The book that I can remember the farthest back in my childhood is a big red book called ‘Nammude Kunjungal’ (Our Children). If I remember correctly, it has been in my possession since I was 4 or 5 years old(early ‘60s).The pencil-drawn graffiti and the crooked Malayalam alphabets strewn among the pages is ample proof for this. In a black and white picture, the face of a mother punishing her son by pulling his cheeks has been angrily scratched with a pencil. I remember the rage whenever I looked at that mother.
The book is still with me. It is a Malayalam translation of ‘Our Children’, written by Flora H Williams and published by Orient Longman Publishing House, Pune, India. Nearly two decades ago, I chanced upon the English original at a roadside hawker. Both adorn the shelf.
The book is about child rearing, the qualities that should be instilled at a young age, the grooming and character building that prepares the child for its adult life. Each chapter is about a single quality; like discipline, honesty, procrastination, courage, corporal punishment etc. The first part of chapter is an essay on the topic followed by one or two illustrative stories.For example, the chapter on honesty. There is a beautiful story about a poor newspaper boy. Hesells an evening newspaper. One day he is unable to sell most of the copies and is so dejected because the pittance that he earns from it keeps the kettle boiling in his poor home. Then he meets another boy who boasts that he sold his entire copies. The boy advises him that all he has to do is to shout something like ‘War in America!’ or ‘Terrible train accident in New York!’or some sensational thing like that. He should run away before the buyer gets to read the news. The boy wonders how he can say that when there is no such news in the paper. He hesitates – in his mind he sees the happy face of his mother as he hands over the money to her. But then he realizes he would have to lie. The boy turns fiercely to his friend and tells him, ‘No! I won’t lie even if I can’t sell a single copy’. As the boys gather around him and tease him for a being a coward, a passing elderly gentlemanoverhears the commotion and learns about the issue.He admires the boy’s courage and honesty and gives him a good job in his office. End of the story.
Needless to say, all these stories with several illustrations, some even in colour had made a great impression on my young mind. But certain qualities like laziness, procrastination etc remained. Even as a child I was aware and ashamed of my shortcomings.
Even now, I read the book once in a while. The Malayalam translation is archaic but kind of nostalgic. The photographs are beautiful; photographs both Indian and American, of children and people from the ‘40s and ‘50s. How pretty and innocent they looked! The old-fashioned clothes, hairstyles! Landscapes, which have gone forever! Many of the young children would be now old and even dead!
The book is one of the best I have come across in this subject. It belongs to another era long gone. Out of print and out of circulation, the book is as extinct as its contents. It would seem so absurd and anachronous to uphold the values and qualities it extols.
I wonder what I should tell my son. I have reached middle age. The lesson that I have learned from my life is that to be virtuous, not to be ambitious and greedy and cunning is to fail in the life I am forced to live in this society. To be honest is to be dumb. To be truthful is to be cheated. To love is to be foolish. We now live in a world that scoffs at these virtues. I have to tell my son not to fall into the trap of virtues. Yet I have no weapons other than my sentimental, honest heart to pass on to him. The life as I see around, crowds me into a narrowing circle. My heart thuds, my mouth turns dry as the mocking mob draw out their daggers.