Once upon a time – in the way all good old-fashioned children’s stories begin – one of my primary school English textbooks featured a story on Panna. The brave nursemaid Panna who saves the prince Udai Singh, heir to the throne of Mewar, when the ruthless usurper of the throne, actually Udai’s cousin called Banvir, is determined to kill him.

As a rough paraphrasing of the story goes, and the basic version remains ostensibly the same – Panna places her own young son on the prince’s bed, while the latter is spirited away to safety by another trusted servant. And the usurper king slashes out with his sword, walking away having done his evil deed.

The message – all stories, especially those in school textbooks, had to have one – was about bravery and loyalty. It offered a lesson on Panna’s heroism and sacrifice, one that went beyond the call of duty. Her story ended there, and Udai Singh, as history shows, went on to become the rana of Mewar.

An Amar Chitra Katha publication of the early 1980s combines in one volume the stories of Panna and of Hadi Rani, its subtitle being Love, Honour and Loyalty, underscoring the moral. The blurb inside describes the two women as heroes of Rajasthan. From a loyal aide in a school textbook, she was now also the epitome of womanly valour and the martial pride of a region.

Much earlier, in the 1820s, the Panna story is recounted in James Tod’s Annals and Antiquities of Rajasthan. Her name appears twice, with the appellation of “dhai” added on: Panna the nurse’s timely intervention ensures that the six-year-old prince is spirited away safely in a fruit basket. After a long trek, they (Panna and the prince) are finally offered shelter by a chieftain in Kumbhalgarh, loyal to the Mewar throne. At an appropriate time, Udai Singh returns to claim his throne. By this time Panna has vanished from both Tod’s annals and history.

Modern re-interpretations

Panna has seen a resurrection of sorts in more recent times,. The Panna Dai Ma Subharti Nursing College was set up in her honour in 2000 in Meerut, western UP. She is, as the website claims, a legendary “vet nurse” (surely someone meant “wet nurse”?). A new boat-shaped museum on martyrs in Govind Sagar Lake, Udaipur is also named after her, though other reports mention Meera bai’s name.

Legends are of course subject to reinterpretation. Moreover, on websites and in the comic strip mentioned earlier, Panna is depicted in quite conventional, traditional ways – as has come to be accepted. She’s either seated before the sleeping child as the Rana advances or, as the comic shows, standing behind a pillar as the wicked usurper does his deed. The expression is hard to fathom in the latter case: to me, she looks stunned, shocked in disbelief. But to ask whether such an expression is enough, is to get ahead of the argument.

Politically correct “expressions”

My admittedly futile attempts to read Panna’s expression follow a recent episode surrounding certain illustrations in a greatly-acclaimed award-winning book titled A Fine Dessert by Emily Jenkins and illustrated by Sophie Blackall. Using the popular dessert called blackberry fool, the book tells of how its recipe has travelled down the centuries in different ways, how ways of making it have changed, and how families and methods of cooking food too have changed – as indicated by the book’s complete title: Four centuries, four families, one delicious treat.

So the narrative moves from Lyme in England (1710), to a plantation in South Carolina, USA (1810) where a slave woman and her daughter have been depicted, and to Boston in 1910 and then to San Diego in 2010.

The controversy that the book drew unfolded over a heated online debate, centred on precisely eight pages of 44 in the book, featuring a slave woman and her daughter. The objections related to how the slaves had been depicted, more stridently against the smiles on their faces and then over a hidden moment of joy as the woman and child hiding in a closet lick the remains of the dessert from a bowl after having waited on the family at dinner.

The closet moment was one that evoked most criticism. The debate raged over the reasons for the depiction and what dangers in hiding in a closet signified. The criticism prompted an apology from the author, where Jenkins, the writer, acknowledged her “racial insensitivity” and then announced her decision to donate the proceeds from the book to a fund promoting diversity in literature.

