Bedtime stories that are lifetime reserves

Updated: Feb 23, 2020, 08:38 IST | Sumedha Raikar-Mhatre | Mumbai

To celebrate the upcoming Marathi Language Day, the state's Culture Ministry repurposes 19th century Marathi children's fiction to spur interest in a multicultural porous world

An amusing world of animals comes alive in Balbodh Ratnamala, the compilation of 19th century children’s literature in Marathi, a series memorialising the upcoming Marathi Bhasha Din on February 27. Illustration/ Uday Mohite
An amusing world of animals comes alive in Balbodh Ratnamala, the compilation of 19th century children’s literature in Marathi, a series memorialising the upcoming Marathi Bhasha Din on February 27. Illustration/ Uday Mohite

picA pig is a dirt-loving animal; you shouldn't be like one. Its teeth, snout and a strong sense of smell help in digging the soil for food, which is why in Italy, pigs (legs tied) are unleashed in the forest to scout for delicious radish. In Spain's Menorca island, pigs are luggage carriers; in parts of Europe, some wonder pigs participate in amusement sports; one of them reads alphabets.

The good-to-know pig facts emerge from amusing animal tales (elephants in Delhi, dogs from New Foundland, sheep in Kashmir) by the Ahmednagar-based American missionary Cynthia Farrar who wrote, in simple conversational language, for Marathi school-going children in the first half of the 19th century. Her work, Bal Bodh Goshti (1838), which included moral science lessons and everyday wisdom, opened new doors for children who were unexposed to a wider world. Farrar's select stories are now part of an annotated 19th century children's literature series. The republished storybooks and textbooks clubbed under Balbodh Ratnamala, cherrypicked by the Maharashtra Rajya Sahitya Sankruti Mandal (state Culture Ministry's body) have two purposes. First, to see how Marathi language (and its script) has transformed over 200 years; second, to celebrate the contribution of Indians (not necessarily Maharashtrians) and foreigners alike in the making of modern Marathi phraseology and grammar.

The republished children's fiction, which coincides with Marathi Bhasha Din celebrated on February 27, underlines the multicultural and multiracial legacy of a regional language tradition. The reader is awakened to the permeable and porous definition of the term "native literature". What seems native (today) is built on creative inputs of people from far-off lands. Series editor, Dr Mangala Warkhede, who has curated varied writings along with a team of translators and social scientists, says that the very concept of 'cradle literature' ('dolamudrite' in Marathi) is based on a Western/modern value, which recognises formative years (five to 16) as a crucial period of intellectual evolution, with specific educational needs and reading requirements. "Opposing the conventional belief that children, essentially God's gifts, will eventually grow, without conscious academic inputs, Maharashtra's spirited progressive thinkers, including missionaries, were deeply invested in the making of school syllabi. They saw it as a means to an end—that of casting modern minds."

In this context, Balbodh Ratnamala's restoration of the first standard textbook for girls is valuable. The textbook fashioned by Students' Literary And Scientific Society (1850), predates reformist Savitribai Phule's efforts to open an exclusive girls' school. The lessons, written in a lingo that girls in cities of yore (Mumbai, Pune, Nasik, Ahmednagar) could identify with, primarily focus on good behaviour primers—speak the truth, don't fight with siblings, attend school regularly, believe in God and hard work, maintain cleanliness, etc. There are repeated references to "mee konas shivi det nahi/vaait khel khelat nahi" (I don't utter bad words/ I don't play notorious games). The book also talks about the empowerment that comes with education: "Maza bhau mehnat gheun shikato, Dev karo tyala lavkar pagar milo/My brother is a hardworking student, I pray he gets a salary soon."

