Yesterday, musing about whether people around me are interested in books at all, I started to wonder how there is it that there is no real book reading culture in India. Pockets of literati do not compensate for the absence of mass inclination towards reading as a valid and valuable leisure activity. So, why not?
Reading is an intellectual activity, as opposed to the passive avenues of escape such as watching a movie or street theater, or listening to a folktale, or getting drunk. The mind is able to engage in active and constructive thought, and most definitely philosophical thought, only when it is free of the stresses of daily living. Fear of hunger, of death, of dispossession do not induce a desire to spend an hour or two sitting and pondering upon the meaning of life or falling apples. Even if you had some free time, in such a situation, you would be unable to direct your mind to free wheeling thoughts unless your life was stable, predictable and comfortable to some degree. Reading a book is a corollary to thinking - for what is reading if not opening up to new thoughts, even if they come from fiction? (Question to myself - would one make an exception of the cheap thrillers of railway stations?) Reading is escape, but not necessarily from your life. It is an entranceway into an idea, and it requires that your mind be an active participant. That is when you really understand and enjoy reading. That is when the narcotic value of the 'cheap thrillers', even the predictive corny 'bestsellers' is nullified. So reading as a culture can be cultivated only when the country as a whole has a sufficiently elevated status of living. But that is not all. Even for the middle class, the daily push and pull of life is wearing enough, for most of it is so pointless, so unnecessary. Consider the bureaucracy, the judiciary, the policing, the health care - any system you can think of, has totally avoidable delays, utterly useless procedures and grossly inefficient performance. When the majority of your life is spent fighting such a fog, all the more deadly because there is no getting away from it anywhere, there is precious little life force left to spend in thinking.
Unless you are in the habit of doing so. Unless you are already addicted to books, opened to new ideas, new thoughts, receptive to the world outside your little gulli-mohalla. Unless, as a child, you were given books to read, and your young mind soared in imagination so that even the chains of l-i-f-e can't totally shackle it now. We need to do that. We need to build up a habit of reading something more than essentials. We need more children's books. Cheap books. Imaginative books. Good books. Many books.
Which is why I applaud the work of the new small publishers coming up like Pratham books. This is a non profit trust affiliated to Pratham Education Initiative, which seeks to "publish high-quality books for children at a affordable cost in multiple Indian languages". The proceeds from sale of their books go directly into teaching children somewhere in India to read. The books are not bulky, but published on good quality paper, and cost a fraction of comparable books from the behemoths of children's publishing. The concepts and art work are variable, so while there are real gems hidden there, there are also occasional duds. Nevertheless, these are 'real' books, not just rewording of old classics or counting or ABC books. The problem lies with availability - I have so far only found them in book fairs, and been so lucky as to visit their office where I was able to browse the entire range. If you have a chance, do check their offerings. They do have an online catalogue, but you have to buy at least ten books, and you have to send a Bangalore check or demand draft to do so. When you are working on shoe string budgets, every little penny saved is important. (I do wonder though if there might not be a possibility of turning such a venture into profit making one, thus ensuring that it expands and is further able to fulfill its mission.) They do have education initiatives in 21 states, so you might try writing to them to find out if there is any office near you where you could purchase these books as well.
Back to another series that had been left unfinished - cbeebies, the last part: stories and rhymes. Another superb collection of stories for young children, even the very young. The older ones - older than seven or eight, may not find these so amusing.
As usual, it is possible to select by the show, theme (animals, everyday life, seasonal, traditional and fantasy, poems and rhyme and around the world), accompanying audio (read, print and colour, watch and listen, watch and read along, and sing along) and A to Z. There is no need to rave about the marvellous quality of the visuals, or the imagination involved, because you all know I like the BBC. Even if they don't reply to my mail/comments. Oh well!
The younger children like stories like Bonny, Banana and Mo as below, or the Blue cow stories, but there are plenty of other choices. The stories range from the interactive -
to sing alongs -
to just plain old read from small window ones.
I rather miss the older library sort of set up they had before streamlining the site to this organizational structure - there were shelves of books and you could choose a theme, after which you picked a book off the shelf. I suspect that they also did away with a few books when they changed, for I just can't find the little bird's "I am not sleepy" book anywhere, and I am sure it was BBC. Nevertheless, another jewel of a site, not to be missed.
The url - http://www.bbc.co.uk/cbeebies/stories/
P.S. Some figures I looked at for Indian education - the literacy rate was 61% in the 2001 census (source National literacy mission). And this was defined as those 15 years or older able to read and write. Quite certainly the census workers did not carry a primer for reading and an exercise book for writing, so the question that decides whether or not you are literate is if you can read and write your own name. A simplistic approach perhaps, but with a population of 1,134,224,000 (source National Commission on Population), is there any other practical way of answering the question?
Which means that of every five people in the country, two can't even write or read their own name. Among the 'literate' population, one of six reaches college (source World bank quoting the ministry of human resources). Do you see reading as a leisure activity in this scenario? And this is not to mention the 25% living below the poverty line... (sorry, don't remember source right now; will correct or change if different)
P.P.S. Starting tomorrow, I am going to take a fortnight off, to attend to work which will take me off the net altogether, or very nearly so. I will most definitely be back after that, maybe sooner, but I can't, at this point of time, be very certain about when exactly... I will resume talking of the other inexpensive books available in India for children when I return.