Critics insisted that the illustrations showing them as happy (as indicated by their smiles) might promote a “wrong” picture of slavery; that slave children were most often separated from their mothers; and that the moment in the closet could indeed be dangerous. To which Blackall, the artist, countered that simple moments of joy do bring happiness; and that there were several instances too when slave families were not separated.

A delicate balancing act

The debate over A Fine Dessert reminds us that children’s literature – since what children must read continues to be decided for them – can be complicated, and contentious. Arguably, the criticism of showing slaves as happy could be because present day dispositions are being read back into the past. It also presupposes a question: are resistance and anger indeed “acquired” emotions, evinced only when victims know themselves as such, and begin to understand that they have agency?

For instance, in a book written in 1845, an Indian traveller to the East Coast of the USA, Ishuree Das, describes a visit to a slave-owning household in Virginia. Slaves, Das writes, were treated kindly, usually addressed as “uncle” and “aunt”. Slaves too “were faithful and willing servants” and were also treated with kindness. But they would, as Das learns after questioning an old slave woman, rather be free.

Would the criticism over Jenkins’s book have been less vociferous if slaves had been shown sullen and resentful, or weeping copious tears of hunger rather than enjoying a secret moment of joy? The illustrator, Sophie Blackall, explains how she worked on every expression, what exactly lay behind the smiles. This also highlights how difficult it really is to depict a smile, even a certain kind of smile.

As for the argument relating to the closet and the dangers a closet may hold, there are inherently logical fallacies here. In this instance, critics’ presumptions do matter. Closets are dangerous, but they are also wondrous magical places, especially in children’s fiction. Consider for instance, The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe.

Perspective vs context

The argument for perspective – whether today’s child would misunderstand a depiction of slavery in A Fine Dessert or even Panna’s “sacrifice”, or whether today’s values are being read into the past by a reader or even reviewer – brings up the issue of context. That is, what do you as a reader say, as opposed to what the book says? A corollary is the necessity to be politically correct and also sensitive.

For instance, if I return to the more familiar terrain of the Panna story: how correct would it be to describe Panna as a nursemaid, a wet nurse or a brave woman from Rajasthan (though arguments vary as to when the region came to be actually called ‘Rajputana’)?

But then the earnestness to prove one’s correctness is offset by the fact that present-day readers of stories from any historical period can use several other sources, textual and visual. Indeed, children do have access to a wide range of books on slavery, enabling them to decide for themselves as they perhaps already do.

But depicting the perspective of the “other” is always a difficult ground to navigate, especially in a layered, multicultural milieus.  Annual surveys of diversity in the US list the books on such issues and their authors: and as this blog shows, the year 2014 showed a welcome rise in the numbers of children’s books by and about people of colour (up 14 per cent, versus 10 in 2013). But this also needs to be seen against the figure (57 per cent) representing the proportion of books about black culture written by people not belonging to that culture.

Thus to the question of all the stories that need to be told is added another one: Who will tell these stories? And added on to such questions: who has the right and freedom to tell stories? Or is this decided by the issue of “right” belonging?   And how far must deconstruction go?

A recent issue of the popular magazine for younger readers, Stone Soup, features the story, The Fire of Diwali, where a young Indian American is celebrating Diwali at her grandmother’s house. It mentions Diwali as an Indian festival (if one must nitpick: Diwali is celebrated among Hindus worldwide, and, for example, is a holiday in Singapore as well); the narrator addresses her grandmother as Dadi – thus, it really doesn’t take much effort, especially if one is familiar with the milieu, to understand the socio-religious background to this story.

Finally the narrator’s name, which does bring you up short, is Kamina. Anyone who knows Hindi knows the connotations that accrue to that word. Kamina, in this instance, can’t possibly mean, as it does too, a city in Zaire, or even an anime character.

But in this story, the sight of her younger sister narrowly escaping an unexpected Diwali fire brings home certain realisations to the narrator. And you might think that this story does have its heart in the right place, even if it comes to it in all the wrong ways.