He has a Padma Bhushan, a Sahitya Akademi award, an Oscar, a Grammy and innumerable Filmfare statuettes, yet he is humbled by children. His latest offering is a book called Magical Wishes: The Adventures of Goopy and Bagha, where his version of the beloved children’s story has been retold in English. In an interview with CS Bhagya, the writer, poet, director, Gulzar refused to discuss his distinguished career arc, choosing instead to highlight the urgent need to revitalise children’s literature in India.
EDITED EXCERPTS FROM AN INTERVIEW
What draws you to children’s literature?
One of the reasons I left film direction was my work for children. I may not get a chance later. I wasn’t born with innumerable years and this is what I want to do with the years I have left. In India, we love our children, but we haven’t done enough for them. At least where literature’s concerned, we have only provided books and translations from the West, or adapted texts for them. These are not very good efforts. In fact, it lacks genuine affection and responsibility. You have to protect what you love, but we haven’t done enough to protect our children. We leave a lot of our responsibilities to teachers, maidservants, ayahs. In joint families, grandparents would come forward and take care of children; nanas and nanis, dadas and dadis would tell stories, hum folk songs and perform small mimes for them. Especially now, when parents are working and there are no joint families anymore, parents have to ask themselves if they are satisfied with the extent of their own involvement. What we do is, we make them sit in front of the television and watch Tom and Jerry and other inane shows. Inevitably, the child is becoming more and more lonely.
Has storytelling gone out of fashion?
Earlier children would gather under a Banyan tree where a Panditji would come to narrate stories with morals. After listening for a while, they’d get distracted and start talking to each other, eat little things — one child would be sucking a tamarind, one would be running off to dive into a river for a swim, others would be playing games. But the Panditji wouldn’t mind because the real education was in interacting with nature. One good trend that has started these days is that of interactive play schools — they’re more disciplined and allow children to mingle with each other. But the drawback is that children can’t relate directly with nature anymore. This gap has to be filled. The attitude towards stories and literature needs to change — someone has to tell them that when you present gifts on a birthday or an occasion, you need not just give them eatables and mithai; food for mind is equally important. The nature of our celebrations must change.
In your new book, you are retelling a story that is immensely popular in Bengal. How do you think it’ll reflect with children today?
Simply because these are stories — it entertains them, inspires them and boosts their imagination. That’s why stories have to be told and retold. I chose a story in Bangla because it is one of the richest languages for children’s literature in India, a language which has worked more for them than, perhaps, any other language in the country.
What about other languages and translations?
Two more languages have worked a lot for children —Marathi and Malayalam. Other than these, our major languages, for example, Hindi, is totally blank. There are no children’s writers in Hindi. Those who adapt from Western stories and translate are not writing. Or it’s writing left-handedly, as an afterthought. Children are more intelligent than what’s being written for them. Except in these three languages, there are no writers who write dedicatedly for children. Nobody’s translating from one language to another either. There may be some translations from Bangla, but nothing from Marathi or Malayalam.
Generations of children have grown up reading Enid Blyton and Roald Dahl. When do you think the focus will shift to our own writers?
Only when writing for children is taken more seriously. One cannot assume that just because you’re a great writer, you are capable of writing for children. Vijay Tendulkar may be a great dramatist, but don’t expect him to write for children. It’s a different medium, a different skill that you have to learn, which is more difficult than writing for adults. In adult writing, you are writing to communicate with your age group, which is only one age group. When writing for children, you’re not as independent. You have to learn how to talk to a two-year old child and then you have to learn how to write to a six-year old. The languages of a two-year old and a six-year old are different, and when the child grows to nine or 12, the language has changed again. So, you have to learn those stages of language-writing, which is more difficult. It requires you to be specific, question yourself exactly what age-group the story that you’ve written is targeted towards. If you’re an adult writer, the age group question doesn’t arise. Children’s writers think it’s easy to just write for them nonchalantly, with hardly any intelligence, for a Sunday edition or a special issue.
You have written poetry all your life. What kind of poetry do you think is relevant for children?
Even with poetry, we have to indulge children. The kind of poems which we read in textbooks— “Dekho kitney patte hai, jitne hare bhare hai, peele hai aur neele hai aur teele hai aur theele hai” — those kinds of rhymes are so silly. They may learn a few sounds from it, but nothing more. Give them a poem to play with. A poem like “Lakdi ki kaathi, kaathi pe ghoda ghode ghode ki dum pe jo maara hathauda”, on the other hand, instigates their imagination. That’s the kind of poetry that stalwarts like Sukumar Ray wrote, which we have a serious dearth of these days.
When children seem to be spoken to and taught in English, do you think it’s becoming more difficult to direct them to stories in regional languages?
Our country has 28 languages with scripts. Every regional portion of the country writes and has stories to tell. With such a rich background, why squeeze them down to only one language? I’m not denying that English is important, they have to learn the language – it’s the instrument of communication, it connects them internationally. But if they know their mother tongue, if they know the riches of their own language, they’ll find their own medium of expressing their culture, which isn’t necessarily English. Parents teach their children to do namoh, namoh to Kishen, but when it comes to stories and they say “Kishen makkhan churaata hai”, the child doesn’t have a clue what makkhan is. He’ll sit at the dining table and ask you what makkhan is.
What did you read when you were younger?
I don’t know whether I read anything when I younger. I was a bad student. But I used to listen to lots of stories, indulge in all kinds of games. When I was younger, I remember people used to go round about and tell us the same tortoise-and-rabbit stories and songs.
Will you be writing more regularly for children?
There are two more projects in the pipeline — stories of Aladdin and Ali Baba, which I’m redescribing for children. These are popular stories, but they may not immediately become relevant to children and need to be revised to suit their needs. Tagore for children might al so be one of the books I’d be writing next year. We haven’t had poetry like the kind Tagore wrote to narrate to our children.
This interview appeared in the July 7th issue (no. 27) of Tehelka magazine.