Literature reflects and constitutes society. In the imperial period, travel writing and adventure stories penned by British writers such as Rudyard Kipling did not merely represent India. They also built an image of India creating attitudes, beliefs and ways of thinking that legitimised colonial rule.
Literature of post-independent India wrested the power of nation building from Western texts. Postcolonial Indian literature, written in a landscape where local and western elements intermingled, grappled with the idea of a modern, independent India. Writers like Mulk Raj Anand, R.K. Narayan, Raja Rao and Anita Desai, among others, wrote about an independent, modernising India that was undergoing rapid political, social, and cultural change.
Children’s literature, till then, was largely an oral affair of folk tales and stories from mythology. The National Book Trust and Children’s Book Trust were set up in the 1950s with an agenda to produce children’s literature that would facilitate nation building, inculcate scientific temper, and create awareness of our rich cultural heritage. In the later years, these publishing houses along with independent publishers such as Katha Books, Tara Books, and Tulika Books, which began in the late 1980s and 1990s, started to produce books narrating tales rooted in the community.
Books featuring stories of colonialism and the freedom struggle such as My Gandhi Story by Rajesh Chaitya Vangad, Nina Sabnani and Ankit Chadha (Tulika Books, 2008) were created for children in the years after independence. However, the majority of these were works of non-fiction that dealt with the lives of the freedom fighters and social reformers who were at the forefront of the freedom struggle. By and large, these stories were relegated to the academic sphere of history textbooks, and continue to be treated so.
In fact, in The Ghost of Malabar by Soumya Ayer (HarperCollins, 2022), the protagonist Edwin groans when the history teacher enters the classroom, “Which dead king or battle was he going to bore them with today?” The boy never gave a thought to history or dead people; till the ghost of a fisherman murdered on the orders of Vasco da Gama in the 16th century starts showing up in his classroom, his home, and the streets, making him increasingly uneasy.
But the ghosts of colonialism are always around us. In Searching for the Songbird by Ravina Aggarwal (Young Zubaan, 2022), the narrator notes that India is full of birds broken by colonialism. How do we get children to care about these ghosts and broken birds? Does a phantom have to disrupt their lives to lead them to examine their own histories and identities?
Edwin’s history teacher repeatedly underlines the name Vasco da Gama during their history lesson. The church in Kochi, where the explorer’s body was initially buried, features a painting honouring the man. However, the names and identities of the scores of people who were killed under his watch feature rarely, if at all, in history lessons or the state’s collective memory. Their suffering is reduced to a statistic. Stories, even imagined, can humanize these tales of suffering and torture. Fiction rooted in history has the power to move these figures from the sphere of the quantitative to that of collective, lived experiences.
The Train to Tanjore by Devika Rangachari (Duckbill Books, 2022) is an example of a book that locates the freedom struggle within a community. This novel, as well as The Ghost of Malabar, highlight stories of suppression and resistance in small towns in South India, and give readers a small taste of the plurality of our nation. Thambi, the young protagonist of Rangachari’s novel, growing up in the era of World War II and the Quit India Movement hails from a “good brahmana family” and is restricted from eating anywhere outside the home. Edwin, a boy from a fisher community, growing up in independent India, grows up on entirely different food habits. His mother, who does not even have a bank account, struggles to make ends meet. Thambi’s family’s finances are in much better shape, but are governed by the war. The interactions between members of the community in both books give the reader a window into their lives, concerns and aspirations.
The Train to Tanjore, too, dwells upon what is omitted from textbooks and news reports. Thambi notes that his books taught him a lot about the Wars of the Roses and the Tudor dynasty, but nothing about India’s non-violent campaign for independence or the country’s history except what the British were discovering through excavations. “In fact, it was almost as if India didn’t have much of a history before the British came,” Thambi realises. Newsreels gave updates on the World War and how Britain was faring, but confined any details about India’s independence movement to the end.
However, for the people of Thanjavur the British were the root of all problems. Indians were displaced as they were dragged into Britain’s war efforts. Some of the displaced people reached Thanjavur too. Sumit, a new student in Thambi’s class, had moved from Calcutta to escape Japanese bombing. Unlike academic books and news segments, The Train to Tanjore puts the lives of Indian children living in colonial India amidst the war on centre stage. The impending possibility of Thanjavur being bombed looms over Thambi and his friends highlighting the psyche and internal tribulations of children living in a world in flux. Stories of Western children’s experiences during the war are plenty. All the NLF Reading Challenge book lists have featured such impactful, moving stories that urge us not to forget the lives of the common people who lived during wars. However, stories that remind us of the lives of Indian children are few and far between.
Thambi’s Appa, in an attempt to keep his son safe, asks him to focus on his studies and not risk trouble by getting involved in the freedom struggle. An atmosphere of fear prevailed over the town. Nevertheless, resistance efforts were sprouting up. The New Madras Hotel run by Mani, a young man whose parents succumbed to British violence, was such a site of change. Taking after the name of his establishment, the hotelier pushes against sanctions imposed by caste as well as British rule, heralding a new, reformed India. He spearheaded efforts to mobilise the community and distributed leaflets that sought to be new sources of information – sources that wouldn’t relegate the stories of the colonised country and its people to the margins.
Recently, children’s literature, like these leaflets, has been creating space for stories that centre the lives of Indian people. The Songs of Freedom series by Duckbill Books, of which The Train to Tanjore is a part, is an example. Without acknowledging these stories and refreshing these memories, the ghosts of colonialism will continue to haunt our country. In The Ghost of Malabar, the ghost, Velu, enlists Edwin’s help to find his indio—a silver coin minted by the Portuguese government to conduct trade with India—that went missing when he was tortured and killed by the Portuguese. He needs it to rest in peace. The indio, like the ghost of Velu, reminds us that we should return what was taken from the people who were massacred and enslaved to heal the wounds of colonialism. Keeping the memory of their experiences alive through stories is one way of accomplishing that. In fact, Velu’s actions help Edwin’s dysfunctional family heal in unexpected ways. When Edwin returns a missing crown from 1505 to a museum in Kochi, he is hailed and rewarded for saving the city’s history. However, the history and lived experiences of a country’s fisherpeople, farmers, and school-going children form the fabric of the land and need to be saved too.
Colonialism is behind us, but its impacts are not. In a postcolonial country, all identities and experiences are hybrid. Edwin’s Kochi is lined with Dutch architecture – the legacy left behind by colonialists. The language I am writing in today is just as much a result of colonialism. The literature of our country is a contact zone capturing our plurality. Acclaimed poet K Satchidanandan called the history of Indian literature a history of “power and subversion”. Traditions from different vernacular literary worlds come together under the umbrella of Indian literature. The centering of the stories hitherto confined to the peripheries will democratise children’s literature and thereby help children understand the many Indias that form our country and prod them to engage with their collective legacies and destinies. In 1947, the nation gained freedom from enforced homogenization and the right to celebrate its plurality. It is crucial that we keep this spirit alive through the stories we narrate for our children.