Essay: On retelling the Mahabharata for Children – books guest writers
I read fiercely when I was a child; all I ever wanted as a gift was one more book. My parents were happy to please me and although, to their desperation, I continued to read the meals, they bought me many. But even when I was six, I was encouraged to choose and buy my own books, as well as to order what I wanted. Of course, it is true that there were few children’s books to choose from in India in the 1960s, so I bounced between a seemingly endless supply of age-appropriate Enid Blytons (categorized as Red, Green, and Blue Dragon editions) and whatever. local book. I could find it. On special occasions, I asked for and received expensive books of myths and legends from different cultures and stories from around the world, beautifully illustrated and written in rich, mature prose that pushed the limits of my vocabulary and imagination. Sometimes I needed help reading the books, but whether they read with me or not, my parents spent time with the books intended for their children that came into the house. Every now and then, they would tell me that I needed to be a little older before I could read something, especially when I helped myself to books from their shelves. I don’t recall ever being told that I shouldn’t read, only that I should delay encountering a book whose content they felt would be difficult for me to understand.
Right now I’m writing for younger readers and I’m pulling out the stories that I loved the most when I was their age. As I retell Hindu epics and myths, I am often asked, “What is the message you want to give to children?” or, “What do you think myths can teach children these days?” I am puzzled by these questions. I always imagine that children also read for pleasure, in the same way that adults do, in the same way that I did when I was as old as the readers for whom I write.
I am not retelling classic stories with any didactic intent. I think this is because I read and write them primarily as literature and I think they should resonate with all readers, whether or not they come from the same culture as the stories and have or do not have faith in the gods that often appear in the myth . Children need good literature as much as adults. Literature helps us all to imagine different worlds and different ways of being and doing. When we read folk tales from Europe, we see that the forests are full of wolves, bears, and foxes, not tigers, elephants, and jackals. Witches and ogres live in those forests, instead of rakshasasBut they are all equally dangerous and terrifying. Chinese stories have ghosts that live in trees and are often sad, ethereal women who only appear at night, sighing through tears. A beloved Japanese story tells us about Momotaro, born of a peach, who fights and defeats terrible demons with the help of his magical animal friends, including a dog and a monkey. The stories of the Middle East are populated with djinns trapped in old bottles and dusty lamps, making your wishes come true.
Although these stories differ in detail and location, each of them reminds us that people are the same everywhere: we love our pets, we ask the same when they grant us wishes, we protect our children, and we keep them close. Human beings have the same concerns and dilemmas, no matter where we come from or where we are going. We express and explore our fears and our aspirations in the stories we tell. While we ask the same questions of our gods and demons, our friends and family, it turns out that the answers we find are determined by our particular cultures and local histories. When we read about others, we persuade ourselves that there may be different answers to the same question, that there is more than one way to solve a problem, that our perspective is just one of many ways of seeing. The greatest gift of literature to us and our children is empathy.
So-called literature lessons, whether for adults or for children, are not necessarily obvious or quantifiable. It is often about feeling and perceiving a truth rather than knowing it with absolute certainty. Literature does not tell us what to think, it gently pushes us to think for ourselves. Our children need this ability to think independently more than anything else, because the world in which they will grow up, the world in which they will negotiate with their knowledge, skills and imagination will be very different from ours.
There seems to be special pressure on myths and stories about gods and demons to “teach us something.” Perhaps, in our search for a lesson, we miss the forest for the trees when we read these magnificent stories from the past. The Mahabharata (which I just told for children) shows us that good people can do bad things and that seemingly bad people can be honorable in the most unexpected ways. It reminds us of how difficult it is to be good, it shows that greed and unbridled ambition, the desire for power at any cost, can lead to terrible violence, which together with the unjust and the unjust, the good, the true and the beautiful. . It will also be destroyed, that hatred will kill even those who spread it. These are universal truths and young readers will understand them for themselves when they read the story. If we retell our epics and myths in all their rich complexity, both with their darkness and their light, younger readers will surely discern the moral issues that are being explored in these narratives, just as we do. We must trust our children as much as we trust our classic texts.
Mahabharata for Children by Arshia Sattar is published this week by Juggernaut Books.