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T C A Srinivasa-Raghavan: Babalogs and their books

T C A Srinivasa-Raghavan 

T C A Srinivasa-Raghavan

A couple of days ago, a visiting niece from the United States told us that her seven-year-old daughter was reading Enid Blyton. Since almost everyone else present was in their late 40s, this led to a flood of babalog nostalgia about Noddy, Secret Seven, Malory Towers, Five Find-Outers and so on.

And, then, as always happens with Indians who have higher educational degrees, the conversation turned "intellectual".

The trigger word was a Blyton character called Golliwog, a black rag doll popular more than 100 years back.

The topic was the impact of colonial fiction on fresh and impressionable young Indian minds.

The research hypothesis was whether there had been a deliberate attempt by our colonial masters to brainwash upper-class children into believing in white supremacy.

Definite opinions based on tiny shards of evidence - Golliwog, for instance - were expressed by the ladies. Unshakeable convictions were thrown back at them by the men.

Spouses were told to be quiet with some asperity, and only sometimes that politely. Voices were raised. A general scrum ensued.

Eventually, the loudest group won. As always, the men sullenly withdrew into their whiskies.

Happily, as a senior citizen of serenely growing seniority, I didn't have to participate except to correct factual mistakes.

But later that night I thought about all those books I had read: Enid Blyton, Richmal Crompton of William, Capt W E Johns of Biggles, Anthony Buckeridge of Jennings and Frank Richards of Billy Bunter. Richards had an Indian boy in the school called Hurree Jamset Ram Singh, aka Inky, who was an annoying parody of how Richards thought Indians spoke English.

Were these writers really cast in the Soviet mould, dancing to a tune composed by His/Her Majesty's Colonial Office with a conspiratorial agenda designed to produce brown clones and/or reaffirm English superiority?

If there were such an intention, it would be very hard to prove, if at all. It sounds great to say such things now but I don't think the British Empire needed Enid Blyton et al to do the job for it. Its many and varied triumphs over 150 years were sufficient.

The English bias

A far more important question, at least from the point of view of social history, is to ask why even until as late as 1980 Indian booksellers were importing British books in such large quantities and ignoring American ones.

The only American authors the babalogs of the 1947-87 generation got to read, in a very limited way, were Franklin Dixon of Hardy Boys and Louisa M Alcott of Little Men and Jo's Boys. Isaac Asimov was there but for middle-to-late teenagers.

If you Google it here - - you will see what Indian children missed and are perhaps still missing. Indeed but for Google and Wiki, we'd never know what hasn't come their way.

But what the Americans lost at the swings, they made up at the races. The British, in spite of all those little black-and-white pocket picture books about the Second World War - Air Ace, Battle Picture Library and so on - could never hold a candle to Superman, Batman, Popeye, Archie and the rest.

These acquired the status of currency amongst children and had their own exchange rates. The latest Superman was worth four (and sometimes as many as six) old Batmans; and so on.

There were many exchange rates, which fluctuated throughout the day, week and month. As always the wealthy - those with a stock of 20 to 25 comics - emerged winners.

Temporary theft was always on. Some fellows I knew even got rubber stamps made to establish ownership.

Many years later in college I read a wonderful essay by an American economist called Robert Radford. It was called "The Economic Organisation of a POW Camp" and told the story of how cigarettes became the medium of exchange there ( hfoad/e111su08/Radford.pdf).

Levelled field
So I guess even if the Blytons and the Richards pulled the children in one direction, the American comics levelled the field. None of my friends ever felt inferior to the English.

In any case, there was always P G Wodehouse. When you got to your teens, he showed you what perfect asses the English were.

Indeed I have always held that the unfounded charges of sedition against him when World War II ended were brought by a bunch of these asses because he had ridiculed them so mercilessly.

All said and done, they were all just terrific storytellers who had instinctively grasped what children liked - rather as J K Rowling has - never mind the colour of their skin or the place of their birth.

We should leave it at that.

First Published: Mon, December 15 2014. 21:42 IST