Reading in the Mother Tongue: Talking Children’s Literature

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Clare Azzopardi, Fiona Henderson, Manisha Chaudhry and Priti Paul moderated by Anu Singh Choudhary

 

Prachi Bhagwat, Official ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival Blogger

 

The session was a confluence of diverse viewpoints on the subject of children’s literature in their native languages, and the importance of exposing children to stories that are situated in the cultural context of their lived reality.

In a post-colonial society like India, English has retained the position of the ‘language of opportunity’, while Indian languages continue to be ‘languages of memory and emotion’. Manisha Chaudhary has worked in the publishing wing of Pratham Books, an NGO describing itself as a ‘brand of story books that is as Indian as the children who read them.’ She observed that when a child enters the alien environment of the school system – itself a reflection of the larger social reality – the valorisation of the English language presents the wide-eyed child with a tricky situation. He or she may possess a ‘spattering of their mother tongues’ at that age, but are presented with no opportunity to further tighten their grasp on it. The restrictive diet of only learning the English language ‘stifles their creativity,’ and this problem is further exacerbated by insufficient published books in Indian languages.

The situation is similar in Malta where fiction writer Clare Azzopardi is located. Malta is a small European country with English and Maltese as the two national languages. Until very recently, there were not enough books in Maltese. Moreover, the language is spoken by a mere 100,000 people, which makes publishing books in Maltese anything but lucrative for publishers. Fiona Henderson, an Australian publisher agreed, observing that the economics of publishing books in indigenous languages largely revolves around philanthropic interventions.

However, Manish Chaudhary stressed that sustainability should not be understood purely in economic terms. Her work with Pratham has taken on projects that have sourced stories from oral traditions kept alive by Indian tribal communities, and converted them into published works. Henderson too has made efforts to work with children from the Aboriginal community to create stories in the indigenous language. This was especially significant when bearing in mind that a lot of Aboriginal children grew up away from their parents, as the general perception at the time was being ‘brought up by ‘white’ parents was more suitable.’

Priti Paul has made a conscious attempt to use her chain of bookstores to promote literature in Indian languages. The Oxford Bookstore in Kolkata opened a Bengali section 10 years ago, and the Delhi outlet not only houses an Urdu and Hindi section but has also held over 23 sessions of dramatised readings, and a host of other activities in these languages. Paul believes that although there has been rigorous ‘discourse and dialogue on the issue,’ and there is growing interest among Indians to ensure their children read in their Mother tongues, there is still a lack of a critical mass of vibrant content, coupled with excellent presentation.

Paul also believes that ‘responsibility begins at home’: children must not just speak and write in their mother tongue but also to ‘live it and think it’. It is imperative to ensure an environment that naturally nurtures the habit of reading. Philip Pullman in his Carnegie Medal acceptance speech said that ‘All stories teach, whether the storyteller intends them to or not. They teach the world we create. They teach the morality we live by’. Manisha Chaudhary also believes that the stories we produce for children can never be divorced from the larger question of ‘what kind of a future citizen we are trying to create’.

 

 
Photo Credit: Chetan Singh Gill

 

 

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