reviews and essays

That’s How I See Things

Looking for the Adivasi and Dalit presence in Indian children’s literature

By Deepa D | 1 January 2017

IN 2015, ADIVAANI, an independent press dedicated to creating “a database of Adivasi writing for and by Adivasis,” published a revolutionary children’s book titled Disaibon Hul. Ruby Hembrom, its author and also Adivaani’s founder and editor, wrote in its preface, “It is our duty to keep our stories of injustice, persecution and hope alive in public spaces. … Dear gidra, don’t let the Sido and Kanhu in all of us die.”

For the first time in Indian English children’s literature, the words “our” and “us” were used by a Santhal, presupposing and centring an audience of Santhal readers who knew that “gidra” meant them—the “children” for whom references to Sido and Kanhu as freedom fighters were as familiar as references to Bhagat Singh or Mangal Pandey.

Hembrom’s exhortation is echoed in the book’s illustrations, by Saheb Ram Tudu, who is also Santhal. The first double spread, in sepia, with rib-baring cattle and bare-breasted women, sets the scene for the 1855 Santhal rebellion against zamindars and the British in what is now Jharkhand. Tudu alternates watercolour paintings with stark black-and-white line drawings that give the narrative a live-report kind of immediacy. The switching of artistic medium mirrors the way that traditional storytellers share and process intergenerational trauma—in narratives that cyclically smoothen and jolt. Hembrom writes with similar echoes to oral history styles, transitioning from the third person on one page—“Unable to tolerate the unjustified arrests, they attacked the police”—to the first person on the next—“We were at war.” The complementary choices of text and illustration continue when the text bluntly summarises history: where the book reads “Sido and Kanhu were captured and killed,” a double-spread illustration depicts them in action—one running away from a horse-riding pursuer, while the other is being led away in ropes.

The text references murder and oppression without sensationalism or evasion, while the illustrations focus on the agency of the Santhals (including women, who are present on almost every page), who make weapons, participate in village councils, take oaths to resist till death. There are more children’s books in English dealing with racism and sexism than with settler-colonialism, so the book’s political theme, including its violence, makes Disaibon Hul a rare addition to the much needed category of books which give adults ways to have honest, age-appropriate conversations around topics that kids are already experiencing and forming opinions about.

Hembrom has authored two previous children’s titles—We Come From the Geese and Earth Rests on a Tortoise. Both retell Santhal creation stories, and it is striking how different they are—in their speaking to and with rather than about a people—from the multitude of “tribal” and “folk” creation stories retold and published by non-Adivasis. Hembrom jumps straight into the narrative in each book, assuming familiarity with the Bongas and Malin Buddhi. (For non-Santhal readers like me, a glossary at the end reveals that Bongas are spiritual beings, and that Malin Buddhi, a Bonga, is known as the Lady of the Garden.) The illustrations, by Boski Jain, also contextualise names without unnecessary pandering to non-Santhal readers. For instance, a passage about Sin Sadom is illustrated with a sun-haloed horse, which clearly signals that the name belongs to the Santhal equine spirit of day. One can also see from the drawings that Raghop Boar, despite what English-language conditioning might lead one to imagine from his name, is a fish.

Hembrom’s refusal to treat her own background as if it were exotic or unfamiliar offers her readers a delightful view of Santhal mythology as Santhals themselves might see it. For example, in We Come From the Geese, she writes, “Malin Budhi was short and could only reach the door frame and not the cross beam,” taking it as a matter of course that Bongas live in houses with cross-beams like many of “us,” and that some of them are vertically challenged. Similarly, she tells the story in Earth Rests on a Tortoise without spoon-feeding us the connections that slot the tale inside the events of We Come From the Geese. (Perhaps the only downsides to Hembrom being her own editor are that there was no one to standardise the spelling of “Has” and “Hans” in We Come From the Geese, or suggest changing “grievously injured” to “badly hurt” in the interest of age-appropriate vocabulary.)

