Monday, October 12, 2009

Ju's Story: A different tale

Ju’s Story is one of the stories that came out ‘Different Tales', a project begun in November 2005 by the Anveshi Research Centre for Women’s Studies in Hyderabad. The project was a response to their growing realisation that mainstream children’s literature in India is written within a framework that takes the upper caste and middle class child as the norm. A survey they conducted of widely-distributed children’s books showed that the majority of the books reflected conventional ideas of childhood, family and community. The world of the majority of children in India, the world of children from dalit, tribal or other marginalized communities, was excluded.

For me, being part of the discussions of the advisory committee was an illuminating experience. At Tulika we have always made a conscious effort to move away from a  middle and upper class sensibility and have tried to make sure that  all children can relate comfortably to the stories and pictures. If our publishing had been restricted to English, it would almost certainly have had an urban middle class bias. But we publish in eight Indian languages and often the bulk of our books in regional languages reach the less privileged children. This strongly influences the choice of the stories and illustrations in our books. Publishing in so many languages and making the books accessible to all children has brought up many challenges, right through from the conceptual stage of books to the translation and the printing stages. We continue to learn.

It became clear from the discussions with the Anveshi group that though there were a few books about children from marginalized communities which addressed issues of community and gender, they still reflected an outsider’s view. This would change if the stories were woven around non-normative families or communities and if their everyday experiences and activities were seen as the context in which questions of marginalization and discrimination were addressed. In the Anveshi stories the strong narrative voices of the writers shift the centre of consciousness and alter the normative assumptions about childhood.

 Ju’s Story by the well-known writer, Paul Zachariah,  does just that with great sensitivity. “For Ju, old was new”- the opening phrase jolts the reader into an awareness of Ju’s reality. If a child can’t afford new things, new clothes, new books, new shoes  then, of course, for her old things are new things.  The story is about the young girl, Ju, finding a letter without an address on it and what she does with it. But it’s the descriptions of Ju getting ready for the new school year,  of her excitement at being given hand-me-down books and clothes, and of her emotions when she holds a letter in her hand for the first time in her life, that open up a world in which children have to make do with so little. And yet, there is no sense of ‘victimhood’. The reader does not feel sorry for Ju, the reader identifies with her, whatever the reader’s own experience.

We have adapted Paul’s original story, which was much longer, and made it into a picture book  in eight languages – English, Hindi, Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Marathi, Gujarati and Bangla. The visuals in a picture book add to and comment on the narrative. Illustrator Asma Menon’s Ju is not a cute picture book girl; she’s a strong-minded, high-spirited girl. And yet, the expression of stoicism on her face is very telling. So much of Ju’s experience is implicit in it.

Jus’s Story is the first in a series of stories from the Anveshi series that Tulika plans to publish as picture books. These stories matter. They empower young readers from marginalized communities by making their experience central. They extend the sensitivity and imagination of other young readers. And they extend the awareness of adults who are, after all, the mediators between children and what they read.

- Radhika Menon, Publisher

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