My heart leaps up when I behold / A rainbow in the sky: / So was it when my life began; / So is it now I am a man; / So be it when I shall grow old, / Or let me die! / The Child is father of the Man; / And I could wish my days to be / Bound each to each by natural piety.’ Most of you will recognise the line in question — The Child is father of the Man — and many of you will have your own theories. Thanks to attending a couple of literary festivals recently, yet another layer has been peeled off in my understanding of what this line could mean. To begin at the beginning…
Literary festivals bring our attention back to books through interactions with writers, illustrators, translators, publishers, editors and, of course, a mad bunch that go by the name of ‘readers’! You listen to readings, you get close to the writing process, you get a sense of how pictures are read and words are pictured, you hear sounds combine to make words that perfume our sensibilities with meaning… It’s a heady time if you are close to books and often, you grapple with imponderables. The best part, though, is meeting, in person, those whose work you admire.
After the events, a lock in my brain suddenly clicked open. There is a category of books labelled ‘Young Adult’ that are supposedly intended to catapult the reader from childhood to adulthood. YA books present ‘adult’ themes and narratives that may include such features as swear words, ideas of sexuality and socio-political issues. Now that light had managed to streak into my brain, I started looking seriously at YA writing. Not surprisingly, there was some really good stuff there, so good, they deserve to shake off the labelling and be read by adults too. Juvenile they were certainly not, even if some of them told the stories of young people.
Then shone another bright light: ‘those who matter’ are constantly reminding us of the ‘demographic dividend’ India seemingly enjoys. It appears that something like 67 per cent of our population is between 15–44 years of age; soon, while the rest of the world will be mostly ‘old’, we will remain ‘young’, the word redolent with all that it implies. How ready are we for this change? To welcome the young, their ideas, the pressures they encounter, their view of the world, their priorities? At the very least, are we equipped to understand how their minds work?
One way would be to start reading about them. It is in this context that I allude to YA books and, in this column, to two writers: Adithi Rao and Devashish Makhija. Their books are not just for ‘growing up children’, they are for grown-ups as well. Wordsworth could well be interpreted to imply this too.
Let’s first look at Candid Tales: India on a Motorcycle by Adithi Rao. It’s a fun-filled, fictionalised account triggered by the travels of Candida Louis from a town called Hubbali in Karnataka. At 24, she took five months off from a day job in Bengaluru to traverse the country, alone on a Royal Enfield motorbike. She was a baby when her parents took her on a bike ride to stop her nonstop bawling. She was seven when she found herself navigating the handlebar as she sat on the fuel tank in front of her dad, his hands no longer guiding her own tiny ones. She was 13 when she took off alone on a bike her friend had stolen from his father’s garage. A tree on Nrupatunga Hill ended that ride but, as she told her friend, ‘The bike came to the garage for repairs, no? Now there’ll be something to repair.’
Literary festivals bring our attention back to books through interactions with writers, illustrators, translators, publishers, editors and, a mad bunch that go by the name of ‘readers’!
Adithi does an imaginative and engaging job of piecing together Candida’s journey to many states including Himachal, Jammu and Kashmir, Kerala, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Goa and Puducherry. She spent a memorable time in Gurais Valley in J&K where she saw a woman carry a load of about 40kg of firewood. Upon inquiry she discovered that in the winter, families required 80–90kg of firewood a day. A day! En route to Jodhpur, she stopped at the shrine of Om Banna where the deity is — a motorbike! She also claims to have tripped over ghosts along the way. And of course, she finds herself in several uncomfortable situations, inevitably. As she says to a group of children with whom she interacted in an orphanage in Hubbali, ‘Don’t be afraid of the unknown. Travel will energize your mind and change you in extraordinary ways.’
Devashish Makhija describes a completely different kind of journey. Initially produced as a film and taking nearly 10 years to write thereafter, Oonga tells the story of a young Adivasi boy from the Dongria Kondh tribe who makes a perilous journey from his village to a distant town where a theatre group has been staging a play called ‘Sitaharan’. He wants to see the play, he wants to ‘be Rama’. The journey involves the possibility of encounters with armed Naxalites, CRPF personnel out to hunt the Naxalites and anyone else they consider suspicious, company people mining bauxite from the land that the Adivasis hold so sacred and protect with their lives. By the time he returns to his forest home, Oonga does indeed ‘become’ Rama. In order to learn how, you will have to read the book which is a work of mesmerising fiction born of everything that is real and happening in the world even as I write these lines. The filmmaker’s sharp vision brings the story alive in taut yet sometimes terrifying prose.
Oonga is a work of mesmerising fiction born of everything that is real and happening in the world even as I write these lines.
One of the characters in the book, Hemla, is modelled on the activist/politician Soni Sori, an Adivasi school teacher from Chhattisgarh who was accused of being associated with Maoists. Tortured and sexually assaulted during her incarceration, she was eventually acquitted. Devashish also speaks of an anecdote that the local head of Action Aid shared with him. In an interview to journalist Shillpi Singh he says ‘… (she) told me how she took a group of Adivasis to watch a dubbed version of Avatar. They hollered and cheered the Na’vi as if they were their fellow tribals fighting the same battles. It was their story, they felt, but were shocked when the film ended happily. Here the Adivasis were fighting the same battles and losing. It wasn’t reflected in Avatar, and that distressed them.’
In a thought-provoking conversation with Hercules Singh Munda, the founder of Trilingo, a tribal language learning platform, Devashish says that what he saw and heard during his travels in northern Andhra and southern Odisha ‘tore my heart into little bits’ and he finds himself still telling those stories. ‘I have not lived that life,’ he clarifies, ‘… so my experience is at best second-hand’. There is a context to this clarification because the appropriateness of telling others’ stories remains a vexed issue. He says he has often been questioned about it. But he is the first, always, to admit that he is only a bridge and we need to hear the stories in the people’s own voices.
Still, Oonga is exceptional, a book that Hercules Munda says Adivasis themselves would relate to. There cannot be a bigger compliment than that.
The columnist is a children’s writer and senior journalist