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An early end of innocence

‘... What had been available ... were adventure novels by Western writers, Enid Blyton’s Famous Five series topping the list of favourites’

Over four decades back when I began writing for young adults — the current and correct term for children — my target age-group had been 14-16, or those in their early teens.

Mine were adventure novels set in different backgrounds. For instance, the action in The Kaziranga Trail took place within the national wildlife park of that name, the core theme being poaching. The Blind Witness had an urban background, a blind boy being “witness” to a murder and proving through his courage and intelligence that what society deemed a disability was in reality no handicap.

These were then considered to be apt themes for young adults in their early teens. However, a couple of decades later, the very same adventure novels were slotted by experts in the 12-14 age-group, a scaling down by around two years.

It needs, of course, to be pointed out that in the seventies there were hardly any books in English with Indian background for Indian youngsters. The bookshelves were packed with tomes of mythology and folk-tales, but original fiction was conspicuous by its absence. Instead, what had been available to urban children were adventure novels by Western writers, Enid Blyton’s Famous Five and Secret Seven series topping the list of favourites.

No doubt, today our bookshelves are crammed with “Indian” books for children by Indian writers for all age groups. In the process, many thematic taboos have been bridged, but this hardly explains the scaling down.

My adventure novel Smack, for example, dealt with what then had been considered to be the sensitive subject of drug-addiction among youths. Yet today, even such a “path-breaking” work of fiction would be deemed suitable for pre-teen youngsters since books with more “adultish” themes have been preferred reading material of older children.

Current publishing trends bear this out, with a new genre of fiction specifically targeting teenagers evolving in the last decade or so. This is in keeping with the postulate of psychiatrists that for today’s young adults, particularly those from an urban, middle-class background, childhood is being definitively curtailed. Promiscuity is the watchword for the new generation, with children being confronted with adult issues and complexities far sooner than what had been the case with preceding generations. It is such a quick stumble into maturity, which has caused the scaling down of books written in earlier times and ensuring the thematic shift which has resulted in the appearance of popular writers who hover in the limbo separating a child’s world from that of an adult.

Not merely my generation, but even the ensuing one, is now waking up to the realisation that the new generation is growing up within an environment far different from what they themselves had experienced. Previously children had room within which to grow up, both in the spatial and temporal sense. They were not cramped within the constricting limits of urban tenement where sheer strangers share space occasionally upon the same floor. Youngsters in the past had also been psychologically reassured by the safety net provided by an extended family, as also the sense of belonging provided by a close-knit community.

Dispersal necessitated by economic compulsions as well as unbridled middle-class aspirations, disintegration of the old family order and fragmentation into nuclear-families, rapid urbanisation as also commercialisation of essential societal components such as education, all these and more have conspired to create a milieu that makes it imperative for youngsters to mature and adapt sooner than they had to. In earlier days the extended family had ensured that some of the responsibility for enlargement of the mental horizon of a child was taken on by other members of the family, thereby lessening the pressure on parents. The role and influence of grandparents during infancy and childhood is legion — they, in fact, occasionally metamorphosed into surrogate parents, a symbiosis offering emotional satisfaction to both.

The increase in the number of nuclear families has resulted in the deprival of what earlier had been a shield protecting the child from emotional trauma during the most impressionable period. Similarly, the erosion of the community ethos has in many cases cut off roots which nourish the budding childhood sensibility. Today, rarely does one encounter a sight which used to be commonplace earlier — a raucous gang of children of both sexes, wielding cricket-bats or carrying a football, headed for one section of the surfeit of open spaces available in earlier times. Parents these days also opt for smaller families, thereby depriving their offsprings of sibling companionship. Moreover, in many cases we have both parents working, thereby reducing the amount of time they get to spend with their children.

The adverse consequence of resultant urban loneliness is the overt dependence of many children on the virtual world offered by the Internet or video games to fulfil their cerebral and emotional needs. An early end of innocence is often brought about by the easy access the modern urban child has to an enormous amount of information, much of it of a nature parents might not approve of, yet have no means of shutting away. Appliances which purvey items of mass culture have become all too many — from the television with a greater component of programmes unsuitable for young audiences to the ubiquitous cell-phones, computers and internet — control over the content accessible to children is well nigh impossible even for the most conscientious of parents.

Adding to parental burden is the constant blitz of advertisement youngsters are exposed to, the negative outcome of which is aggravated by peer pressure. Also, the electronic media as well as the Internet throws up numerous “role models” who might not quite measure up to parental expectations, yet who the impressionable child may want to emulate. The reach and depth of information technology has ensured that today children are exposed to diverse cultures and worlds. While this might, if controlled, lead to positive cosmopolitan and liberal attitude, uncontrolled exposure might leave a child feeling rootless and confused, particularly so if the parents because of exigent circumstances have been cut off from their own roots and coerced into living in a cultural void.

While children are capable of absorbing the enormous amount of information, and despite the fact that they mature early nowadays, they are not mature enough to process much of the information and separate the wheat from the chaff. Thus, there might be a basic fault in interpretation, thereby inculcating wrong values. Moreover, children are curious by nature and prone to try and copy experiences, without being aware of the consequences. Deleterious habits such as smoking, taking of drugs or sexual promiscuousness are often the outcomes of curiosity and desire to experience what had been imbibed through the information channel.

These are merely a few of the facets of the modern-day urban child’s world which contribute to an early advent of “maturity.” Occasionally, this expresses itself through untraditional behaviour — for instance, a child who is adept at handling technological gadgets might tend to look down upon the older generation for its inability to do the same. This, in turn, might lead to disrespect or contempt for elders, inverting the tradition of looking up to them for advice and guidance.

An advertisement on television comes to mind in this context. In it, we have a child using an adult voice making fun of his father because he does online purchase using cash and not a credit card. However, some consequences can be far more insidious. An early end of innocence can cause a huge conflict in a child’s mind between the world left behind and the new world entered prematurely, resulting in anti-social tendencies, increased isolation and desire to lose one’s identity in a virtual world.