November 23, 2006

'Buying second hand false teeth in India'

I read a children’s book on India recently. It is titled, ‘Travelling solo to India’ and has been written and illustrated by Bettina Guthridge. It was first published in Australia by Omnibus Books in 2000, and re-published in 2001 by Southwood Books Limited, London. This book is very attractive-LOOKING; the illustrations are colourful and alive.

But, start READING the book, and problems begin. First of all, it takes a very superficial and partial look at a diverse country. And then, on almost every page there are bloomers—mostly factual—and hilarious ones at that! Here are some of Ms Guthridge’s observations of India.

Page 1: The main languages (in India) are Hindi and English.
Page 12: There is not much work in the country, and so many Indians go and live in the cities. Just two pages later, on page 14, the author contradicts herself saying: In the small villages in the country people live close together and help each other. There is always work to do.
Page 13: Millions of children live on the street (see illustration).
Page 18: Because cities are so crowded many Indians work on the street. Here you can have your ears cleaned or buy some second hand false teeth. (please, someone tell me where you get them...and I desperately want to meet someone who buys second hand false teeth)
Page 20: Rich children go to school by taxi. Poor children walk to school.
Page 24: There are not many cars in India. Most people are too poor to own a car.
Page 26: Trains are very crowded and never run on time. Some people travel on the roof. This costs nothing. (see illustration)

Page 30: Hindus believe that after you die your soul is reborn in another form, as an insect, an animal or a person.
Page 34: Many Hindu gods take the form of animals. Because of this, Hindus do not eat meat. Page 35: The white cow is special to Hindus. Cows wander the streets eating from fruit and vegetable stalls. Even poor shop keepers do not mind.
Page 48: The Moguls loved to hunt. They killed many wild animals. Today there are reserves to protect the animals that are left.
Page 56: Indians love singing and dancing. The sitar, the tamboura and the tabla are heard at every festival and wedding, or in the market place.
Page 59: It is thought that one tiger is killed every day in India. Parts of the body are used to make medicine.

I have returned this book to the library, with post-it stickers marking every other page, with a request that this book be taken off the shelves. I would have emailed a complaint to the author / publishers online, but could not find their email id on the net. I also tried writing a review on Amazon, but unless I buy from them (which, unfortunately I can't, from India) I cannot write a review. So I record this in my blog...and will follow this up with a snail mail complaint. Publishing, especially for children, should certainly be more responsible than this.

However, in all fairness, I would like to say that if this book had only drawings and no words, it would have been fantastic. Something like our own Mario Miranda’s book on Paris. Ms Guthridge is, without doubt, a highly talented illustrator.

There are five other books in this series, all by the same author: Travelling Solo to Vietnam, France, Morocco, Japan, Italy. I wonder how they READ.


Sameer said...

Hey, Sadhana,

I am curious to know what exactly the "problem" is. I am surprised this book is being sold/displayed in India, so maybe that's the problem. Why would kids in India need to know these details --- they are largely apparent to someone growing up there, I would think.

As for the content itself, as you noted yourself, it's fairly factual (don't know about second hand false teeth, I wouldn't be surprised if you could find it one some street corner in Bombay.)

The simplifications are hardly unreasonable for a children's book. What would a children's book written in India about the UK say? That they drink lots of beer? The Scots wear kilts? They highly respect the Queen and like having a monarchy? These are all generalizations that many Britishers might disagree with and find distasteful too, but that's the best you can do with books, and then it becomes an adult's responsibility to teach the true complexity lying beneath that book. I hardly think it appropriate to blame the book and its author.

Sadhana said...

Hi Sameer, I wanted some reaction to this one, and I am glad you wrote your views on this post. No, I haven't seen this book being sold in India. We borrowed it from the British library.

I did not say the book is fairly factual. I said it is not factual. For example, the author cannot make statements like 'Hindi and English are the main languages spoken in India' would be more appropriate to say 'Many languages are spoken in India---Hindi and English being two of them'. And then, 'Hindus do not eat meat' factually incorrect, there is no disputing that! The same is true of the other statements.

