Sunday, 1 August 2010

CALLING ALL CHILDREN

CALLING ALL CHILDREN

I hope one day Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer meet Sana Juwale. And then, almost 10-year-old Sana can infuse more imaginations to her stories. “I would love to write,” the student of fifth standard confirms her wishes as I quiz her a bit, on a rainy morning.

But why Huck and Tom of all people? Simply because I have come across a recently-published collection of classic stories meant for children. The 10 stories in the collection include excerpts from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens and Boyhood Days by Rabindranath Tagore, besides The Open Window by Saki and Little Men by Louisa May Alcott among other works.

The publishers have marked the collection as Classic Stories for Boys. But as Paro Anand says in the Introduction, even the girls read the so-called ‘boy’ books. In any case, I thought it proper to cross-check first with the little ladies about whether they read stories, or they love watching stories. “I would prefer reading stories than watching on a DVD,” says 10-year-old Shweta Deshpande, who uses her free times to read. Sana too echoes a similar choice.

To avoid being labelled as ‘gender-biased’, I then seek the opinion of 11-year-old Varun Arora who also loves reading “more than the cartoons”. “I will become a writer,” he declares as his parents smile indulgently at the University campus where I chance upon the happy family.

So what do today’s children read? While Sana mentions English stories like The Smiling Star that she reads on her own, Shweta refers to stories like Coraline, Charlotte’s Web by EB White and the adventures of the Famous Five by Enid Blyton. A very chatty Varun reminds me of my first engagement with a Charles Dickens story; for me it was Nicholas Nickleby, while for Varun it’s Oliver Twist.

Despite this commonality, there are differences: Varun never read anything by Jerome K Jerome; or he hasn’t heard of May Alcott’s creation Nat Blake, one of my favourite fictional friends. Nat, a boy from an impoverished background finds a place in the happy school of Plumfield run by the Bhaers. There are other characters like Tommy Bangs, Stuffy Cole and Demi Brooke; there are weekly pillow fights, a music band and wonderful meals. Good to find the kids once again in this collection.

The collection includes Satyajit Ray’s story Pterodactyle’s Egg. The story is about Badan, a Calcutta simpleton, who’s bought in by the idea that he can view the past and the future — hundreds and thousands of years — through a tube that a ‘time traveller’ is wielding one evening along the riverside. About 29 years ago, as a 10-year-old, it was heartbreaking for me to know that Badan actually got conned. I still wish that the ‘time travelling’ was for real.

In a way, I did a bit of ‘time travelling’ while reading The Adventure of the Engineer’s Thumb from the collection. This 1892 short story by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle sees Sherlock Holmes tracking attackers of an enginner and unearthing a gang of counterfeiters. Besides the thrill of detection, Sir Arthur’s style of describing Victorian England kept me engaged once again. I hope Shweta, who reads Holmes’s adventures and rightfully thinks that “he’s a smart detective,” will enjoy the thriller.

I cannot single out any one story in the collection as being the ‘best’. Still, the one that touched my heart is Big Brother by Munshi Premchand. The elder brother’s constant nagging is amusing; one can laugh and even get annoyed by the ways of the big brother. But at the end, it all turns into happy tears when the affectionate relationship of the two brothers comes to fore.

Some of the stories are translations into English from Hindi and Bangla. But thanks to the translators — Rakhshanda Jalil, Deepa Agarwal, Radha Chakravarty and Gopa Majumdar — these stories do not lose charm; they smell of the wonderful innocence that we grown-ups often yearn for.