Indigenous peoples the world over are starting to push back against retellings of their stories that presume an ignorant settler-colonial audience and an extinct or quaintly primitive subject. Adivaani’s editorial choices—its insistence on addressing readers as “we” and telling stories about “us,” on not italicising non-English terms and transliterating them with diacritical marks to indicate appropriate pronunciation, on relegating info dumps to glossaries at the end of each volume—all have significant impact on the experience of reading its books. This Kolkata-based publisher shares a mission with, for instance, Magabala Books in Australia, Theytus in Canada and Birchbark Books in the United States—all of which promote narratives and writing from indigenous people. They are rare exceptions in a publishing world dominated by non-native cultures, where even well-intentioned authors and editors are guilty of misrepresenting and appropriating indigenous cultures, and the vast majority of publishers choose not to represent indigenous voices at all.

There is a dearth of books that represent Adivasi characters and have been authored and illustrated by Adivasi creators, and the situation for Dalit representation is even bleaker. The few exceptions reviewed in this essay only serve to highlight how rare they are, and how hugely the Indian publishing industry has failed to achieve any kind of representative diversity.

an interesting contrast to adivaani is the older and far more successful Tara Books. Tara has a stable of award-winning titles created for a globalised audience, many showcasing illustrators and storytellers from various Adivasi and Indian folk traditions whose work has thus far rarely been presented in printed narrative or sequential form. Its books are meticulously designed, and often screen-printed on textured paper and bound by hand. The aesthetic pleasure of handling them is only undermined by the knowledge of how unaffordable they are for the majority of people from the communities whose traditions they often draw on. Tara’s books regularly appear in German, Spanish and French editions, but are not translated into Hindi or Bengali or Marathi, let alone Adivasi languages such as Varli or Gondi. The publisher has built long associations with several Adivasi artists, and has gradually gone from simply commissioning illustrations from these artists to inviting them to present their own narratives. But even so, the blurbs and endnotes that appear in these books irrevocably stamp them as owned by their savarna editors and publishers. (I find it alienating to read endnote after endnote on how difficult it was to collaborate with Adivasi creators unfamiliar with the sequential-art tradition for books in a language they do not speak, without these creators’ opinions on the experience ever being allowed space.)

Adivasi artists feature in Tara books in two ways—one, as illustrators, whose work is often commissioned to accompany text not specific to their own narrative cultures, as with Bhajju Shyam’s illustrations for the Hans Christian Anderson-inspired The Flight of the Mermaid; and two, as narrator-storytellers, as in Tejubehan’s autobiographical Drawing From the City. Some of the commissioning choices are magical, especially with the illustrations by Gond artists. Ram Singh Urveti, for instance, uses the traditional Gond technique of amalgamating animals within a tree to brilliantly illustrate the tricksy line “I saw a sturdy oak/ creep on the ground” in I Saw A Peacock With a Fiery Tail, a reimagining of a seventeenth-century British poem with paper-cut book design. In Alone in the Forest, a boy wandering in the jungle starts feeling scared of the sights and sounds around him. Shyam paints a pair of enormous eyes as a frame to his forest, vividly illustrating what it means to see with a fearful gaze. Where the text merely describes the boy’s relief at finally seeing a familiar cow, Shyam renders a climatic double-spread of the cow containing a village inside her, a metaphor infused with rural realism. And in That’s How I See Things, Shyam illustrates the painter protagonist’s imaginary bestiary to mesmerising effect, applying the traditional symbolism of Gond imagery to create such things as a deer-oise, with a tortoise’s body and a deer’s head, and antlers that are leafy branches.

Less successful is the commissioned artwork in The Great Race, the third in a series of folk tales from Indonesia retold by the white American author Nathan Kumar Scott. The illustrator, Jagdish Chitara, an assured artist of the Waghari community’s Mata Ni Pachedi tradition, seems uncertain when visualising animals foreign to his experience, such as the protagonist mouse-deer. Editorial oversight or ignorance also results in the appearance of a geographically impossible lion (there are no lions in Indonesia), and in Kakatua, a cockatoo character, being described as a scarlet macaw (a species only found in South America).