Vijay and I have worked on children's books where literally each WORD is turned around and examined, then then agreed upon. We cannot therefore accept these statements as 'generalizations'.

During a time when images of India as a country with elephants and snake charmers are being replaced by more realistic ones, you cannot tell children of the world that one can buy second hand false teeth on the streets of India... or that the sitar, tamboura and tabla are heard at every festival/wedding, market place, or worse still (in the sense of the imapact), show children a beautiful illustration of a train with people, cycles and cows on TOP of the train.

This is definitely not the best one can do with childrens' books.

sameer said...


as to what you said about the factuality of the post, here's the quote I refer to: "And then, on almost every page there are bloomers—mostly factual—and hilarious ones at that!"

Beyond that, what I disagree with partially is the particular politics you are engaged in, given the requirements you have for the design of children's books in India.

Say you designed a book about England for Indian kids. A socialist-minded Britisher might tell you that showing Buckingham Palace and any adulation of the monarchy is not the right thing to do, because of the "impact" of non-Britishers thinking that the British are stuck with this anachronism and not becoming modern and democratic. Would you take all pictures and depictions of royalty out? How about British colonialism? Would you put that in, while protesting that depictions of India's now-arcane caste system are not kosher?

I challenge you: YOU are the one ashamed of what India is, not the people who depict the way things in fact ARE. Yes, folks ride the tops of trains and buses. So? Yes, many communities like to bring in music, in fact, hell, I remember YOU leading the whole damned family in singing with tablas at Mittu's wedding. Why are you ashamed to see this being depicted in a picture book?

I am happy that India is depicted in all of its color and cultural glory. What exactly is wrong with that? Can you please give the rest of the world a little more credit for being able to see these things in a positive light?

Hindi is spoken by more people than any one else in India. If you count the number of people who can understand words in Hindi (and related dialects) and English, that is clearly a very large fraction. Using the word "main" to describe that fact seems reasonable to me. Should a book on England not mention that English is the "main" language, because some people speak Welsh? Because there are immigrants in England?

Again, I challenge you: YOU are the one that's parochial in your reaction to Hindi. You come with the baggage of being a "south Indian" who hates "Hindi dominance." Give me a break; it's an Indian language like any other, and if someone chooses to call it "main," whether that person is Indian or not, I think that's perfectly ok. It might be a limiting experience for the reader to not be told that there are other languages spoken but there's always a balance between too much and too little information, and I think mentioning Hindi and English as "main" is a reasonable point to hit the middle ground. After all, they haven't said, "The languages of India are Hindi and English."

If you want "realistic" images of India to replace snakes charmers, then I don't see why showing a poor village or slum is unrealistic --- it's how a large percentage of Indians live. Sure, if you are running a PR effort for Indian tourism, you can gloss over that, but if you want a "realistic" picture book, it seems more realistic to me to depict poverty than to avoid it.

"Hindus do not eat meat." If they had said, "Hindus have a caste system, and people in that system born as Brahmins have traditions that condemn the consumption of meat," you would have screamed blue murder that this book talks about the caste system, because that's such a horrible thing and it's not the right image of modern India. The prevalence of vegetarianism is certainly an important cultural aspect of Hindu culture (as opposed to Indian culture.) How exactly should someone describe that in five words or less, so that a KID can understand the idea?

Sadhana said...

Sameer,you are reading too much between the lines.

My review has not been influenced by prejudice (YOUR comment sounds like it has been, though)--I have merely pointed out statements that could have easily been worded better and made factually correct. I will reply in detail to your comment by email.

For now, I stick to my point...more care MUST be taken by anyone writing a book on any culture, especially if the book is intended for children.

the lyrical Sa said...

I arrived here through Samie.
Everything about this blog is so very interesting -- right from its name to the words to the tone of each write-up.

I strongly share your views on children's literature. A writer must always approach these young minds responsibily and with loads of sensitivity (to say the least).

May I link you, please?

Sadhana said...

Thanks for saying my blog is interesting. Do visit again. Yes, you may certainly give a link to my blog.

the lyrical Sa said...

Sure! I'll keep visiting your blog.

Have linked you.
Do drop in at Tiny Creek sometime.