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CHILDREN'S DAY SPECIAL

Bedtime stories for adults

Shriya Mohan | Updated on November 13, 2020 Published on November 13, 2020

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Enter the world of children’s books that truly exemplify the saying ‘age no bar’

* In one of the most unforgettable quotes from the book, the little prince says, “the eyes are blind, one must look with the heart”

One of the first stories my father told me was of Yagyavalkya, a Hindu sage who used his magical powers to transform a mouse into a baby girl and raised her as his daughter. When she was old enough to marry, her parents looked for a suitable groom and Yagyavalkya aimed for the sun, quite literally. “Would you like to marry the sun?” he asked his daughter. “But he’s too bright and too hot,” she shot back.

“O! sun, who is greater than you?” asked the mighty Yagyavalkya. The sun pointed to the cloud, “because it can hide me”. The daughter, however, dismissed the cloud as dark and brooding. The cloud pointed to the wind, which could blow it around, but again the daughter turned it down as shifty and loud. The wind recommended the mountain, which can block its course. The mountain was too ancient, and couldn’t even move, the daughter complained.

“O! mountain, who then is more powerful than you?” an exasperated Yagyavalkya asked. The mountain thought long and hard and finally replied, “The mouse, for it can dig a hole right through me.” The daughter’s eyes lit up and her heart skipped a beat. Yagyavalkya transformed her back into a mouse and she married another rodent and lived happily ever after.

As a child, I loved to tell this story over and over again to anybody who cared to listen. My father never told me “the moral of the story” but, clearly, we each interpreted the story differently as adult and child. That power always had checks and balances was a humbling lesson. Also there was no point trying to “fit in”. The key to happiness was in accepting one’s true nature. That moment of clarity, when it arrived, was transforming. It took guts to get real, I learnt.

When I grew up to fall in love with and marry someone against the wishes of my parents, my father laughed at the irony. He tried to find me the sun but I had chosen to marry a mouse instead, he despaired. It occurred to me then that he had perhaps missed the whole point of the story.

Twice as mice: Rodents steal the show in the mythological story of the powerful ascetic Yagyavalkya, a veritable nature vs nurture morality tale   -  ISTOCK.COM

 

The stories from Indian mythology that I grew up with always came with some adult in the room testing to see if you understood the “moral of the story” — usually pithy lines that you learnt by rote: ‘don’t be greedy’, ‘be wise’, ‘learn to share’ or ‘karma comes back to bite you’. Years later, I felt terribly unwise, riddled by disillusionment, and the promise of karmic justice rang hollow. The stories of my childhood failed to come to my aid. It was called growing up.

It was when I became a mother that children’s books found their way to me once again. I began reading to my daughter almost as soon as she could sit up. There was a universe to explore, and sometimes revisit. In 1988, American children’s novelist Katherine Paterson wrote that children need not only the happily-ever-after of fairy tales, but also “proper endings” in which “hope is a yearning, rooted in reality”. I turned on my headlights on a hunt for those universal truths.

We read the classics.

 

In EB White’s Charlotte’s Web, written in 1952, we read about Wilbur the barn pig’s friendship with Charlotte A Cavatica the spider. When Wilbur finds out that he is being fattened by the Zuckerman household only to be turned into smoked bacon for Christmas, Charlotte promises to save his life. And she lays out the most elaborate plan to do just that.

“Why did you do all this for me?” asks Wilbur. “I don’t deserve it. I’ve never done anything for you.” “You have been my friend,” replies Charlotte. “That in itself is a tremendous thing.”

The book, on the face of it, teaches you the importance of a promise, of loyalty in friendship. But when I read it as an adult, it taught me that equality is overrated. Friendships, like any relationship, can never be judged on whether two people give equally. “By helping you, perhaps I was trying to lift up my life a trifle,” says Charlotte, making you realise that sometimes what we do for others is really for ourselves. And having no expectations in return is what leaves the sweet aftertaste.

