Dhanbad’s bustling Rajendra Market of the early ’80s had mostly one big draw for me — Vinod Prakashan. It was our one-stop shop for everything from school books to sketchpens. And, for Enid Blyton. Every month, I would dial 3192 from our black, heavy-bottomed home telephone to enquire if they had a new title in. They were most likely to say no, but nothing could beat the excitement of drawing imaginary whiffs of shelves full of Blyton over the mouthpiece.
Like many from my generation, it was Blyton who turned us into incorrigible readers, dreamers, spin doctors. She gave us a reason to curl up in bed after school, she made us the night owls we ended up becoming, she fed us ideas for our midnight feasts with cousins, and later, Maggi-parties with hostelmates. She and she alone gave me the nose-in-the-book girl identity that stuck on through my growing up years well into adulthood.
And, by George, my love for Georgina (and exclamations)! She was that original spunk I wanted to model myself upon, little realising that there was way more to being one than just getting my hair cut short in a ‘boy-cut’. My gentle soul lacked her pluck, her fierceness, her stubbornness, but hero worshipped her, I did (with Darrell Rivers trailing by just a wee bit).
It is impossible to see my growing-up years without any flashes of Noddy, Famous Five, Malory Towers or Wishing Chair in it. What was there not to love about this charming world of impossibly beautiful unspoilt landscapes, brave adventures, unwavering friendships, mothers who baked goodies after goodies without screaming (or complaining), and a world where the children owned their agency, no matter what?
As it turns out, a lot.
Over the years, I have followed how the debate around political correctness in literature past and present has consumed many a heavyweight, Blyton included. When I first read about the criticism around her, my reaction was a startled “Really?”. So when a few years ago, I started revisiting her books through adult eyes, I saw what the brouhaha was all about (not all of which I am in agreement with). It was not as if the entire enchanted Blyton edifice that my young mind had created for posterity came undone, but the spell lay somewhat broken. While the books were (and are) still fun to read, my personal baggage of awareness was no longer allowing me the luxury of unquestioning adulation.
Did that undermine her importance in my book journey? Heck, no!
I wondered how these books were being understood by today’s children. Could they see the overt sexism that I couldn’t when I was their age? Were they able to find problems with Georgina’s female “masculinity” shown as a desirable subset of masculine machismo, or were they seeing the dangers of simplistic gender binaries and stereotypical portrayals, the social snobbery, or the class privilege slapped all over the hundreds of books? Much of the racist overtones that she is criticised for came from the way Gilbert the Golliwog was portrayed when I was young; those have long since been sanistised by replacing the character with Martha Monkey.
I turned to my children for their views. Neither of them had taken to Blyton beyond the Noddy phase. The only explanation my daughter (then eight) gave me was that the books seemed too old-fashioned. She was already drawing her magic through the much-layered, much-multidimensional worlds of Eva Ibbotson, Eoin Colfer, Lemony Snicket, Roald Dahl and Jacqueline Wilson. Blyton’s books would have appeared too black-and-white to her.
What did she think of George, I casually asked her one day around the same time. She liked Georgina, she said; what she didn’t like was the way the author was showing her in the series — “just because she looks and behaves like a boy, she is shown as being strong and special and not scared of anything — and who is Blyton to decide how all boys and girls should behave?”
My daughter had given the books a chance, after all; it was Blyton’s belief system that had failed to resonate with the reader in her. But for every child today who fails to connect, there are many who are still able to. And that’s the beauty and purpose of literature of any kind: giving the reader the choice to embrace a work or reject it.
I find the recent trend of erasing or replacing the past offensives in books problematic. Whitewashing swathes of writing to make them palatable to all will lead to generations of children not learning to appreciate how societal contemporariness finds ways of seeping into any form of literature — mirrors, roses, warts and all. Our job as parents or book creators is to give them a canvas propped within its relevant milieu that they can both savour and critique, not spoon-feed them a honey-dripping world that reflects no ills. Some children may get the larger contexts early, some may get it later, and still others may not get it at all. And that is okay, too.
Cut to this summer when I was pruning the shelves to make way for newer buys. Given my children’s lukewarm attitude towards Blyton, these were the first to get dropped into the giveaway carton. But my daughter, now 14, refused to part with them.
In the middle of our discard-rescue tussle, out dropped a handmade bookmark from Adventures of the Wishing Chair. It had three stick figures sitting on what must have been intended to be a chair with wings. The only words on the bookmark? Mollie, Peter, Iha.
Iha, my daughter, picked it up, grabbed whatever Blytons she could between her arms and stomped away muttering, “These books remind me of my childhood. They are NOT going, and that’s FINAL.” Then she came back for some more.
Richa Jha is an author and publisher of Pickle Yolk Books