The other day I read about a conference that was held right after two city teachers were convicted of raping a little girl. Some schools were galvanised into action and began earnest discussions as to how to clean up society. One of the directives was not to use terms of endearment with students. Cruelty to children is seen everywhere, yet a motherly teacher is warned about using terms such as ‘dear’ or ‘darling’ even with primary-level children. Teachers are told repeatedly by experienced counsellors how important it is not to touch children. So please don’t ever hug a child or pick up a crying mite. No, we must be ‘correct’ at all times in order to protect our children. The irony is that social sanitisation ends up creating a bland, cold, colourless world where hypocrisy abounds.
It is the same with our carefully guarded language. Hypocrisy is rampant. If black is indeed beautiful, why do we have so many euphemisms for a dark-skinned person? If I am comfortable in my brown skin, why is it that people can’t describe me as brown-skinned? Now the righteous and do-gooders have started their sanitisation drive on children’s books. I find the exercise senseless and as I reflect on the sorry results, a useful German term comes to mind: verschlimmbessern. It is to make something worse in the act of trying to improve it. Books should not be sanitised; they should be read with the times and context in mind. Unfortunately, Enid Blyton, Dr Suess and Roald Dahl have all come under scrutiny of the cleaning crusaders.
When I heard that Suess’s first book, And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, was being withdrawn (because of the ‘improprieties’ it contained), I promptly went out to get a copy. Thankfully, my ‘illegal’ hunt was successful. Mulberry Street is a fascinating book about the imagination of a little boy. Trouble over the book arose over the depiction of a yellow-skinned “Chinaman”, wearing a conical hat, sporting a pigtail and eating with “sticks”. Incidentally, eating Chinese food with chopsticks is considered extremely trendy today. Realising that some tropes could be perceived as racist and offend people around 50 years after the book had been written, Dr Suess himself changed some parts in 1978. In later editions, he referred to the “Chinaman” as a “Chinese man”, erased the yellow from his skin and removed his pigtail. “Now he looks like an Irishman,” he commented.
Professor Neely, an expert on children’s literature, said that we must evaluate books for children by today’s values, not on our own nostalgia. Perhaps this is something to reflect on. But if we had natural empathy with people, there would be no need for this artificial ‘correctness’ that is being imposed on people. Imagine reading a fairy tale where you can’t use the word ‘ugly’ to describe a wicked witch. All wicked people seem singularly ugly to me. And yes, a wicked person must be called wicked!
Dahl always resisted sanitising. He felt that alterations to his novels reflected adult and political concerns as children never protested about his books — they just laughed and giggled in sheer delight. What a strange and dull world we are creating with our vigorous sanitising where no character can be called ‘fat’ and even mothers (and fathers) have to be called ‘parents’ in order to address gender sensitivities.
Selective modifications of books can be a dangerous weapon as we have seen over the years. Strangely, the coarser we become in our everyday speech and behaviour, the more ‘correct’ we become in formal situations when we are expected to demonstrate how caring we are toward the ‘other’. Yet, cruel, casteist abuses are rampant on our campuses with tragic consequences.
Physical contact is a basic human need. It is disconcerting that this and the use of endearing terms in school have come under the lens in the name of safety. I remember with fondness my warm and colourful teachers who didn’t hesitate to hug us but also called us “lazy lumps” and “creatures with the brains of an amoeba”. We didn’t mind at all.
Now we live in a cold, cold world.
Devi Kar is director, Modern High School for Girls, Calcutta