It is instructive to compare the rooster in The Old Animals Forest Band, illustrated by the Gond artist Durga Bai, which crows “cock-a-doodle-doo,” with the “kikiree-kee” crowing rooster in The Churki-Burki Book of Rhyme, a story based on Durga Bai’s childhood but written by Tara Books’ publisher, Gita Wolf. It begs the question as to what the text would have sounded like had Durga Bai been permitted to author as well as illustrate the work, as she was with Mai and her Friends, a tale published by the Delhi-based NGO Katha. Even when Tara publishes narratives related by Adivasi artists, copyright is claimed by the publishing house; its publisher, Gita Wolf; and its translators and transcribers.

That said, the several autobiographical and self-referential books by Adivasi artists that Tara has brought out constitute some of Indian publishing’s finest accomplishments. These are mostly accessible to children (albeit as books to be read to them, rather than ones they can read easily on their own), but are illuminating for adults as well. The protagonists’ narratives of how they went from being domestic cleaners or buskers to successful published artists are good inoculations against the classism that children inevitably pick up in the absence of positive examples from lower economic strata. Tejubehan’s Drawing from the City, Dulari Devi’s Following My Paintbrush and Bhajju Shyam’s more text-laden The London Jungle Book, with their first-person explanations of the history, metaphor and emotion behind the pictures that appear in them, also give readers a vivid sense of how experience can be translated into imaginative art.

Such books, where artists intertwine their creative visions with elucidation of their artistic heritage, provide a valuable counterview to the currently dominant treatment of “folk art” as incomprehensibly totemic or unimaginatively static. In Shyam’s latest book for Tara, a collection of Gond origin stories called Creation, a striking red-and-yellow fish curled up head to tail resembles an ouroboros, the famous symbol of a snake eating its tail, especially when paired with a section titled ‘Death and Rebirth.’ But it is only after reading Shyam’s narrative about no food being cooked in a mourning household until the third day that the diagonal green lines in the background take on new meaning, as indicating the leaf-plate upon which the fish waits to be eaten. And when Gangu Bai explains in her nature memoir, Tree Matters, that “I haven’t shown the flowers because this tree has leaves,” and you “can’t have both together,” she showcases the scientific specificity of her Bhil artistic tradition alongside her adorable yellow-and-red pointillism. A forthcoming volume, Sun and Moon, features illustrations from an ensemble of artists, including ones from Gond, Meena and Mata Ni Pachedi traditions, alongside small couplets encapsulating what each artist feels about the celestial bodies of the book’s title. It is a lovely idea, simply and beautifully executed, and recalls the concept behind the magical, moving compilation of Gond art and stories in the gorgeous The Night Life of Trees.

Tara continues to commission artists to illustrate stories foreign to them—as with the forthcoming Brer Rabbit Retold, written by the black American author Arthur Flowers and illustrated by Jagdish Chitara. One would welcome, alongside such releases, more titles both told and illustrated by people sharing the same tradition—such as Gobble You Up, in which Sunita, a Mandna artist from the Meena community, illustrates a tale told by her grandfather. (Unlike in the more Brahmanic Panchatantra stories, the jackal protagonist of this book survives to trick on another day—a pacifist ending I appreciated.) The book’s designer took the liberty of recolouring the original monochrome illustrations to form contrasting reliefs of black and white, which helps the eye notice all the details of Sunita’s work.

In another case of supportive book design, one of Tara’s early titles, Do!, allows the Warli artists Ramesh Hengadi and Shantaram Dhadpe full freedom to fill up its pages of brown, recycled craft paper with panoramas of people, trees and animals. There are villagers fishing and farming, playing badminton and reading books, but alongside there is room also for the tender detail of a scorpion carrying her babies upon her back. This kind of book shows how artistic traditions intended for decorating walls and floors can inhabit books and create narratives without undue editorialising. We need more such visual migrations to happen.

the publisher tulika has put out several picture books that use Adivasi art to devise sequential narratives. The Magical Fish is a Gond story told by Chandrakala Jagat, who once worked as a daily labourer building the kind of ponds her heroine does. (Tulika does a better job with the credits than Tara, giving primary billing to the storyteller—Jagat—and only then naming the translator of the volume.) All the happiness is sucked out of the world, and it is up to the dukariya (an old woman) and her daughters to find the magical fish who can restore it. It is rare to find children’s books with adventuring female protagonists, so it is refreshing to read an entire book with no males (even the fish is a lady, with a dashing nose ring). The Magical Fish is even more unique for presenting an elderly woman heading a single-parent family of apparently single daughters. The Gond artist Shakunlata Kushram does a fabulous job painting these feisty women, in their saris-without-blouses, as they climb and crawl their way to success.

