1857 is a novel about two Indian children who befriend an English boy who considers India his real home. The three of them chance upon a bunch of soldiers making rotis and help them. So, basically, the novel ends with the beginning of the Uprising. In an email to me she wrote, “I wrote the book [since] I was reading a lot about 1857 and the British Raj and began thinking about how it would be if some Indian children were to befriend an English boy. “ The book was first published as an ebook, then print and has recently been translated into Malayalam by Mango Books, the children’s imprint of DC Books.

[31] In an email to me.

[32] In an email to me.

[33] According to rumours that spread like wildfire, fifty-year-old Akhlaq had stored beef (cow’s meat) in his fridge. The cow is sacred to Hindus. A mob gathered and lynched him and injuring many members of the family. On 2 October 2015, two days after the incident in a village in Dadri, 35 kms from Delhi, Ravish Kumar went to report. “A Sewing Machine, Murder, and The Absence of Regret”  (Published and accessed on 2 Oct 2015)

15 August 2017 

“Centaur” by Declan Murphy and Ami Rao

God grant me the serenity

to accept the things I cannot change;

courage to change the things I can;

and wisdom to know the difference. 

“The Serenity Prayer” Declan Murphy would recite in school everyday.

 

On 4 May 1994 jockey Declan Murphy was fell down while racing and before he could get up he was kicked in the head by another horse. It has been termed as one of the biggest racing horse accidents ever. Internationally it was a disastrous weekend for the sports world. The day before the world had lost the legendary Formula1 racing driver Ayrton Senna and the day before that Roland Ratzenberger. Declan Murphy was the third sportsman to be injured in what was deemed to be a fatal fall.  He was so badly injured with his skull being fractured in twelve places. There is a vivid description of the course doctor placing Declan Murphy’s helmet and colours still dripping with his  blood in the middle of the room and all the horsemen watching on horror. Racing Post had even readied his obituary which they fortunately never published but only showed it to him once he recovered. Yet within eighteen months he was back riding and won a race!

A racehorse in full flight is a thing of beauty; an artist, an enigma. An elite athlete that bursts into life in a bid to perform. Every minute at full gallop, a thoroughbread pumps some 1,800 cubic litres of air in and out of its lungs. Its heart beats 250 times — nearly five beats a second — to pump 300 litres of blood around its body, all to achieve that singular goal: speed.

That day, the light shone on Jibereen. He was performing for me, one breath perfectly in time with one stride as he raced towards the finish, the organs in his body working together in exquisite harmony, pumping the oxygen from his lungs to his heart, from his heart to the muscles that powered his spectacular speed. 

And I felt it. At that moment, I felt it, like I had felt it my whole life. The spirit of the animal underneath me: the power and the pride, the swiftness and the strength, the majesty and the gentleness and the grace. 

I felt my horse. 

I was at one with it. 

I was a liminal being.

I was CENTAUR.

In a fabulous Afternoon  Edition Extra Declan Murphy described his “deep reluctance” to do this book. It was Ami Rao’s persuasiveness that won him over. He was hesitant to do Centaur as no one knew till he agreed to do this project that he had absolutely no memory of the four years prior to his accident. In the interview he adds graciously that it was “to her credit and to her brilliance really she regained her composure restructuring the period. She had determination. ”

Centaur is a book about sportsmanship. The grit and determination a sportsman has to win over and over again comes through very clearly. This is a book which does deal with the passion and single-minded focus of Declan to win every single race. A great example of his determination and putting mind over matter is the battered and bruised jockey at Cheltenham who insisted on going in for his race only to win it even though his valet Johnny Buckingham said Deccan looked as if he was on a “completely different planet”.  He may not have wanted to be a jockey but when he found himself one he was not going to be mediocre at it. He gave it all that it took and he did a fine job!
Centaur is an extraordinary account of fate and strong faith which are absolutely impossible to explain logically. Ami Rao may recount what occurred but why it happened the way it did can never be comprehended by a logical human brain.  It’s best to go with the flow and appreciate the sequence of events and in the miracle of life.
Renowned brain surgeon Henry Marsh said in his though-provoking memoir  Admissions: A Life in Brain Surgery   “The brain cannot feel pain:  pain is a sensation created within the brain in response to electrochemical signals to it from the nerve endings in the body. …Thought and feeling,  and pain,  are all physical processes going on within our brains.  There is no reason why pain caused by injury to the body to which the brain is connected should be any more painful,  or any more ‘real’,  than pain generated by the brain itself without any external stimulus from the body…. The dualism of seeing mind and matter as separate entities is deeply ingrained in us,  as is the belief in an immaterial  soul which will somehow outlive our bodies and brains. “
Centaur is full of hope and the writing style is so refreshing — probably because both Declan Murphy and Ami Rao are writing straight from the heart that the narrative style does not follow any predictable structure. No wonder the book is being lauded and made it even to the Sunday Times Bestseller List.
Read Centaur.
Declan Murphy and Ami Rao Centaur Doubleday, Transworld Publishers, Penguin Random House, London, 2017. Pb. pp. 308 

22 July 2017

National Geographics and audio books

For many decades my paternal grandparents would subscribe to the National Geographic magazine. Given that they were tucked away in a small town, Meerut, it was remarkable. The magazine would arrive regularly. In fact when my brother and I visited them for our summer break we would pore over the wonderful collection they had amassed. Once my grandmother started her school many of these magazines were sent off to the library.

