Accompanying three kids between the ages of 8 and 9 to a children’s literary festival is my idea of a fun time. The 5th edition of the Bookaroo brings together a number of writers from across the world to Anandgram, which is an absolutely charming artsy setup between Delhi and Gurgaon.
We reached the event well after it had begun. Utsa, one of the three friends who had come together, clutched tightly her piece of paper that had a list of the sessions of interest to this age group. She was tense that we were missing something. Udai and Medha were rather blank at this point. But the minute we entered the fest, the sheer energy in the space galvanised us into action. The kids jumped straightaway into a fiction writing workshop ‘Writing about your extraordinary life’ conducted by Ovidia Yu from Singapore. A few minutes late, they worked furiously to catch up. They had been asked to build a plot. To identify a hero and a villain, decide on a place and a situation on which to build their narrative that would ultimately perhaps be a book or film. Kids came up with really interesting ideas. I particularly liked the one in which a girl appointed herself the protagonist and her mother the antagonist, and she was charmingly part-apologetic whole saying so. The mother stood nearby, grinning in resignation! Now this girl had the ability to hypnotise people. So she hypnotises her kid brother to clean her room but he does it wrong. And so on…..
Then we moved to a storytelling session. Marcia Williams from the UK is reading Oliver Twist to the kids and telling them about the author’s life and conditions of his times. Marcia illustrates well known books and speaks beautifully. The kids seemed engrossed and asked questions through the narration as well, with Medha getting a pat from Marcia for good questions! All in all, the narration tried to give the kids a good idea of what Victorian England was like. Udai was Marcia’s little helper for a bit, putting up cutouts of Victorian objects on a washing line. After the session, the kids bought a book each and got it autographed by Marcia, who they kept in wait until I had procured them after standing in a long line at the bookstore!
The best session of the day was the last one, in which Michael Heyman and Sampurna Chattarji read nonsense verses, sang nonsense songs and taught kids to make up nonsense words! Udai loved the “Om bathum namah” chant and has been singing it since we left Bookaroo.
It was a pleasant surprise to meet an old college friend Dipang here, besides many other acquaintances. And half of Shokshantar School!
The popularity of something like Bookaroo clearly reflects the huge potential for fiction for children. It also captures the imagination of young educated parents who desperately want their kids to be well read, well spoken and jump at a chance to expose them up new ideas.
I had expected Bookaroo to be enriching, but a little crazy. But it wasn’t crazy at all! It was well organised, except for the food court and the slightly cramped bookstore! There were enough parallel sessions to keep most kids busy and many empty spaces for the others to run around. The November sunshine was warm and the breeze cool. Just the perfect setting to listen to stories and relax!
Kids enjoy their summer vacation to the hilt. At least mine do. Whether we travel or not, whether we do interesting things or not, both the children manage to keep themselves thoroughly occupied. Udai, now eight, lives in an imaginary world created by the books he reads all day. Aadyaa is at that wonderful age when she can create an imaginary world all by herself. Along with her friends or even alone, she created interesting plots through role play. Her characters have outlandish names. She incorporates all the activities, mannerisms and attitudes she observes in adults around her and parodies them in her little games. It is fascinating to watch and being a silent observer has many rewards, including a priceless insight into the innocence and creativity that children inherently possess.
A favorite game they play is what she calls ‘Ram-Ram’. Last year in playschool, her class performed an adaptation of the Ramayan in rhyme form. The story had an interesting twist, with Ravan apologizing to Ram in the end for all the mess he created! Aadyaa and her pals recreate several adaptations of the barebones Ramayan plot. In the park downstairs, sometimes there are three little girls all playing the role of Sita, with one Ram in tow. The other day, they tired of the the kidnapping and decided to enact the bit about Ram, Lakshman and Sita leaving for the forests and building a home for themselves. I was sitting nearby and was told to play a two-bit role of Dashrath and weep while they walked away into the jungle, holding their imaginary bows and arrows!
