In the children’s book Lachmi’s War, the protagonist Lachmi fights against the evil asura Tobakachi who wants to rule the world. He goes around a village brainwashing people into domesticating their girls, depriving them of education. With the help of the panchayat and a Bal Sena, Lachmi gathers the courage and asks the villagers to get together and fight against the asura.
To make the villagers see sense, Lachmi invokes the idea of women’s liberation and education. Finally, she is joined in her efforts by girls in the village who want to study, and together, they get the men to agree. Once the girls start going to school, the village becomes prosperous.
In the past decade, several Indian publishing houses such as Tulika, Tara and Young Zubaan have used a feminist approach to children’s literature. Lachmi’s War runs with that idea.
One in a series of five feminist picture books published by Katha, Lachmi’s War is the most recent work of author Geeta Dharmarajan, who received the Padma Shri in 2012 for her contribution to literature and education. Like Lachmi’s War, every other book in the Katha series sensitively broaches issues of equality. Whether in Chooo...mantar, Abba’s Day, One Magical Morning or in One’s Own Yet Different, the intent inevitably is to promote equity.
Leading the way
A non-government organisation, Katha has nearly 30 years’ experience in publishing and education for children in poverty. Dharmarajan, who is also Katha’s founder and executive director, said Katha has always used literature and books that portray women in a gender-sensitive manner.
“Right from the late 1980s and the first issue of our magazine for children from underprivileged communities, Tamasha!, Katha has strived to break stereotypical thinking about gender and social issues and to build strong role models for young girls,” Dharmarajan said.
The new series, she said, proactively promotes the idea that girls are equal. “They are among the few books in the market today that help girls and boys build an equal platform, through stories, thoughtful questions, and games. They encourage girls to grow up self-reliant and confident, not accept a position of inferiority in a caste-ridden, inequitable India.”
In Abba’s Day, gender roles are subverted as children are taught about the dignity of labour: in it, Aisha’s father is a stay-at-home dad, while her mother is the breadwinner. Aisha loves Sundays because she can spend time with her mother and the three can do household chores together.
Similarly, Chooo...mantar, a story about a protagonist who wants to become a singer, is a reminder to families to value girls for their aspirations.
Dharmarajan said, “Girls in Katha books and schools have always taken the lead – they do forbidden things like climbing trees and flying kites, they fight injustice, do well in school, make good friends. But we know that girls only hold up half the sky. Boys have to be active participants if girls have to claim their place under the sun.”
So in One Magical Morning, Jishnu wishes for a son and becomes pregnant. Experiencing something that is intrinsic to the female body makes him a changed man. One’s Own, Yet Different questions gender stereotypes of the older generation through the loving bond between a grandmother and her grandchild.
The reading levels of these books are matched to the learning needs of young readers – the language is simple, and the tone is direct and reflective without being preachy. Challenging the prevailing constructs of gender in society, all the stories conclude with open-ended questions and a “Think. Ask. Discuss. Act.” section that encourages young readers to engage in thinking and have a dialogue within a peer group.
The stories are available in both English and Hindi, since the books in Katha’s gender series are being disseminated through libraries to primary school-age children, who attend government schools and live in under-served communities, as well as to students attending the Katha Lab School in Delhi.
The series was published with the support of the New Zealand High Commission’s Head of Mission Fund, which aims to develop children as agents of change while promoting female empowerment.
Since children are visual learners, the books attempt to match illustration and text to ensure that they do not unconsciously internalise the outmoded gender stereotypes reinforced by popular culture.
Dyuti Mittal, an in-house designer and illustrator, considers Katha’s books an important possession for any growing up child, whether privileged or underprivileged. “The illustrations create a world of joy and wonder to bring alive stories for children, with their diverse and rich colours, techniques, characters and designs,” said Mittal.
Some other recent books that were written keeping in mind the premise of gender equality.
Mayil Will Not Be Quiet! (Tulika, 2011)
By Sowmya Rajendran and Niveditha Subramaniana
A resource book on gender for children. In the story, Mayil, a pre-teen, is constantly scribbling and doodling about the world around her, the changes in her body, seeking answers of confusing questions.
The Unboy Boy (Pickle Yolk Books, 2013)
It made waves for dealing with gender identity in an Indian context. In the story, Gagan’s family cannot get on board with the fact that he is not “boy” enough.
Gender Talk: Big Hero, Size Zero (Tulika, 2015)
By Anusha Hariharan and Sowmya Rajendran
It speaks directly to teens on all aspects of gender.