Watching a stage production of Kenneth Grahame’s children’s classic The Wind in the Willows (published in 1908), was sheer nostalgia for those of us who grew up reading children’s literature from the West a lot of it from England.
Even today, the most popular series of children’s books feature an English boy Harry Potter. But there was a generation that avidly consumed books by Enid Blyton, her Famous Five, Secret Seven and Mallory Towers series in particular.
City kids particularly in concrete jungle Mumbai imagined a life of adventure and solving crimes in a lush countryside.
Artists enacting Kenneth Grahame’s children’s classic The Wind in the Willows in NCPA Summer Fiesta 2014 at Godrej Dance Theatre, NCPA. Pic/Narendra Dangiya
They had never packed picnic baskets and had hot buttered scones with clotted cream; so many readers had never studied in boarding school and had mid-night feasts, but it was fun to have a picture of that life, and maybe, aspire it.
The tomboyish George became a hero for so many little girls. Add to the list Billy Bunter and Biggles, and from the US, Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys so many summers spent in a dreamy haze befriending characters from books that stayed on in the memory forever.
The stories were simple, perhaps, apt for a more uncomplicated age. Today’s kids wean on special effects and really sophisticated animation, need magicians, dragons and tales that can be turned into blockbuster movie series.
In the production by Nagpur group, Stagecraft, directed by Vikash Khurana, the animals from Grahame’s story appear in simple costumes with the appropriate animal headgear.
Mumbai kids in the audience are amused by the antics of the animal characters, but also a bit bewildered, because they had never heard of, and certainly never seen, badgers, otters, moles, ferrets, stoats, that probably inhabit a quaint English riverside.
(Many may not even have seen rats or toads, for that matter.) The story about friendship and loyalty, however, reaches across time and cultural boundaries. Grahame’s characters help their friend Toad, who is reckless and irresponsible. When Toad goes to jail for causing an accident and his mansion occupied by evil squatters, his friends, Rat, Mole, Otter and Badger, help him in the fight to get it back.
There was no darkness, complex villainy, revenge, suffering or violence. Children’s literature was exciting to read in a good way and propagated all the old-fashioned values, without ever seeming to preach.
Kids in picturesque English villages seemed to have so much fun running about solving mysteries, looked upon fondly by grown-ups, who supplied the lemonade, cakes, cucumber and watercress sandwiches and the scones, which, when finally seen and tasted, turned out to be mundane, bread roll kind of edibles, not quite worthy of so much anticipation.
In the past, most kids spent their vacation visiting relatives, now they attend extra tuition classes or activities that would help in their future career. Some of the wealthy ones travel to exotic destinations. Workshops and summer camps are a relatively new-fangled thing. The charm of simplicity is quite lost.
The brat called Zeus in the play Rusty Screws (by Meherzad Patel), seen again because of Boman Irani’s special appearance, is the typical Mumbai tween. When first seen, he is fast asleep on the couch with his cell phone plastered to his face.
In spite of his parents’ attempt to teach him manners and inculcate some semblance of civility, Zeus (played by Siddharth Merchant) is cheeky, disobedient, swears (for which he is fined Rs 10), and calls his mother ‘Dude’ much to her annoyance.
His parents have just been summoned by the school principal (Boman Irani), because Zeus and other boys played a prank that involved flinging ‘prophylactic latex’ as the principal says with some embarrassment and the boy prefers to be expelled rather than reveal the names of his cohorts.
The enforced holiday means he has to visit his grandfather in a home for senior citizens, and he does so unwillingly and shows just enough affection towards the old man (Danesh Khambata) for the audience not to write him off as irreparable. Zeus probably gets his impatience and apathy from his father (Danesh Irani), who eventually learns a lesson in family values from his best friend.
But Zeus is the kind of kid one seems to see a lot of loud, mannerless, uncaring of authority and utterly selfish; parents probably being too busy to pay attention to their kids’ demands, their world revolves around looking for ways to break rules, annoy adults and hang out with friends.
They are rebels, without even a proper cause. And, they probably don’t read, because their video games, TV and gizmos take up all their leisure. The two plays seen within the span of a week, give such a disparate view of life and childhood. It makes you want to get into a time machine and go back to a gentler time of Enid Blyton’s books, except now her stories are denounced as racist, classist, sexist, and all manner of nasty.
Deepa Gahlot is an award-winning film and theatre critic and an arts administrator. You can follow her on twitter @deepagahlot