Marathi children’s literature series editor Dr Mangala Warkhede seen with one of the tomes of translated fables and animal tales that awaken readers to unknown culturesMarathi children's literature series editor Dr Mangala Warkhede seen with one of the tomes of translated fables and animal tales that awaken readers to unknown cultures

Like in the girls' textbook, moral conduct lessons are central to the Vachanpathmala (1850). The anthology of 66 stories, modelled on English archetypes like Third Reading Book and Series of Lessons, have been Indianised minimally. For instance, the Sun is a generic introduction to solar energy, revered in all cultures; The Human Family reflects on God's omnipresence in everyone's life, irrespective of material status; Four seasons in the European Continent personifies colourful time spells; The Secret of Eternal Contentment zeroes in on a pastor in Italy. The stories constitute freewheeling tours across the globe—a peep into England's Newcastle port, a visit to the Museum and Dogs of St Bernard in the Swiss Rhone Valley, an outline of a steamer's course from Liverpool to Dublin.

It is rewarding to see that children's books in the 19th century in Maharashtra doubled up as world atlases (minus hi-definition pictures) for first generation primary school students who did not have access to overseas travel or even English pictionaries-almanacs and other aids. Yuropantil Kanhi Lokanchaya Goshti (1874) showcases self-made visionaries who served as models for a world much beyond their geographical origin. Profiles of Renaissance-era polymath Nicolaus Copernicus, Italian astronomer-physicist Galileo di Vincenzo and English mathematician Sir Isaac Newton impart scientific temper and unblemished scholarship. Other featured faces (Grace Darling, Alfred the Great, Sir Matthew Hale) instill courage, egalitarianism and humanitarian values. Children were mostly exposed to British heroes and heroines, but Indian figures too were not anathema. Warrior King Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj, Chittod's Queen Padmini, Mewad's princess Krishnakumari and Indore's administrator Ahilyadevi Holkar were the eclectic choices—an adequate dose of bravery and adventure, along with an array of human accomplishments. In this context, the writings of Vinayak Kondev Oak (1840-1915) needs a special mention because he devoted his life to writing for children, at a time when printed Marathi books were not available. He launched (editor for 34 years) the Balbodh Magazine in 1888, which was guided by the philosophy of imparting "shalet kalat nahit, pan tumhala kalaya pahijet ("things not taught in schools and yet should be known"). Although he was a mere Class III (English) pass out, he worked on both English and Marathi skills on his own and wrote across genres—history, poetry, short stories. His Marathi biography (1873) of First Duke of Wellington paints a vivid picture of the British military figure who won a notable victory against Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815.

The Balbodh Ratnamala compilation also provides an opportunity to appreciate the creative collaborations between Marathi language enthusiasts—locals, foreigners, academics—who created a body of work dating back to the Charter Act of 1813 when the East India Company permitted missionaries to propagate English and preach Christianity. A prime example being the Nitibodhkatha, edited by Pune College Superintendent Major Thomas Candy, which had easy-to-digest short stories, which were picked up from Bengali. While good habits lie at the core of the exercise, children were being prepared for an adult world where traits like talkativeness, bluffing, egoism, unpunctuality and materialism will not hold them in good stead.

Interestingly, Marathi children's literature strengthened its roots at a time when Marathi grammar and script were also in its infancy. Calcutta's Wiliam Fort College Marathi lecturers William Kerry and Vaijnath Shastri were the first ones to formalise grammar in published form in 1809; it was a precursor to the 1824 glossary of Marathi words brought out by James Molesworth and Thomas Candy. In an instance that speaks of Marathi's cross-border roots, Thanjavur's Sarfoji Raje Bhosle funded the first Marathi translation of English Aeosop's Fables way back in 1806. The Marathi Isapniti, was translated by Sakkhan Pandit and facilitated by Danish missionary Reverend Britz. It is therefore said in jest that Aesop's wisdom came to Maharashtra via Tamil Nadu. Wisdom is welcome, from wherever it stems.

1874
Year in which Yuropantil Kanhi Lokanchaya Goshti was written, showcasing self-made visionaries including Renaissance-era polymath Nicolaus Copernicus

Sumedha Raikar-Mhatre is a culture columnist in search of the sub-text. You can reach her at sumedha.raikar@mid-day.com

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