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Tuesday, Nov 12, 2019

Rereading childhood

Does children’s literature grow up with us?

brunch Updated: Nov 25, 2018 09:28 IST
Rehana Munir
Rehana Munir
Hindustan Times
Books were the thread that held those innocent, frightening, incoherent childhood days together
Books were the thread that held those innocent, frightening, incoherent childhood days together(Photo Imaging: Parth Garg )

On a recent group trip into the wilderness, having bunked the afternoon safari, eight-year-old Naina and I made our way to the hotel pool. I was confused about the relatively easy route and said to Naina: “I’m sorry, I don’t have the best sense of direction.” She replied instantly, as is her wont, saying: “Mine isn’t great either. But I can always find my way to the library.”

It felt like a Winnie the Pooh and Christopher Robin moment. In fact, so many of life’s little mysteries and revelations take us back to childhood books and their easy to understand meanings and lessons. Adulthood gives us the subtext to what was once pure text.

Alice & Peter

A few years ago, I decided it was time. For a student of literature, and a professional writer, I was terribly under-read in one particular department: children’s classics. So, I dusted off copies of Lewis Carroll and JM Barrie’s most famous works from an inherited shelf. I can’t say I was surprised. The books were nothing like the Disney adaptations that informed popular imagination. Dark, twisted, complex, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking-Glass were filled with whimsical characters and situations that were difficult to process. If Alice left me bewildered, Peter Pan had me gobsmacked. Sample this exchange between Peter Pan and Captain Hook:

‘Pan, who and what art thou?’ he cried huskily.

‘I’m youth, I’m joy,’ Peter answered at a venture, ‘I’m a little bird that has broken out of the egg.’

This, of course, was nonsense; but it was proof to the unhappy Hook that Peter did not know in the least who or what he was, which is the very pinnacle of good form.

I had left the safe world of clear symbols and simple plot lines. I half gloated in my literary excavations and half missed the bliss of ignorance.

The league of lost boys

I was 16, when JK Rowling released her first Harry Potter book. The same year I read Salman Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories and JD Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. All three are very different books about young boys weighed down by circumstances created by adults. Genre-wise, Potter was pure children’s fantasy. Rushdie (who’s never pure anything) was political allegory through fantasy. And Salinger’s runaway hit was a modern American coming of age novel. I’ve read all three several times since then and suspect I might continue to. The Hobbit, which I also read around the same time, I quite enjoyed, but it didn’t quite propel me forward to Tolkien’s celebrated trilogy. It’s only years later that I can quite confidently say I have no interest (yet) in fantasy worlds. To admit to that as a teenager was sacrilege, especially at a time when the “cool” boys in college were learning how to blow smoke rings like Gandalf and Bilbo, and making Elvish engravings on old wooden desks.

So many of life’s mysteries and revelations take us back to childhood books. Adulthood gives us the subtext to what was once pure text

As for Potter, I persisted till The Goblet of Fire, the fourth installation of the series. By then the films had caught up adequately, I thought, in terms of treatment and technology. And I shook off the Potter habit, though we do share a birthday.

Which way to the library?

When I look back at my childhood as a reader, I come away with mixed feelings. Why did I read Tinkle and Archie comics so ravenously but studiously ignore Tintin and Asterix? Where were the eastern classics to supplement Alcott, Blyton, Montgomery and co.? And why didn’t I read more widely, more persistently on science and art? It’s as if I blame any intellectual inadequacies as an adult on gaps in childhood reading. Yet, of course, I feel a great sense of gratitude towards school and neighbourhood libraries, and those adults who gifted me books. Writing my name on the first page of a book – invariably in pencil – is a thrill I still feel. But in those days of modest means and a pre-liberalisation economy, any book I actually owned was an unparalleled joy. Books were the thread that held those innocent, frightening, incoherent childhood days together.

As an adult who often loses her way in life, I find I’ll be okay if I can just remember the way to the library.

From HT Brunch, November 25, 2018

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