Of Classics, Racism and Robbed Nostalgia of Childhood

If we go by the recent uproar about Enid Blyton’s and Rudyard Kipling’s works and implied racisms and other issues in those works, every child who has read these books while growing up must have become a racist of sorts! But has that really happened? Shailaza Singh introspects.

I remember my parents gifting me a series of Enid Blyton books on perhaps what was my sixth birthday. I eagerly took out the gift wrap to see three books on Noddy, which I knew my father would later read out to me. To me, Noddy’s books were all about toys because he belonged to Toyland, the place where all the toys come from. Later on, I was introduced to Mr. Pink Whistle, the half brownie, a magical creature who loved helping out people especially children and making things right for them. Her stories about fairylands, toadstools fired my imagination to a new level. Whenever I would go out, I would look for toadstools and mushrooms and try to see if I could spot any tiny magical creatures around them. I even trained my younger brother to look for fairies and pixies, lest we are able to find them and have our own little adventures. However, blame it on the constant change of houses, we never succeeded in our quest!

But all said and done, my world has been shaped by authors like Enid Blyton and Rudyard Kipling who introduced me to fairies, pixies, gnomes and animals like Sher Khan and Bagheera. When I grew up, I loved reading the Famous Five series where Julian, Dick, George, Anne along with their beloved dog Timothy would have adventures and solve mysteries everywhere they went. In fact, their adventures inspired me to develop my own streak of independence! Reading stories like “Five Go to Billycock” or “Five Go Off In a Caravan”, made me want to travel on my own. Two of my cousins, my brother and my dog Duke pretended to be Famous Five and tried to discover mysteries in our own army neighbourhood. One evening, a couple asked me the whereabouts of an apartment in my building. The detective in me started questioning them just like George would and I discovered that the lady was my class teacher! Regardless, this misadventure did not put me off any mysteries! However, today people are talking about how the entire series reeks of sexism since George tries hard to be a boy but is always told off by her cousins while Anne is forever the girl, a soft target for most baddies. On the rare occasions, where she displays her bravado, praises are heaped on her by her surprised cousins! However, did it change my perspective of masculine and feminine as a reader? No! Instead, now when I read the series again (I still read them for their amazing content), I find that the characters who are quite like the real life where we have cousins who are forever trying to show off their prowess to the girls and girls who love being tomboys! Enid Blyton’s ‘The Faraway Tree’ and ‘The Adventures of the Wishing Chair’ had the power to catapult me into a world where I could climb up a tree and visit pixies and fairies living there or visit the lands that regularly come on the top of the tree or even fly away on a wishing chair (a chair which grew wings and could fly) to where ever I felt like.
Today, when I read about how people like Enid Blyton and Rudyard Kipling are being called out as sexists and racists, I for one cannot really understand the whole issue. In my school days, I must have read hundreds of novels written by Enid Blyton, but the thought of discriminating amongst my friends or classmates on the basis of their colour never crossed my mind. I read about Sambo, the little black doll whose owner does not accept her till the time ‘the rain washes her face and it becomes pink and clean.’ Even though, it may sound racist in today’s parlance, to me it didn’t even matter because we were never taught to think on those lines. In fact, reading these books during my school days helped me to enhance my vocabulary and imagination to a great extent. They taught me to believe in magic and that nothing was impossible.

Mark Twain was another author who was quite interesting. Reading his works like ‘Adventures of Tom Sawyer’ and ‘Adventures of Huckleberry Finn’, I could travel to the 1840s America. I realized life was the same for all children, whether American or Indian. Every growing child has an inherent disdain for authority, loves to explore the world despite all the admonitions from his elders and believes that he knows everything about everything. I could understand Tom Sawyer’s love for his vagrant friend Huckleberry Finn to the extent that he could even go to the graveyard with the latter. However, today, this kind of brotherly behaviour has been misinterpreted entirely in some places in America where some parents feel that the book has a lot of racial slurs.

Another character that was a favourite during my childhood days was Winnie the Pooh. I was friends with his friends, Tigger, Owl, Rabbit, Piglet and Christopher Robin. Winnie the Pooh was always dressed in a red T-shirt and nothing else because well, though he felt real, he was a teddy bear and that is what teddy bears wear around the world. Real bears are a different story. Actually, I still am looking out for a shorts wearing bear! However, some people feel that Winnie the Pooh might not be a good influence on their children because he does not wear shorts! So much so that he was made to protect his modesty by covering up with a book on the Hollywood Walk of Fame! But I never realized that Winnie the Pooh was inappropriately dressed all these years! And then why didn’t they talk about Tigger, who never wore anything at all except for his stripes? However, this has been completely overlooked by others who believe that ‘talking animals are an insult to God’ , which is even the case with the classic ‘Charlotte’s Web’ by E.B. White.

We have all grown up reading the adventures of ‘Tintin’ by Herge. We have read about characters like Chang Chong-Chen or Sheik Mohammed Bin Khalish Ahmed and the Maharaja of Gaipajama. I never thought of Tintin as the white American hero who rescues the natives. Rather, I enjoyed his adventures. But now, if you pay attention to all the noise around you, it seems Tintin was not the innocent detective who went about fighting crime!

When the Harry Potter series was published, the books became a sensation. To me, the books were way better than the movies because in them was a magical world which coexisted with the regular world but was quite different. However, these books too were banned in places and criticized for their ‘satanic content and occult preaching’. As a reader, I have never been inspired to call the Satan or practice occult after reading these books. All I have probably ever done is to marvel at the imagination of the author who could create such a world with mere words.

The recent uproar has made me wonder about the minds of these authors. Did they actually sit down to write a book to channel their spite towards the world or train children to become racists? If so, I can say that they did not quite succeed in their aim since I and millions like me did not even think about it! Were they actually planning characters that would show the ‘natives’ their true place? Were they psychopaths who sought solace in writing elaborately veiled hate pieces whose codes will be cracked by the superior beings born in 20th or 21st century? From that argument, does it imply that the authors like Agatha Christie or Fredrick Forsythe or Sidney Sheldon or Jeffrey Archer were imagining the crimes that they would like to commit and wrote about it? Or they were simply writing stories that were dictated to them by their own experiences, imagination and intuition?

This article by Shailaza Singh appeared in Rashtradoot Newspaper’s Arbit Section on 21st July 2021.


One thought on “Of Classics, Racism and Robbed Nostalgia of Childhood

  1. Well scripted with an astute mind. Though I could not relate to many writers and their works apart from Rudyard and Tintin, the views were apt that those writers in their days would definitely have not imagined a racist or hate mindset as being depicted. I think for them such writing was always about firing a zeal in kids to become a hero by winning over perceived wrongs or evil and tide over tough situations.

    Liked by 1 person

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