|‘In those days we literally treated books as gymnasiums wherein to exercise our imaginative faculties’
Being a firm believer in the power of words — oral, written or printed — to activate and nurture the human faculty of imagination, particularly in children, I consider myself fortunate to have belonged to a generation which spent its childhood within an ambience uncluttered by modernistic gadgets, but filled with books. The television had thankfully not been invented till then, nor the computer. Cell phones, so ubiquitous these days, were still locked away in some inventor’s mind, so there was no text messaging. The web had not been woven, so social networking for us meant passing surreptitious notes under the table at school, or gathering in the afternoon at the neighbourhood playground for a game of football or to fly kites together.
The radio was there, of course, as also the gramophone — but none of these is as addictive or intrusive as the TV, video game, texting or “facebooking”, if I may be permitted to use that term. There was also an occasional visit to the cinema strictly under adult supervision. But the most widely available things that we had to “entertain” ourselves with were books, a veritable treasure trove of them!
Thus we literally gorged on books, initially upon those in Asomiya then available. I recall being enthralled by Lakshminath Bezbaroa’s Buhriair Sadhu (Grandma’s Tales) and Mau Mahabharat by Mitradev Mahanta and, of course, a plethora of mythological tales with quaint names such as Akonir Ramayana. There were numerous translations available in Asomiya of Western classics such as Aesop’s Fables, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Gulliver’s Travels, The Adventures of Don Quixote et al, signifying that there were adults who had read those classics and taken the trouble of translating them for us. I actually feel guilty that, having passed that early phase, I have forgotten the names of most of those writers and translators I had encountered during my salad days who had made such a seminal impact upon my childish sensibility.
In those days we literally treated books as gymnasiums wherein to exercise our imaginative faculties. Take, for instance, Buhriair Sadhu. A baby who was reared by a kite and grew up in its nest! It did require a hyperactive imagination to visualise that scenario! We were moved to tears at the plight of Tejimala but let out silent cheers at the joyous ending to that tale. We chortled with delight at the comic story of Dighalthengia, wherein a thief and a tiger misinterpret the widow’s words and become victims of their self-created fear!
Then, a few years later, we grew acquainted with the English language and a whole new world opened out to us. Who among our generation had not read Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass and entered a magical realm where imagination can run amok? There we have a young girl following a rabbit with a watch in its hand into a hole that takes her into a topsy-turvy world which contains, apart from everything else, a cat occasionally with only a grin and no body, the Queen of Hearts who is actually a playing card, a hookah-smoking caterpillar who is a veritable fount of knowledge — whimsical stuff that required an unrestrained imagination to perceive and delight in.
Of course, almost all the youngsters I knew had read such a must-read book as Alice in Wonderland, as also universally-acknowledged classics such as the Arabian Nights (at least, an expurgated version in which we first encountered characters such as Aladdin and Alibaba), Adventures of Tom Sawyer and the equally enthralling Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, immortal classics such as Around the world in Eighty Days, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea or Pinocchio, fairy tale collections by the brothers Grimm or Hans Andersen, the Uncle Remus stories, adventure stories such as Treasure Island, Kidnapped, The Count of Monte Cristo, Robinson Crusoe, Jungle Book, Three Musketeers, Swiss Family Robinson and similar tales. Charles Dickens, with his blend of humour and maudlin sentimentality was a particular favourite with us, and like his Oliver Twist we could never resist asking for more of him.
There were more contemporary works too, such as The Famous Five and The Secret Seven series of the astoundingly prolific Enid Blyton, The Hardy Boys series, escapades of the schoolboy Williams, and a whole lot more. The “comics” format did not elude us and we grew familiar with all those absurd superheroes on which the West, particularly America, seemed to look up to in times of crisis. Sherlock Holmes was a natural progression from the Famous Five or Nancy Drew, as also umpteen mystery and thriller writers too many to record.
I suppose I was more infatuated with books than many, and did not hesitate to read tomes that my friends tended to eschew. For instance, most had been enraptured by Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, the immortal story upon which the film The Wizard of Oz was made, but none too many even knew that there were sequels to that book, let alone read them. Scrounging libraries, both private and institutional, became a sort of treasure-hunt, and if I laid hands on books such as Heidi, What Katy Did, White Fang, The Water Babies, Tom Brown’s Schooldays, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Little Women, The Catcher in the Rye, Children of the Forest and scores more, it was the result of hours spent in libraries searching for some dusty tome.
I recall completing reading one of the books which made an abiding impression on me, The Diary of Anne Frank, upon my dormitory bed, under the cover of blankets pulled over the head, with the aid of a torch since it was “lights out”— so desperate had I been to finish reading it.
However, what had struck some of us early on in life was the sad reality that although we had a treasure trove of world children’s literature available in English, there were almost no books that had themes or characters or background from India. After all, Kipling’s Kim or Jungle Book can hardly be called Indian in the true sense of the term. At the same time we did not have access to children’s literature from other regional languages because translations into English were not available.
Perhaps it was the compulsion induced by such a subliminal realisation which made writers of our generation endeavour to create a body of children’s literature in English, including translations from other languages, with Indian themes, background and characters. I am sure many will agree with me that we have succeeded, for today a sizeable body of good children’s literature in English had been added to the coffer containing the treasure trove of books of the past.
But this is where the irony imparts a twist to the scenario. Despite having such a coffer replete with treasure old and new, the young generation of today seems to prefer to be gadget-dependent, rather than dip into it. It is a scientifically proved fact that, in helping to activate the imagination and bring out latent creative powers in a child, books are far superior to the audio-visual medium. A good book also assists in empowering a child by providing the resources required for total intellectual development when he or she grows up into an adult. In contrast, the audio-visual medium, by imposing images created by others onto childish sensibilities, inhibits individual creative imagination, thereby stultifying this all-important faculty.
Sliding wilfully and enraptured into a world created by other imaginations and conveyed through words has, alas, seemingly become out of fashion, though battling a hulk in a virtual world is certainly the “in” thing to do! I am afraid the modern parent is a culpable accomplice in the change of preference, despite well knowing that over reliance on electronic gadgets tend to impair innate abilities of the human brain and lead to imperfect all-round developments.