Some stories are timeless, touching a chord with every generation. Every time different members of a family read The Kabuliwallah by Rabindranath Tagore or Feluda by Satyajit Ray, it feels like they are dipping into a pool of shared memories. Their interpretations might be different, the questions the story gives rise to might vary, but there is a sense of warmth in the sharing of stories. This new book, Great Indian Children’s Stories, published by Aleph and edited by Stephen Alter, seeks to evoke those feelings. It features nine short stories by the best of modern writers, such as The Kabuliwallah, Idgah by Munshi Premchand, The Why-Why Girl by Mahasweta Devi, The Blue Umbrella by Ruskin Bond, The Boutique by Shashi Tharoor and The Owl Delivered the Good News All Night Long… by Gautam Lal Chakma.
Some of these are translations, hoping to make these contemporary classics more accessible to today’s young readers. It is also an effort to introduce this generation to writers such as Tagore and Mahasweta Devi, whose writings might be more familiar for their parents. I had hoped to see a Mahadevi Verma story in this compendium as well —her stories like Sona are a delight to read— but then as Alter writes this book scratches the surface of the vibrant storytelling tradition in India.
There is something beautiful about watching your child read the same story you read when you were 10 or so, and listening to very different reactions from what one had as a kid. For instance, I read The Kabuliwallah in Hindi and purely from Rahmat’s perspective—the kind Kabuliwallah, who saw his daughter in little Mini, and would bring her dry fruits and a bagful of stories. I remember feeling rather incensed and hurt on his behalf at just how easily Mini forgot him as she grew up. My daughter, on the other hand, empathises with Mini completely—at her need to move on in life. These readings make for some rather insightful conversations.
Then there is Alter’s retelling of Vikram and the Betaal. I still remember the TV series that used to air on Doordarshan, and how Betaal would scare the living daylights out of me. I approached the story with an element of fear in my mind, while my daughter and her friends chortled away at Betaal’s many many questions.
Though the title states these are children’s stories, these are in fact timeless, and would appeal to readers across age groups. Alter has made a conscious effort to choose stories that don’t come with moral lessons or sanitised messages. Each of these carries complex themes, from loss and disappointment, to the drifting away of grandparents and grandkids, psychological barriers when it comes to class, and more.
Some of them, like The Boutique, are open-ended. The idea is to leave a lot of scope for the young reader’s imagination to interpret the stories as they please. “If the subjects or themes worry parents or teachers, in one way or another, it is probably because the writer has succeeded in touching a nerve that takes them back to their own childhood. That germ of a story that you recognize as your own cannot be sanitized or disinfected. No vaccine or antibiotic exists that can protect or sterilize our imaginations,” writes Alter in the introduction.