Monday, March 24, 2008

Enid and Me

An aunt gave me my first Noddy book when I was about five. It was one of the first real books I owned. I loved it into oblivion, till the glue gave and the cardboard hard cover splayed open at the corners. Despite my parents' best efforts to turn me toward more literary reading material, I was a Blyton enthusiast through most of my childhood.

There was much in Enid Blyton's books that mystified me. I didn't, for instance, know what heather was exactly, or toadstools. My interpretation of the word bathe involved two buckets of water, a scoop and some soap, so I couldn't understand why someone would say, upon seeing the sea, "Oh, I'm dying to go bathe." I was always very intrigued by the food as well. They all seemed to eat lots of cold meat, which really didn't seem terribly appetizing, and scones--I had no idea what those were. But I wasn't about to be stopped by little things like that. I read every Enid Blyton book I could lay my hands on.

Inevitably a time arrived when it occurred to me that none of Blyton's books were about kids like me. Anne, Philip, the twins, even George the outsider, were still unmistakably English kids. The un-English things in those books were from either long ago or far away or both–and they were often dangerous. My parents, who belonged to the freedom movement generation of India, disapproved of all this subtext about Englishness. I couldn't figure out whose side I was supposed to be on. I began to feel occasional discomfort at references and threads in her books, just as I loved George but began to find Anne's constant caretaker role a bit annoying. The bad guy in the River of Adventure was the last straw. He had a scar down one arm. He was wicked and duplicitous. And he bore the name of Raya Uma. (Or was it Uma Raya?) She'd taken my name and given it to this villain! There were those other natives too, with pidgeon names like Oola and Bula, but the Uma thing really hit home. Enid, whose cute little signature I'd admired on the covers of her books for so long, had betrayed me.

Now the Famous Five are returning, thanks to Disney, in a new incarnation. Well, Disney brought us The Jungle Book with sugar on top, so why am I surprised? As the Guardian Arts Blog puts it:

In addition to protecting children from being scarred by old-fashioned stories, this push to modernise tales of the twentieth century will also relieve parents from the risk of being exposed to new children's literature. Yes, I know - terribly surprising, but even though it might have seemed that Blyton and her ilk had long ago drafted sufficient children's books to last forever in various rehashed forms, for some reason people keep writing and publishing new stories for children every year. With fresh plots and characters and contemporary themes! That sounds like it might be a bit intellectually stimulating. Perish the thought.

Nostalgia strikes again. George has a daughter, and her name is Jo. Naturally, that's short for Jyoti. Enid's daughter claims her mother would have been delighted. Sure, and Mowgli's great-grandchildren hold engineering degrees from IIT!

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