Our own Meghaa Aggarwal has turned author with ‘A Home of Our Own’ (Tulika, 2018). Here she writes perceptively about her experiences reading it to children.
This year I ticked one off my bucket list — to author a children’s picture book. I’ve had this one on my list since 2014, when I first joined Tulika and was exposed to its rich and vibrant catalogue of picture books — that too in eight Indian languages, apart from English. But, as I discovered, becoming a published author is a mean feat, even if you work for the people you want to publish with!
Nevertheless, after four long years, this has finally been accomplished and I’m now a bona fide children’s author. But what I didn’t imagine was that my first children’s picture book would deal with a subject as sensitive as poverty, homelessness and the quest for happiness.
It’s a relatively straightforward plot, about a group of street children playing house. In my narrations, I make children from the audience role-play the various characters in my story – rag-pickers, beggars, child-labourers – and arm them with props – old plastic bottles, discarded packets of chips, an empty paint bucket… After this we have a discussion on the book and a short activity.
So far, I must have narrated my story to over 100 children at different venues. They are usually quite happy role-playing. In fact, some of them eagerly raise their hands to do this — unfortunately, my story only has seven characters! After I arm the 'actors' with the props, I ask them and the audience to ponder over the significance of the props.
Most of them initially struggle. Being children from relatively well-off families, they wonder how anyone could possibly play with things they consider to be 'garbage'. “Miss, they will put the plastic bottles and packets of chips in the dustbin at home,”, “Miss, who ate the chips?” A 10-year-old even had an epiphany, "Miss, miss, they are recycling things, isn't it?!" But soon enough they get the hang of it and begin to enjoy the 'guessing game'. Witnessing their imagination at play and their delight, when they discover how an old, square carton can also be a TV, is an inimitable experience!
Social distinction and class-consciousness are so ingrained in our society that even five-year-olds are not entirely immune to these. There is an evident perception of 'the other' when my typical audience first talks about street children. They're poor, they're dirty, they steal, they're lonely, they use cuss words — the adult-influenced judgement is unmistakable because none of the children admit to ever actually interacting with street kids. One four-year-old innocently disclosed, “Mumma kehti hai woh chhee-chhee hote hain aur woh maarte bhi hain,” (Mummy says that they’re dirty and they also hit you).
Even during the act, I can sometimes sense mild discomfort when I first introduce the ‘actors’ to their roles. Some of the parents, if they’re around, don’t look too happy.
Sometimes this perceived discomfort rubs off on me too. For instance, once I picked a particularly dark-skinned girl for the role of a rag-picker and I immediately wondered if she or her mother, sitting in the audience, might wonder if I picked her because of her skin colour. Another time, I was narrating to a group of underprivileged kids and I wondered if they would be comfortable playing the role of street children, who are not too far removed from their daily lives.
One parent even told me that while she enjoyed the fun-filled narration, with acting, props and even a cardboard car, she thought the subject was too heavy for young children. “Don’t you think literature for young children should be about tickling the funny bone?”
But in my discussions with the children following the narration, I find them to be very discerning. A lot of them begin to wonder how street children would be living. “Where do they live, if they don’t have a home?”, “Where are their parents?”, “Do they wish for new toys to play with?” Some children also remark on how the characters are so happy despite all their troubles. “I think the story is about how one does not need too many things to be happy,” “I think these children are happy because they have so many friends to play with”. I still remember one boy who was particularly moved by a character who scavenges food from garbage bins, “Miss, miss I will never waste my dabba and I will share it with children who are hungry.”
I’m ever-thankful for their thoughtfulness. It fulfils all the hopes I have in my book.
So, I’ll say what I wanted to say to the well-intentioned parent but couldn’t phrase it as well at the time, “We underestimate our children — they’re more resilient than we think. They are growing up in a world which is as ugly as it is beautiful and their curious minds are full of unanswered questions. Questions that are unanswered because they’re rarely discussed in their social milieu — the home and the classroom. Questions that aren’t ‘okay’ because for adults, children are too innocent to be tainted with the often-uncomfortable answers. But the truth is, children often do have these questions on their mind and I’ve come to believe that literature is the floodgate that opens to unleash all these questions, offer answers and fill a void in a child’s mind.”