It’s easy to understand why Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s The Little Prince, originally written in French in 1943, is one of the most translated books in the world (300 languages, at last count). An aviator meets the little prince of asteroid B-612, which is the size of a room, contains three volcanoes and a rose. The little prince enjoys 44 sunsets a day. He visits the earth as he journeys through the universe gaining wisdom, meeting all sorts of characters, who are really types of adults — an authoritarian, a tippler and a businessman — who only engage with matters of consequence.

***

On planet Earth he meets a fox who refuses to play with him, because it isn’t “tamed”. What does that mean — tame? The Little Prince wants to know.

“It means to establish ties. If you tame me, it will be as if the sun came to shine on my life. I shall know the sound of a step that will be different from all the others... Yours will call me, like music, out of my burrow... One only understands the things that one tames. You become responsible forever for what you have tamed,” replies the fox.

In one of the most unforgettable quotes from the book, The Little Prince says, “the eyes are blind, one must look with the heart”.

When it comes to matters of the heart, few can say it better than Winnie-the-Pooh. Written by British author AA Milne in 1926, Pooh and his other animal friends agree that he is a “bear of very little brain”, yet he is occasionally acknowledged to have a clever idea, usually driven by common sense and a kindness of heart. “Weeds are flowers too, once you get to know them,” he says. In another of his stories he says, “The things that make me different are the things that make me.”

And, of course, who can forget his most quotable quote: “A hug,” says Pooh, “is always the right size!” Even if that doesn’t seem applicable to a Covid-19 era, Pooh’s words can feel like vital reading for your soul, no matter at what age.

Western classics apart, home-grown children’s literature is today seeing a boom like never before. Publishers are furiously churning out translations of regional children’s folklore. And there are hidden gems to be found in unusual corners.

A book I picked up at the World Book Fair in Delhi last year is a household favourite. Machher Jhol (Fish curry) follows a visually impaired little boy, Gopu, through the bustling streets of Kolkata. Gopu’s father is burning with fever and Gopu wants to do something to make him feel better. So he leaves the house without telling anybody, boards a tram to the fish market, buys his father’s favourite fish and takes it to his grandmother’s house to have it cooked the way his father relishes. “I had you with me, baba, you have shown me everything,” Gopu says to counter his father’s anger and disbelief at the child’s perceived recklessness.

Written by Richa Jha and illustrated gorgeously by Sumanta Dey, the book won the Publishing Next Industry Award 2019 for Printed Children’s Book of the Year. It is a visual book with minimal text and offers a profoundly moving experience. For adults, a book like this teaches us that quietness, both in words and actions, is golden.

One of the recent releases worth celebrating is the PARI (People’s Archive of Rural India) series of five books targeted at 10- to 15-year-old urban youngsters. Published by Karadi Tales last month, and featuring authors Aparna Karthikeyan, Priti David, Nivedha Ganesh, Vishakha George and Subuhi Jiwani, these are real stories of rural India, and disenfranchised people and their daily challenges.

Jiwani’s book No Ticket Will Travel, for instance, traces six uncertain journeys from Andhra Pradesh to Kochi of migrants in search of work, survival and belonging. For adults who live in comfort bubbles, disconnected from the bottom poor, there is no better place than this for introducing their inner selves to empathy.

 

But the one children’s book I would recommend for all adults is The Velveteen Rabbit, written by Margery Williams Bianco in 1922.

It is about a stuffed rabbit toy with real thread whiskers and ears lined with pink sateen. He lives in the toy cupboard of a little boy’s nursery.

“What is real?” the Velveteen rabbit asks another toy, the skin horse, one day. “Does it mean having things buzz inside you?” he asks, comparing himself to all the other nursery toys more modern than him.

“Real isn’t how you’re made,” says the skin horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”

“Does it hurt?” the rabbit wants to know.

“Sometimes,” says the skin horse, who is always truthful. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”

But it doesn’t happen all at once, it takes a long time, he explains.

“Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”

This Children’s Day, how is that for a moral to wrap our adult heads around?

Shriya Mohan

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Published on November 13, 2020
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