Fair is foul and foul is fair, it appears at first sight, as the board of the Indian Certificate of Secondary Education (ICSE) innovates a new syllabus in which Lady Macbeth will rub shoulders with Captain Haddock. But blistering barnacles, the board has been adventurous earlier, too. Back in the Eighties, when school was a long prelude of unreality which allegedly prepared children for the shock of real life, ICSE courses taught short fiction by Kamala Das and poetry by Keki N. Daruwalla, along with Macbeth in the original, not an abridged and bowdlerised version. That was fairly radical for its time, when comparative literature was still a fairly new discipline and Eng Lit was stuck fast in the times of Keats and Tennyson.
But now, the ICSE syllabus is blurring the boundary between literature and popular writing, and a lot of the new material is what lies between these formal categories. Amar Chitra Katha, which may figure on the reading list, consists of popular renderings of the classics. The Hobbit is certainly literature, while it is just as surely popular culture. When Sukumar Ray’s nonsense verse is being mined for political and sociological meaning, Feluda, the private detective created by his more celebrated son Satyajit Ray, along with Agatha Christie, introduces children to the most popular literary genre.
Like Getafix’s magic potion, popular children’s literature can have a permanent effect. Asterix is a small compendium of classical sayings such as alea jacta est and offers a decent introduction to Latin. The Tintin books lucidly explain the mechanics of colonialism and international capital and the strange relationship between oil and war. Art Spiegelman’s Maus can teach you to diagnose fascism at first sight, a useful survival skill. Radical reform is afoot. Now, can we look forward to the inclusion of video in the syllabus, starting with Burka Avenger?