Category Archives: books

The Venus Flytrap: Enough of Enid Blyton

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The UK’s Royal Mint has heeded the caution of its advisory committee and decided against issuing a commemorative coin to coincide with the 50th death anniversary of Enid Blyton, whose books have been a part of the childhoods of several generations of readers. The caution was because a backlash was feared; it’s difficult to miss the explicit racism (some critics allege sexism and homophobia too) in those books.

Those who think the Royal Mint’s decision was excessive argue that social norms keep changing, and that it isn’t fair to judge the people of the past by what is politically correct in the present. This would be a reasonable argument, since dead people don’t have the benefit of learning and evolving their viewpoints as the living do, except that Blyton was criticised in her own time for work which was already perceived as racist, even receiving a publisher rejection for a book long after she had established her career. What’s more evident here is not Blyton’s bigotry, which may or may not have been on par with her surroundings, but the bigotry of her defenders today, who are willing to overlook the damage that honouring a prejudiced person and their work can have.

Blyton died in 1968, and as far as I’m aware is not an author whose work has been kept in circulation through its inclusion in academic syllabi. Her books continue to be purchased by parents and libraries, with over 2 million copies reportedly sold in the last 5 years. This is not in itself a problem; no one with a respect for literature knocks a reading habit, wherever it springs from. But what is worrying is the context. A 2017 study by the Arts Council England discovered that just 1% of all children’s books published in the UK that year featured a main character of a minority ethnicity, despite nearly 33% of schoolchildren being from non-white backgrounds. When the literature being produced does not sufficiently reflect modern society, the continuing popularity of older work with problematic values is a matter of concern.

As it happens, assuming the ACE statistic could have applied to the year prior too, one of my own books – released in the UK in 2016 by Lantana Publishing, which was founded to produce culturally diverse children’s books – would have counted. When it comes to situations like this, one longs to not be among the exception. But when that book, The Ammuchi Puchi, was republished in India last year, it entered a vibrant, growing world of incredibly exciting work for all ages which normalises and celebrates darker skin tones, local names and environments, splashes of mother-tongues, folklore, indigenous artforms, progressive viewpoints, unusual storylines and more. Contemporary, original children’s literature is thriving here.

Any book-buying parent or educational facilitator in India who is still exclusively reaching for Enid Blytons or even Amar Chitra Kathas (with their colourist portrayals, among other uncomfortable things) out of sentimentality is depriving the reading child of a treasure trove. Give them your old favourites too; but know that they will be far more enriched by newer books, the kind we didn’t have when we were growing up.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on September 5th 2019. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Tacking The Tsundoku Pile

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Between the beginning of May and the end of July, I finished reading 37 books. These comprised of: 18 novels, 3 graphic novels, 5 books of poetry, 3 short story collections, 4 picture-books for all ages, and 4 works of non-fiction.

I hadn’t been held hostage in a library. I hadn’t become unemployed; in fact, my overall workload had increased during this period. I hadn’t had a windfall and splurged it; with few exceptions, most of the books were from my splendid tsundoku collection (the Japanese term for purchasing books and not reading them, allowing the to-be-read pile to become a heap, then several).

The having of books – or if one cannot own them, the solace of wandering the stacks at a library or a good bookstore – is one kind of pleasure and self-care activity. Reading them is a completely separate kind. My book binge was deliberate. It was to limit my social media usage, both so I would spend my time better and because I was increasingly noticing how it drained more than just my phone battery. Studies show how social media usage can negatively affect mental health, as well as physical components like sleep, something most users know from experience.

Many wonder how to rekindle (pun intended) their earlier interest in reading. Innumerable suggestions exist: take public transport and read on your commute, carry literature at all times so you can read during waiting periods through the day, commit to an hour before bedtime or wake earlier and do it before even brushing your teeth. Notice how every one of these suggestions ultimately requires the same thing: a shift in unrelated habits. The thing you need to tweak to bring reading back doesn’t have to do with books at all. Rather than deactivate my apps, I simply decided to do more of something else, and this made me see how little I actually need them.

These days, I work at a desk beside a well-earned wall of books, and I hope I’ll always remember being giddy with joy and surprise on the night I finally set it all up, when it was like I was staring at my childhood ambitions come true. “Now I am a Lady of Letters,” I thought, grandly. “An L. O. L.”

And that’s exactly why I plan to read fewer books this month. The downside to reading so voraciously was that I’d left myself little time to write. After three months of gobbling through pages like a silverfish, I confronted the fact that my book binge was also an exercise in procrastination.

Still, I understood this only through the reset I experienced thanks to it. I had gained greater clarity on my goals, and become more mindful about how I utilise or fritter my time. I didn’t have as many low moods. My sense of self was richer, less reactive to the vagaries of the fickle hive mind. Not least, I experienced the sheer pleasure that comes from immersion, when you don’t shift your attention just because of one slow-moving passage. Ultimately, I found that the many worlds of fiction held far less artifice than the online world.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on August 8th 2019. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

Selected Book Reviews/Interviews (2019/2020)

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On Githa Hariharan’s i have become the tide, in The Hindu Business Line.

On Annie Ali Khan’s Sita Under The Crescent Moon, in OPEN.

On Lindsay Pollock and Benjamin Dix’s Vanni, in OPEN.

Interview with Urvashi Bahugana, on poetry and memoir, in The Bombay Literary Magazine.

A long essay on civil war literature set in Sri Lanka, and its relevance after the Easter 2019 bombings, in The Caravan.