Rather than being weighed down by pedagogy, children’s literature must set you free — to imagine, to recall, to revel in the warmth of shared food
Many children’s books in English these days are full of pedagogy. They focus on teaching children how to wash their faces, brush their teeth and tie their shoelaces. This is not the job of literature. Literature should teach kids how to be, not what to do. The greatest children’s book writers, like Sukumar Ray, Lewis Carroll or Dr Seuss, provide us a sensibility, a way of being, by drawing us into a world of wonder. And, not surprisingly, many of their books centre around food. What could be more useless, frivolous and also wondrous, than a book devoted to green eggs and ham? Ruya is three years old. She can’t read more than a few letters or count beyond 10. Yet, she already knows her way to the local sweet shop and samosa shop. I believe it has to do with her close reading, or viewing, of Abol Tabol. Ray’s characters are always eating, chasing food or under the threat of being eaten. There’s Bombagor’s Raja, chhobir framey badhiye rakhe aamsotto bhaja, who keeps dried sweet mangoes in picture frames. Or the monster in Bhoe Peyo Na (don’t be scared), who feigns weakness and then threatens to devour the reader. And of course, there’s Khuror Kol, (which could be translated as chacha’s contraption), a rhyme about an invention intended to make you walk faster by dangling food in front of you that you can never reach.
Shamne tahar khaddo jhole, jar je rokom ruchi
Monda mithai chop cutlet khaja kimba luchi
mon bole tae ‘khabo khabo’, mukh chole tae khete
mukher shonge khabar chote palla diye mote.
(Food hangs in front, according to your tastes
Sweets, chops, cutlets and luchis
The mind says ‘yum yum’, the mouth goes to gulp
The food rushes away and the mouth gives chase.)