As a famous British children’s writer is trending on Twitter, criticised for being racist and sexist, I wonder if it wouldn’t be better to celebrate the writing of authors who have been empathetic in their portrayal of multicultural characters and cultures other than their own.
From an Indian point of view, if there was a Charles Dickens who wanted to ‘exterminate the (Indian) race’, there was also a Wilkie Collins whose fiction suggested an underlying empathy for Indian culture and the foreign loot of India. Collins’s sense of morality and decency are reflected in The Moonstone in the way the moonstone is finally restored to its rightful place in the forehead of the statue of the Lord of the moon in the Indian temple from where it was looted.
Some other foreign writers too got it right about India, from Shakespeare who wrote of ‘Ind’ as a land of precious stones and pearls and gold and sunshine and lovely boys and beautiful women, to Voltaire, Mark Twain, Schopenhauer, and Will Durant among others, but few have depicted Indian characters in fiction as genuinely as Eva Ibbotson. (In case there are others, I would be happy to stand corrected. My first exposure to racism was reading The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett as a child and feeling nauseated at the way Mary Lennox screams that the natives (of India) ‘are not people-they’re servants’ and Martha says nothing to correct her.)
From the characters of Sumi and her grocery-shop owner parents in Not Just a Witch to the lovely ghost-girl Sunita in The Beasts of Clawstone Castle, the characters of Indian origin in Ibbotson’s body of work are portrayed with a depth of understanding of India and its cultural nuances that is as admirable in its accuracy as it is commendable. The warm humanity of Ibbotson’s characterisation extends to all the positive characters in her fiction irrespective of their race, from the Austrian cook Ellie who is a loving mother to her adopted daughter Annika in The Star of Kazan, the brave Romani boy Zed in The Star of Kazan, the spunky English girl Talitha and the inspiring teacher Matteo von Tarlenheim in The DragonFly Pool, and the gentle and nature-loving members of the Xanti tribe in Journey to the River Sea. Ibbotson was a visionary whose novels for children make the reader feel that there is no other or ‘us vs them’; everyone are interconnected and people just like us and the world is indeed an extended family. (I am not counting her books for older readers or The Abominables here).
Compared to the wonderful stories by Ibbotson and other writers of her ilk, it is disappointing to see both popular and mainstream media – both print and visual – in the west persist on showing India and Indians as either poor and backward, or savage and superstitious. The examples are too many to list, and are at best ignored. The irony is that the same west appropriates ancient Indian practices without grasping the significance or scientific reasons behind them and patents them in their name for good measure. Recently I was amused to read about ‘cow-cuddling therapy’ being offered as a stress-buster. One wonders if the people who go to cuddle cows paying 200$ per hour know that Indians have been practising this for free, for millennia, as a regular part of life, and that the healing presence attributed to the cows is unique to the humped cows native to India. Some of my western friends, sensitive to healing energies, have affirmed that they distinctly feel this difference between the two kinds of cows.
Here is a short clip from the Dakshin Vrindavan Gausadan (cow sanctuary), one of the many such institutions across the country where rescued cows and bulls are lovingly provided a home for life.
And here is a short excerpt from Eva Ibbotson’s The Beasts of Clawstone Castle which shows how Ibbotson was not only aware about the cultural practices of India, but also of the significance behind those practices, and of the love for nature and every aspect of creation that is instilled in the Indian way of life. So much respect to the author, a great writer and a great human being.
When she saw that all the animals were calm, Sunita walked up to the oldest cow, with her scars and her crumpled horn. She put her hands together and bowed down so that her hair touched the grass. ‘I salute you in the name of Surabhi, the Heavenly Cow who gave birth to the sky and was the mother and muse of all created things,’ she said.
Then she moved on to stand before the king bull […] ‘And I salute you in the name of Nandi, the bull-mount who carried the Lord God Shiva safely through the universe.’
She bowed low again and it seemed as though the bull returned her salute, bending his head so that the muscles bunched and tightened on his neck. But Sunita had not finished. She went round the herd and to each and every beast, even the smallest of the calves, she made the same bow and spoke a greeting.
Up on the wall, the children had remembered.
‘Of course,’ said Ned. ‘Cows are sacred in India. They wander all over the streets, and no one’s allowed to harm them.’
‘And when they’re old they don’t get slaughtered, they get sent to a place where they can live in peace. Sort of like an old people’s home for cows,’ said Madlyn. ‘Rani told me, at school.’
Sunita, when she had returned to her place on the wall, told them more about what these beasts meant to her people.
‘I was born in January,’ she said. ‘There’s a feast then called Pongal to celebrate the harvest and the end of the rains. It goes on for days and on the third day is the Festival of Cattle. The bulls get silver caps on their horns and the cows get bead necklaces and bells and sheaves of corn. And garlands of flowers – wonderful flowers: marigolds and pinks and hibiscus blossom.’
For a moment, as they looked down on the park, the children imagined the cattle of Clawstone decorated and garlanded, with jewellery on their horns. What would Sir George say if that was to happen? Something rude, that was certain!
But Sunita had shown the ghosts something bigger than themselves. A world where animals mattered, where living things were worshipped. A world where there was work to be done and one’s own troubles set aside.
From The Beasts of Clawstone Castle by Eva Ibbotson