A Bhil Story, by Sher Singh Bhil, has an equally delightful narrative. There’s a fraudulent prophet exposed, an old woman leading her village, and helpful animals teaching people ecological tricks of survival. Bhil visualises all of this in dazzlingly detailed panoramas. My only complaint is with the art direction—some paintings with large ensembles of people are given too little space for one to appreciate the variety of styles and facial expressions Bhil uses to distinguish his subjects.

In My Gandhi Story, the editors gave the artist narrative authorship by turning Rajesh Chaitya Vangad’s series of Warli paintings containing his vision of Mohandas Gandhi into illustrations for a question-and-answer session between a child and Vangad himself. Meanwhile, Gandhi interjects in the margins via quotes from his own writings. While the version of Gandhi’s life presented does seem a little too reverent even for a children’s book, the art in this volume sets it apart from the many other titles on him currently available—Gandhi as a Warli double-triangle figure distinguished by spectacles and an oversized pocket watch is, I’ll admit, endearing.

Janu Bhiva Ravate’s illustrations take a different approach to the Warli genre in Where’s the Sun? In the book, a little girl and her mother question various beings and get passed on to each new one in the sing-song repetition that children love in oral stories. Ravate’s lines are delicate and precise, and his choice of an ochre background for his paintings makes for a vivid change from the normal Warli brown. This book, like all the other Tulika titles discussed, highlights the advantages of foregrounding the artist’s narrative perspective in such projects.

If Tara’s fancy art books are at one end of the children’s picture-book spectrum, then the publisher Pratham’s pedagogically tested and developed ones are at the other. In 2014, Pratham came out with a fantastic series of ten picture books written collectively, during specially organised workshops, by groups of three to five educators from the Munda, Saura, Juanga and Kui tribes. These have been published in the languages of their respective authors, and also in Oriya, Hindi, English and sometimes other languages as well. They are illustrated by various artists in a style based on the Saura wall-painting tradition. It would have been good to allow the art in these titles more space, perhaps via the use of a portrait-oriented layout and double-spreads, and their texts could have used more breathing room too, but the books are colourful, easy to fit into a child’s hand or schoolbag, and cost only R35 each.

The stories in them are wonderful. The hilarious finale of The Elephants Who Liked to Dance involves a bunch of villagers playing clashing musical rhythms in order to throw Micky Mouse-eared elephants off their beat. The comforting repetition of planting a crop only to watch it being eaten by various species of animals in What Should Soma Grow? leads up to a happy ending that involves Soma discovering the benefits of crop rotation and seed diversity. The central feature of Doong Doong, Dum Dum is a pun in the Juanga language, kept as is in translation, with an explanation for the rest of us. (The protagonist is named Dumbroo, and it cannot be a coincidence that one of the book’s writers is named Dumbroodhar Juanga.) Meanwhile, Asila… Basila… Uthila… Jaucha features the inadvertent foiling of thievery via language learning. It is a remarkably sophisticated book, and difficult to put out in translation, since it features a Kui protagonist who does not know the city language Oriya, and is clearly meant for kids who have had to become bilingual per force and can appreciate the joke of thieves thinking they are being addressed when a student is practising his new vocabulary. The book’s characters are very much in the twenty-first century, and the illustrations seamlessly integrate school buildings and skyscrapers into a landscape with the ubiquitous monkey onlookers on palm trees.