Last year my 101-year-old grandfather passed away. Now my father and his siblings are slowly sifting through the papers my grandfather had collected. From it has emerged a treasure of National Geographic magazines. Some are dating as far back to 1933. On the right is an image from an article published in 1933 about the advancement at Hamburg port where now steam ships instead of sail ships were visible. There are random issues from the “in-between” decades till recently. There is an article about  Afghanistan in 1968. My father has gifted this collection to my seven-year-old daughter who is thrilled. She is ecstatic since she loves the magazine and already has her own subscription to it.

While flipping through the magazines I came across a description of what could be the earliest form of an audio book. It is an article reviewing a book about birds. Apparently to accompany it were a set of LPs ( long playing records). Depending upon the bird you were reading about and wished to hear the sound it made then you placed the book on the LP on the record turntable, placed the needle at the hole on the page and voila! the birds chirruped. Absolutely fascinating description of an “audio book” from the 1960s.  Imagine even then people were trying to experiment with books and technology!

3 July 2017

“Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers On The Decision Not To Have Kids”

When I think of the people among whom I grew up, it’s as I were looking back not to fifty but more than a hundred years, to an era before modern beliefs in the sacredness of childhood and children’s rights had emerged, before childhood had come to be seen as a time of innocence deserving protection, the part of every person’s life that should be carefree and full of fun. 

Sigrid Nunez “The Most Important Thing”

Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers On The Decision Not To Have Kids is a collection of essays edited by Meghan Daum. It is a fairly absorbing range of perspectives offered by a group of writers — predominantly women with the exception of Geoff Dyer and Tim Kreider— as to why they chose to remain childless. Everyone has their own set of reasons ranging from genuinely unable to bear children to a fierce sense of independence and their right to choose on how to live their life. Not a single writer included in this rather fabulous collection of essays feels guilty about the decision made/for them and in no way has it robbed them of any pleasure of having children of their own. Some of them confess that they love being the doting aunt/uncle and look forward to the time they spend with the youngsters in their circle of family and friends.

In every essay there is a gem or two worth sharing. Most often than not there is a searing perspective these essayists offer ranging from the fear and inability to raising kids well, sufficient financial security, loss of personal freedom, whether they will have the compassion and patience to nurture a child, no respite from the daily rigour of raising a family, the challenges of trying to have it all — family and profession or the inability to offer stability of putting down one’s roots in a place. It is quite fascinating to read how childless adults perceive parenting and family structures.

Here is an extract from an essay by Laura Kipnis that neatly encapsulates the history of motherhood and the stress of modern childhood.

I don’t believe in maternal instincts because as anyone who’s perused the literature on the subject knows, it’s an invented concept that arises at a particular point in history ( I’m speaking of Western history here) –circa the Industrial Revolution, just as the new industrial-era sexual division of labor was being negotiated, the one where men go to work and women stay home raising kids. ( Befoer that, pretty much everyone worked at home.) The new line was that such arrangements were handed down by nature. As family historians tell us, this is also when the romance of the child begins — ironically it was only when children’s actual economic value declined, because they were no longer necessary additions to the household labor force, that they became the priceless little treasures we know them as today. Once they started costing more to raise than they contributed to the household economy, there had to be some justification for having them, which is when the story that having children was a big emotionally fulfilling thing started taking hold. 

It also took a decline in infant-mortality rates for mothers to start regarding their offspring with much affection. When infant deaths were high ( in England before 1800 mortality rates were 15 to 30 percent in the first year of life), maternal attachment understandably ran low. As historian Lawrence Stone pointed out, giving a newborn child the same name as a dead sibling was a common practice; in other words, children were barely regarded as distinct individuals. They were also typically sent to wet nurses following birth — so much for the mother-child bond — and when economic circumstances were dire, farmed out to foundling hospitals or workhouses ( “little more than licensed death camps,” said Stone). But then childhood as such really didn’t exist, or at least it wasn’t a recognizable concept, as historian Philippe Aries documented; this, too, is a social invention. Children were viewed as small adults’ apprenticed out to work at age five. It was only as families began getting smaller — birthrates declined steeply in the ninenteenth century — that the emotional value of each child increased. Which is where we find the origin point for most of our current ideas about maternal fulfillment. 

All I’m saying is that what we’re calling biological instinct is a historical artifact — a culturally specific development, not a fact of nature. An invented instinct can feel entirely read (I’m sure it can feel profound), though before we get too sentimental, let’s not forget that human maternity has also had a fairly checkered history over the ages, including such maternal traditions as infanticide, child abandonment, cruelty, and abuse. 

…the real reason I’m agains the romance about maternal instincts is that what gets lost amid this fealty to nature is that nature hasn’t been  particularly kind to women, and I say we owe it no favors in return. If women have been “ensnared by nature” as Simone de Beauvoir ( no fan of maternity herself) put it, if it’s so far been our biological situation that we’re the ones stuck bearing the children, then there should be a lot more social recompense and reparations for this inequity than there are. The reason these have been slow in coming? Because women keep forgetting to demand them, so convinced are we that these social arrangements are the “natural” order of things. The willingness to call an inequitable situation “natural”  puts us on the royal path to being society’s chumps. 

Laura Kipnis “Maternal Instincts” ( p.33-35)

Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed is definitely an anthology worth possessing.

Meghan Daum ( edited) Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers On The Decision Not To Have Kids Picador, New York, 2015. Pb. pp. 282 Rs 599 

29 June 2017