I read ferociously as a child; all I ever wanted as a gift was one more book. My parents were happy to oblige and though, to their despair, I continued to read through meals, they bought me many. But even when I was six years old, I was encouraged to choose and buy my own books as well as ask for what I wanted. Of course, it’s true that there were few children’s books to choose from in India in the 1960s, so I ricocheted between a seemingly endless supply of Enid Blytons suitable for my age (categorised as Red, Green and Blue Dragon editions) and whatever local books I could find. On special occasions, I would ask for and receive expensive books of myths and legends from different cultures and stories from around the world, beautifully illustrated and written in rich, ripe prose which pushed the boundaries of both my vocabulary and my imagination. Sometimes, I would need help to read the books but whether or not they read with me, my parents spent time with the books intended for their child that came into the house. Every now and then, I would be told that I needed to be a little older before I could read something, especially when I helped myself to books from their shelves. I don’t recall ever being told that I should not read, just that I should delay the encounter with a book whose content they felt would be difficult for me to understand.
I am now writing for younger readers myself and I am mining the stories that I loved best when I was their age. Because I retell Hindu epics and myths, I am often asked, “What is the message you want to give children?” or, “What do you think myths can teach children in these times?” I am taken aback by these questions. I always imagine that children also read for pleasure, in the same way that adults do, the same way I did when I was as old as the readers for whom I write.
I do not retell classical stories with any didactic intent. I think this is because I read and write them primarily as literature and believe that they should resonate with all readers, whether or not they come from the same culture as the stories and whether or not they have faith in the gods who often appear in myth. Children need good literature as much as adults do. Literature helps us all imagine different worlds and different ways of being and doing. When we read folk tales from Europe, we see that forests are filled with wolves and bears and foxes, not tigers and elephants and jackals. Witches and ogres live in those forests, rather than rakshasas, but all of them are equally dangerous and frightening. Chinese stories have ghosts who live in trees and often, they are sad ethereal women who appear only at night, sighing tearfully. A beloved Japanese story tells us about Momotaro, born from a peach, who fights and defeats terrible demons with the help of his magical animal friends, including a dog and a monkey. Middle-eastern stories are peopled with djinns who are trapped in old bottles and dusty lamps, who make your wishes come true.
For all that these stories differ in detail and location, each of them reminds us that people are the same everywhere: we love our pets, we ask for the same things when we are granted wishes, we protect our children and hold them close. Human beings have the same concerns and dilemmas, no matter where we come from or where we go. We express and explore our fears and our aspirations in the stories we tell. While we ask the same questions of our gods and demons, of our friends and families but, it turns out, the answers we find are determined by our particular cultures and our local histories. When we read about others, we are persuaded that there can be different answers to the same question, that there is more than one way to solve a problem, that our perspective is just one among many ways of seeing. Literature’s greatest gift to us and our children is empathy.
The so-called lessons of literature, whether for adults or for children, are not necessarily overt or quantifiable. They are often about feeling and sensing a truth rather than knowing it with absolute certainty. Literature does not tell us what to think, it nudges us, gently, to think for ourselves. Our children need this capacity to think independently more than they need anything else, for the world they will grow into, the world they will negotiate with their knowledge and their skills and their imaginations will be so very different from ours.
There appears to be a special pressure on myths and stories about gods and demons to “teach us something.” Perhaps, in our search for a lesson, we miss the forest for the trees when we read these magnificent stories from the past. The Mahabharata (which I have just retold for children), shows us that good people can do bad things and that seemingly bad people can be honourable in the most unexpected of ways. It reminds us how hard it is to be good, it demonstrates that greed and unchecked ambition, the desire for power at any cost, can lead to terrible violence, that along with the unjust and the unrighteous, the good, the true and the beautiful will also be destroyed, that hatred will kill even those who spread it. These are universal truths and young readers will comprehend them on their own when they read the story. If we retell our epics and myths in all their rich complexity, with their darkness as well as their light, younger readers will surely discern the moral issues that are being explored in these narratives, just as we do. We must trust our children as much as we trust our classical texts.
Mahabharata for Children by Arshia Sattar is published this week by Juggernaut Books.