as rich as the indian mainland is in Adivasi artistic and narrative traditions, a huge variety of these also exists beyond it, particularly in the country’s north-eastern territories. In the mainland publishing world, the “north-east” is often a chimeric creation that lumps together people of various tribes, religions and ethnicities, of migrations both recent and ancient from eight vastly diverse states. Katha is somewhat guilty of such careless conflation in its books about the north-east, even though it has commissioned authors from the region, which is more than many other publishers would do. In Once Upon a Moontime (which as a collection of stories is more a chapter book than picture book), the author, Mamang Dai, jumps from an Adi folk tale about a female sun to a Mishmi one about a male sun. Reading two creation stories one after another can be disorienting, and takes away from the gravitas that makes them “real” in the manner in which they might have been traditionally told. Katha avoids this issue with the apocalyptic story The Sky Queen, also written by Mamang Dai, by publishing it as a volume on its own. The book’s faux-childish crayon-scribble illustrations do the story no favours, but the matter-of-fact description of cannibalism and subsequent deluge will please the fans of sensationalist action among its child readers.

Another stand-alone picture book, U Sier Lapalang, Kynpham Sing Nongkynrih’s retelling of a Khasi story from Meghalaya, is a tragedy—the eponymous deer gets killed by hunters, and his mother dies of a broken heart. Jarringly, the afterword jumps an entire state over to deliver a lecture on how the Angamis in the Nagaland village of Khonoma became vegetarians and conservationists and quit hunting. In a similar case of editorial misjudgement, imagine what Manipuri children who speak Thado, Tangkhul or Kabui might think when they read, in T Bijoykumar Singh’s retelling of the Meitei story of Ebethoi, from the Katha anthology First Sun Stories: Unusual Folk Tales From the North East, that “Eta” is “the way girls address each other in Meitilon, which is the language of Manipur.” (The stories in this collection are, in fact, unusual and fun. Even the one story that starts out with the cliched figure of a virtuous, impoverished Brahmin ends with his being washed away in a deluge while his wife goes off to the jungle to marry an elephant.)

There may well be more of a diversity of Adivasi and Dalit stories and art in children’s publishing in Indian languages, which I cannot survey for this essay without learning dozens more languages. At least in Hindi, which I do read, a good example has been set by Ekalavya, a press that publishes predominantly in that language for a readership in Madhya Pradesh. In Ekalavya’s So Ja Ullu, illustrated by Bhoori Bai in the Bhil tradition, the artwork is a rainbow of pointillism, and the Hindi adaptation and localisation of a story originally written by the white British author Pat Hutchins in 1972 is a pleasure for any sleep-deprived adult to read aloud. Ekalavya’s catalogue also includes Khichadi, retold by Jitendra Kumar and illustrated by the Gond artist Durgabai Vyam, and the Santhal folk tale Karo-Koeli, written and illustrated by Gurcharan Murmu, which has also been translated into English.

Some of the NGO presses considered here—Katha, Ekalavya, Pratham—combine their publishing with a commitment to promoting children’s education. Often, these are more considerate than purely commercial publishers of the needs of children from diverse castes, classes and religions. Katha and Ekalavya, for instance, put out their books in both Hindi and English. Pratham goes further, making its affordable titles available across a host of Indian languages and producing a selection of bilingual volumes. It is a shameful indictment of savarna-dominated educational NGOs, therefore, that none of these publishers has a single Dalit author or illustrator creating the books they are so enthusiastically trying to get into the hands of poor children. A clear bias in their commissioning across the board makes Adivasi artists more popular than Adivasi authors, and Dalit creators entirely absent.

The only Dalit-authored children’s books I could find in English were produced by Different Tales, a project by the Hyderabad-based NGO Anveshi, in 2008. (The English versions of the resulting trilingual series—with stories originally written in Telugu and Malayalam—are distributed by DC/Mango Books.) The books feature writers such as Joopaka Subhadra, Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd, Rekharaj, Sara Joseph and Gogu Shyamala, and are thought-provokingly illustrated by various visual artists from Vadodara. But these are not picture books to be read aloud to young children. Their vocabulary and length make them more appropriate for middle-school children, and the font sizes and design choices contribute to an impression of wordiness. (This is also true of Turning the Pot, Tilling the Land: Dignity of Labour in our Times, written by Kancha Iliah Shepherd and illustrated by Durgabai Vyam, and marketed as a children’s book by its publisher, Navayana.)

