A coin for India Blyton

Palash Krishna Mehrotra | Updated on September 06, 2019 Published on September 06, 2019

Fan favourite: According to Enid Blyton’s website, she sells a book a minute in the UK even now

In defence of the British writer Enid Blyton, who taught a nation about scones and ginger ale

Gosh! Enid Blyton has been denied a coin to her name by the British Royal Mint. I was so upset when I heard this I drank bottles of ginger ale and passed out in an angry stupor after consuming piles of buttered scones.

The horrible deed was committed in December last. Daily Mail recently dug up the dirt by accessing the minutes of the meeting, under Britain’s Freedom of Information Act. The Royal Mint’s standing committee turned down Blyton’s posthumous bid for the commemorative 50 pence coin on grounds that her writing was racist, sexist and homophobic. She was also labelled a “not very well-regarded writer“. ‘Woke cancel culture’ had dug up a grave and exhumed another victim.

This comes at a time when BBC’s children’s channel CBBC has commissioned a live action adaptation of the classic boarding school seriesMalory Towers. Cheryl Taylor, head of BBC Children’s, is quoted as saying: “Malory Towers set the template for popular British boarding school stories. Darrell Rivers is a truly iconic character — sparky, independent and a fierce warrior against injustice. She shone a bright light on the potential of all girls at a time when expectations were very limited.” Blyton, born in 1897, remains staggeringly popular around the world. She’s been a bestselling author for close to a century. According to her website, she sells a book a minute in the UK even now; her total sales are in excess of 500 million copies. She’s very “well-regarded” as far as the reader — especially the Indian reader — is concerned.

Author Enid Blyton's books on display at a shop in Bengaluru   -  MURALI KUMAR K


For Indian readers, Blyton was a slice of exotica wrapped in comfort. We gave England books about maharajahs, tiger hunts and sexual positions; Blyton gave us scones, ginger ale and midnight feasts. I can see why The Three Golliwogs, published in 1944, is problematic but I somehow skipped the Noddy series (meant for pre-schoolers) and went straight into the sumptuous family dramas at the age of 10. My mother got me a copy of Six Cousins Again. It was a sequel and my introduction to Blyton. A year later, I got Six Cousins at Mistletoe Farm, and the narrative jigsaw fell into place. There was another one-off family drama, Family At Red Roofs, which I read again and again. The theme was of families having fallen on hard times by a twist of fate and struggling through it with good cheer and hard work. The Ilahabadi in me identified with this world of large families and jams and preserves being made at home.

Blyton also wrote brilliantly about dogs. Shadow the Sheepdog was a close-up portrait of a canine (and a meditation on the kinship of humans and animals) on par with Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty. At a time when only wealthy Indians could afford pets, many of us owned a sheepdog vicariously through Blyton’s make-believe.

These are the lesser-known Blytons. Of course, one read the adventures: Famous Five, Five Find Outers (my favourite) and Secret Seven, inspired by which I formed The Secret Three with two school chums in Prayagraj. The first meeting was at my place. I’d told the other two members — twin brothers — to say the password at the door after ringing the bell. When the bell rang, I was in the loo and my puzzled father, woken from his siesta, answered the door to the twins muttering “magic lantern” repeatedly like a mantra. The Secret Three folded up because we had no neighbourhood mysteries to solve.

The thing about the adventure-mystery series was that, at some stage, after having read a lot of it, one realised that Blyton had a formula which she would repeat. It’s what happens once you become a money-spinner. There’s pressure from publishers and readers, even an expectation, to keep doing the same. It was time to move on and discover other writers.

Blyton taught my generation how to read in English. Doubtless there are better options available now but classics are timeless for a reason. She told a gripping story; she had you hooked. One was reading proper novels, page upon page of fine close-printed text with no illustrations. Blyton was a demanding author. The novels were at least 200 pages long. All this at the age of 10 or 12.

It’s not easy to get children hooked to a foreign tongue. Not only did Blyton give us a reading habit, she also provided us with the beginnings of developing an ear for the English language. She taught us the patience that goes into reading a novel, and the corresponding pleasure.

Here’s what I propose. Blyton is almost an Indian author. Google any news item on her and it never forgets to mention her massive readership in India. As the English figure out diversity and all that, us brown folk should appropriate her as an Indian writer. In fact, as a boy I called her India Blyton only, before my mother corrected my pronunciation. I also imagined she looked like the Queen because, while her books didn’t carry her photograph, the Queen did come to India on a visit.

The RBI should put the head of the queen of children’s literature on a 50 paisa coin and be done with it.

Palash Krishna Mehrotra   -  BLink


Palash Krishna Mehrotra is the author of Eunuch Park and the editor of House Spirit: Drinking in India

Published on September 06, 2019
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