Another typical game, common to many little girls, is the routine of feeding, bathing and clothing all her imaginary children, ten of them no less! In her head, they range in age from a new born to some seven years. That she in only four does not bother her a bit! Their names are so bizarre- the oldest is Turkish (we took the airline to Barcelona a year ago and the name has stuck!) and the youngest is Saaha (we cannot give away her stuff, it has to be all kept for the baby)! When Udai was about this age, he had an imaginary girlfriend called Alisha Shopshish, who lived in Bangalore and visited him in a Posche! Many of our friends and relations still fondly remember this phase.
It fascinates me to see how their real worlds and their imagined ones come together to create such well-rounded fantastic plots, how they can sustain and feed the same plot for weeks and months on end, how they never tire…Yet we adults tend to accuse kids of low attention spans because our idea of good attention span is playing with blocks for 30 minutes in a row! I can just hope their imagination remains ever fertile even when they grow up. I’m hoping that, as a parent, I am able to provide an environment conducive for creative thinking and free expression for many years to come!
So I finally made it to the book fair today, with mum. It was heartening to see the sprawling, enormous fair spread over many halls bustling with families, kids in tow. With nani and mumma wanting to buy kiddie books, we headed straight for Hall No 14, where the children’s book were supposed to be.
However, instead of seeing colorful story books and delightful fantasy, we were confronted with rows and rows of stalls displaying:
1- Bizarre, technical books and charts that would help your child practice cursive writing, read the alphabet better, learn the tables better, learn names of fruits, vegetables, animals and so on and so forth
2- Knowledge enhancing category of books ranging from plain boring to creative, curriculum related to the extra knowledge and trivia variety, many many books on science math and general knowledge particularly
3- E-learning software- We saw a screen with a voice that drones “billi, c-a-t cat, this is a cat”, with the picture of a, well, cat! We saw a stall where smart execs counseled (read gave them the spiel!!) parents about the merits of giving their children more exposure via their online programs, CD-ROMs etc. The parents looked completely zonked as if they were getting life’s gyaan and the kiddos were knee-high in most cases!
The sight of the above terrified me today. What are we wanting to turn our children into? What is this crazed competitive society we have created where kids barely out of diapers are expected to fill scores of cursive writing booklets and fill color into outlines of various objects and toon characters till eternity; then move on to solving puzzles, go through personality development modules, memorize general knowledge and trivia by rote, do math using a confusing array of techniques…and much, much more? Why are parents so paranoid? It’s not that these books and technologies aren’t necessary, but the sheer volume of labels, brands creating these had me stumped and the quality was mostly questionable, at first glance, with some exceptions of course.
I spoke with a sales manager with one e-learning stall who was giving me the ‘kids need exposure’ story. Kids already have so much exposure, I told him. What is wrong with growing up with less aids and more creativity using simple things like blocks, books, free art? Isn’t it all, ultimately, to sell your stuff? He gave up and grinned and waved me away! I was, in his head, the crazed, irresponsible parent, bent on leaving my kids in the dark ages!
Another thing that disturbed me was the emphasis on math and sciences and precious little focus on the social sciences, life skills, all round development for kids (the personality development modules did not inspire confidence; again, they looked like a con job to me!). After seeming to have come a long way, we middle class urban Indians are still stuck in the ‘sciencies are best, artsies are the losers’ trap..very sad indeed.
Lastly, the children’s fiction I saw confirmed my fears that we live in a firmly gender-divided world, from about age ten onwards. Except for classics like Ruskin Bond and Kipling, the new books were (mostly) geeky and techy and macho for the guys and flowery pink ‘n purple for the girls. Utterly disgusting, to say the least!
The stalls from Katha, Pratham, National Book Trust and some others were a saving grace and we managed to haul up a bunch of delightful books for both Udai and Aadyaa. The Indian publications are real value for money; the foreign ones often not worth the crazy prices!
As for us, we feasted on the Rupa and Penguin stalls and came home loaded with a satisfying haul of books for the entire family 🙂