Though many of the stories feature child protagonists, they contain the sorts of narrative ambiguity and unresolved endings rarely found in writing for children, suggesting they were originally written for adults. In a rare example of what might be done with the material generated by Anveshi, Tulika took one of the untranslated Telugu stories from Different Tales—Under the Neem Tree by P Anuradha—and issued it as a stand-alone picture book in English translation, with art direction and design that make it more accessible to young readers. Eight years after the publication of Anveshi’s noteworthy books, no other Dalit children’s book creators have been published, and for parents looking for such a book to read out to their preschoolers, there is not a single available title.

in january 2016, the international publisher Scholastic withdrew from the US market a picture book it had released about a cook and his daughter who were enslaved by the country’s first president, George Washington. Criticism of the book, which began on blogs and social media and moved to mainstream publications such as Kirkus and The Root, centred on how the simplistic depiction of slaves as cheerful and prideful about their labour erased the reality of their histories. Eventually, the publisher agreed with the critics. In a statement, Scholastic said it was committed to portraying “the experience of all children, including those from diverse communities and backgrounds, and we will continue to expand that commitment through our global publishing channels.” This was an unprecedented action in children’s publishing, and demonstrated the remarkable growth of a grass-roots movement of children’s-book criticism. (In a hilarious follow-up, PEN USA exposed its juvenile cluelessness by issuing a statement decrying Scholastic’s “self-censorship.”)
Meanwhile, as of November this year, the number of Dalit or Adivasi authors or illustrators published by Scholastic India stood at exactly zero.

Scholastic is not alone in its wholesale erasure of Dalits and Adivasis. Several publishers active in India and with children’s books in their catalogues—including Penguin, Hachette, Karadi Tales, Duckbill, Zubaan and DC/Mango Books—have not a single title that I could write about for this essay. Some of these publishers have the odd title by a savarna creator featuring Dalit or Adivasi characters, but meaningful representation of the viewpoints and histories of these communities must begin with allowing them creative control. Having people of dominant castes and classes tell and draw stories about disadvantaged communities is just one more way to uphold the narratives of the status quo.

As a reader born into a savarna, settler-colonial identity, I lack the experiential knowledge necessary to critique the accuracy and ethics of the representations of Adivasis and Dalits in such books. What sensitivity I have to the kinds of biases a dominant culture can exercise on children’s literature owes much to reading US-based critics on the representation of Native Americans in children’s literature. Critiques published on websites such as Oyate.org and American Indians in Children’s Literature incisively document the ways that specific stereotypes, misrepresentations and erasures in these books can negatively impact Native readers, who are often already minority members of hostile colonised societies. In the United States, people of colour have spoken out about children’s and young-adult literature online and offline, as readers, educators, librarians and academics. These communities have achieved some measure of recognition of this approach to judging books, with social-media initiatives such as #OwnVoices and #DiversityInYA making it necessary for publishers to acknowledge the demographic data of their backlists. There are few opportunities at present for a comparable mobilisation of critical readers in India, and without this, depressingly, the chances are that Indian publishers will remain indifferent to the lacunae in the books they put out intending to educate and entertain children.

When I was a child in the pre-liberalisation India of the 1980s, it was hard to find picture books at all, and the few available were more often than not about white, rather than brown, kids. In the 30 years since, Indian publishing has flourished, and upper-class, savarna children, at least, have a chance to read, and to hear read to them, stories by and about people like themselves. But such reading, and the kind of engagement and affirmation it offers, is almost completely denied to the majority of Indian kids. And it is also denied to those of us not from marginalised communities but who yearn to expose our children to cultures not our own, so they might grow up a little less unconsciously bigoted and unaware about their privilege than we did.

IN 2015, ADIVAANI, an independent press dedicated to creating “a database of Adivasi writing for and by Adivasis,” published a revolutionary children’s book titled Disaibon Hul. Ruby Hembrom, its author and also Adivaani’s founder and editor, wrote in its preface, “It is our duty to keep our stories of injustice, persecution and hope alive in public spaces. … Dear gidra, don’t let the Sido and Kanhu in all of us die.”

