‘Our grandchildren refuse to read in their mother tongue’

Dibyajyoti Sarma
Thursday, 23 November 2017

Nabaneeta Dev Sen, winner of the Big Little Book Awards at Tata Literature Live 2017, talks about the journey of Bengali children’s literature and more

Renowned Bengali author Nabaneeta Dev Sen and illustrator Proiti Roy were the winners of the second edition of the Big Little Book Awards 2017. Instituted by Parag, an initiative of Tata Trusts, the awards were announced on the closing day of Tata Literature Live! The Mumbai Lit Fest last Sunday.

A first-of-its-kind in India, the Big Little Book Awards seek to honour authors and illustrators who have contributed to the world of children’s literature. For authors, the focus is on one Indian language every year. The first edition of the awards focused on Marathi. This year, nominations were invited for authors writing for children in Bengali. The illustrators’ entries however were not limited to any language.

This year’s winner for children’s literature in Bengali, Nabaneeta Dev Sen has been writing for children since 1979. A feminist author, she has also written widely for adults spanning across several genres — novels, travelogues, short stories and plays.
Sakal Times spoke to Nabaneeta Dev Sen on the eve of her winning the award. Edited excerpts from the interview.

Bengali has a long history of children’s literature. How has it evolved?
Bengali children’s literature started with Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar in the 19th century with tiny stories for children in his first Bengali wordbook for children, Varna Parichaya. Bangla children’s literature started with strong roots in Bengal. Upendrakishore Ray wrote Bangla children’s fables that we grew up on and my granddaughter also knows, although she does not read Bangla. Sayajit Ray, Upendrakishore’s grandson made his first classic children’s film Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne based on his grandfather’s short story.

Our children’s literature developed on its own with local fables, fairy tales, funny stories, and ghost tales, etc from the villages. And with endless tales from Sanskrit classics, Bengali children grew up on our own literary imagination for a long time, but soon the adventure stories and detective stories began to appear, whose basic idea was Western, but the story materials hundred per cent Bangla. Our generation knew Western stories along with the Bangla ones not only because there were many English medium schools in the cities, but also because the standard of teaching English was high in the Bengali medium schools as well.

The scene has totally changed today and there is a strong line of cultural demarcation between the English medium students and the Bengali medium students. Bangla medium students still read a great deal of Bangla children’s literature, but unlike our times, the English medium schools today do not stress on the mother tongue at all. Our grandchildren refuse to read books in their mother tongue. This is true of all the regional languages of India. Our new generations are slowly losing touch with our past, with our roots, with our inner selves. What we urgently need is to translate our own regional language children’s literature into powerful modern English to allow them to know their cultural roots.

There is a fear that reading habit among children is declining?
One day, we suddenly heard my granddaughter speaking perfect English, though she lives in Delhi, goes to a Hindi medium school and hears Bangla at home. We soon discovered her teachers were Micky Mouse and Minnie Mouse from the cartoons she saw on television, long before she learnt to read any language at all.

Now the TV, the tab, and mom’s telephone, these have changed their world. How can we compete with this strong magical attraction if we cannot produce a Harry Potter where broomsticks, witches and children live freely together, even solve problems together?

Our world has changed too, the parents are busy at work, small flats do not have room for grandparents to tell them tales; the TV does it instead. The lack of human touch, the lack of mother tongue is changing their mentalities from the inside and destroying their imagination. Everything is visualised for you. Nothing is left to your imagination. Even the lovely picture books, I feel cannot always serve the expected purpose. For us, words did the magic of evoking imaginary moments.

You also write for adults. How is it different from writing for children? 
Of course, when you write for a child, you have to concentrate on the good things in life. You want them to look forward to a pleasant, peaceful, friendly world and creating a world which depends very much on them. For adults, you live your life as it is in your work.

Your favourite children’s books?
In my childhood, my most beloved prose book was Thakurmar Jhuli (Granny’s Backpack) by Dakshina Ranjan Mitra Majumdar. It is one of the first collections of Bangla fairy tales from village elders published in the early 40s. In poetry, Shishu, a book of poems for children by Tagore is the one that still holds my heart in its grip.

Among my own? That’s hard to say. I enjoy writing my funny family tales for the young and the old and my funny adventurous travel tales are in Kishor Galpa Samagra, and since I love to write fairy tales, Roopkatha Samagra is also a good read for kids.

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