For the first time in Indian English children’s literature, the words “our” and “us” were used by a Santhal, presupposing and centring an audience of Santhal readers who knew that “gidra” meant them—the “children” for whom references to Sido and Kanhu as freedom fighters were as familiar as references to Bhagat Singh or Mangal Pandey.

Hembrom’s exhortation is echoed in the book’s illustrations, by Saheb Ram Tudu, who is also Santhal. The first double spread, in sepia, with rib-baring cattle and bare-breasted women, sets the scene for the 1855 Santhal rebellion against zamindars and the British in what is now Jharkhand. Tudu alternates watercolour paintings with stark black-and-white line drawings that give the narrative a live-report kind of immediacy. The switching of artistic medium mirrors the way that traditional storytellers share and process intergenerational trauma—in narratives that cyclically smoothen and jolt. Hembrom writes with similar echoes to oral history styles, transitioning from the third person on one page—“Unable to tolerate the unjustified arrests, they attacked the police”—to the first person on the next—“We were at war.” The complementary choices of text and illustration continue when the text bluntly summarises history: where the book reads “Sido and Kanhu were captured and killed,” a double-spread illustration depicts them in action—one running away from a horse-riding pursuer, while the other is being led away in ropes.

The text references murder and oppression without sensationalism or evasion, while the illustrations focus on the agency of the Santhals (including women, who are present on almost every page), who make weapons, participate in village councils, take oaths to resist till death. There are more children’s books in English dealing with racism and sexism than with settler-colonialism, so the book’s political theme, including its violence, makes Disaibon Hul a rare addition to the much needed category of books which give adults ways to have honest, age-appropriate conversations around topics that kids are already experiencing and forming opinions about.

Hembrom has authored two previous children’s titles—We Come From the Geese and Earth Rests on a Tortoise. Both retell Santhal creation stories, and it is striking how different they are—in their speaking to and with rather than about a people—from the multitude of “tribal” and “folk” creation stories retold and published by non-Adivasis. Hembrom jumps straight into the narrative in each book, assuming familiarity with the Bongas and Malin Buddhi. (For non-Santhal readers like me, a glossary at the end reveals that Bongas are spiritual beings, and that Malin Buddhi, a Bonga, is known as the Lady of the Garden.) The illustrations, by Boski Jain, also contextualise names without unnecessary pandering to non-Santhal readers. For instance, a passage about Sin Sadom is illustrated with a sun-haloed horse, which clearly signals that the name belongs to the Santhal equine spirit of day. One can also see from the drawings that Raghop Boar, despite what English-language conditioning might lead one to imagine from his name, is a fish.

Hembrom’s refusal to treat her own background as if it were exotic or unfamiliar offers her readers a delightful view of Santhal mythology as Santhals themselves might see it. For example, in We Come From the Geese, she writes, “Malin Budhi was short and could only reach the door frame and not the cross beam,” taking it as a matter of course that Bongas live in houses with cross-beams like many of “us,” and that some of them are vertically challenged. Similarly, she tells the story in Earth Rests on a Tortoise without spoon-feeding us the connections that slot the tale inside the events of We Come From the Geese. (Perhaps the only downsides to Hembrom being her own editor are that there was no one to standardise the spelling of “Has” and “Hans” in We Come From the Geese, or suggest changing “grievously injured” to “badly hurt” in the interest of age-appropriate vocabulary.)

Indigenous peoples the world over are starting to push back against retellings of their stories that presume an ignorant settler-colonial audience and an extinct or quaintly primitive subject. Adivaani’s editorial choices—its insistence on addressing readers as “we” and telling stories about “us,” on not italicising non-English terms and transliterating them with diacritical marks to indicate appropriate pronunciation, on relegating info dumps to glossaries at the end of each volume—all have significant impact on the experience of reading its books. This Kolkata-based publisher shares a mission with, for instance, Magabala Books in Australia, Theytus in Canada and Birchbark Books in the United States—all of which promote narratives and writing from indigenous people. They are rare exceptions in a publishing world dominated by non-native cultures, where even well-intentioned authors and editors are guilty of misrepresenting and appropriating indigenous cultures, and the vast majority of publishers choose not to represent indigenous voices at all.

There is a dearth of books that represent Adivasi characters and have been authored and illustrated by Adivasi creators, and the situation for Dalit representation is even bleaker. The few exceptions reviewed in this essay only serve to highlight how rare they are, and how hugely the Indian publishing industry has failed to achieve any kind of representative diversity.

an interesting contrast to adivaani is the older and far more successful Tara Books. Tara has a stable of award-winning titles created for a globalised audience, many showcasing illustrators and storytellers from various Adivasi and Indian folk traditions whose work has thus far rarely been presented in printed narrative or sequential form. Its books are meticulously designed, and often screen-printed on textured paper and bound by hand. The aesthetic pleasure of handling them is only undermined by the knowledge of how unaffordable they are for the majority of people from the communities whose traditions they often draw on. Tara’s books regularly appear in German, Spanish and French editions, but are not translated into Hindi or Bengali or Marathi, let alone Adivasi languages such as Varli or Gondi. The publisher has built long associations with several Adivasi artists, and has gradually gone from simply commissioning illustrations from these artists to inviting them to present their own narratives. But even so, the blurbs and endnotes that appear in these books irrevocably stamp them as owned by their savarna editors and publishers. (I find it alienating to read endnote after endnote on how difficult it was to collaborate with Adivasi creators unfamiliar with the sequential-art tradition for books in a language they do not speak, without these creators’ opinions on the experience ever being allowed space.)

Adivasi artists feature in Tara books in two ways—one, as illustrators, whose work is often commissioned to accompany text not specific to their own narrative cultures, as with Bhajju Shyam’s illustrations for the Hans Christian Anderson-inspired The Flight of the Mermaid; and two, as narrator-storytellers, as in Tejubehan’s autobiographical Drawing From the City. Some of the commissioning choices are magical, especially with the illustrations by Gond artists. Ram Singh Urveti, for instance, uses the traditional Gond technique of amalgamating animals within a tree to brilliantly illustrate the tricksy line “I saw a sturdy oak/ creep on the ground” in I Saw A Peacock With a Fiery Tail, a reimagining of a seventeenth-century British poem with paper-cut book design. In Alone in the Forest, a boy wandering in the jungle starts feeling scared of the sights and sounds around him. Shyam paints a pair of enormous eyes as a frame to his forest, vividly illustrating what it means to see with a fearful gaze. Where the text merely describes the boy’s relief at finally seeing a familiar cow, Shyam renders a climatic double-spread of the cow containing a village inside her, a metaphor infused with rural realism. And in That’s How I See Things, Shyam illustrates the painter protagonist’s imaginary bestiary to mesmerising effect, applying the traditional symbolism of Gond imagery to create such things as a deer-oise, with a tortoise’s body and a deer’s head, and antlers that are leafy branches.

Less successful is the commissioned artwork in The Great Race, the third in a series of folk tales from Indonesia retold by the white American author Nathan Kumar Scott. The illustrator, Jagdish Chitara, an assured artist of the Waghari community’s Mata Ni Pachedi tradition, seems uncertain when visualising animals foreign to his experience, such as the protagonist mouse-deer. Editorial oversight or ignorance also results in the appearance of a geographically impossible lion (there are no lions in Indonesia), and in Kakatua, a cockatoo character, being described as a scarlet macaw (a species only found in South America).

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Deepa D is a Delhi-based writer whose book reviews have appeared in Mint Lounge, Business Standard and The Pioneer.

READER'S COMMENTS

4 thoughts on “That’s How I See Things”

Absolutely loved this article. So rare to see essays looking Indian children’s literature with a critical lens. Especially one on representative diversity! I also learned about several titles I was not aware of. Even for those that I was aware of, getting to know the cultural significance of specific motifs and certain artistic styles was very fascinating. Would be very interested in more such articles. Thank you Deepa!

It is great to see perpetual victim-hood and life-long disability now being made a part of children’s story books. Starting them young is the way to go!

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