A memory from around the time I am twelve. Obsessed with the Mahabharata, I have submerged myself in a range of literature related to the epic – including books that go well beyond the straitlaced translations by C Rajagopalachari and others. One of these is from the Oriental Exotica subgenre, a novel titled Samraj by the German writer Elaine Aron. This perspective telling sticks closely to the epic’s central narrative, but also incorporates elements from Egyptian history(!), and contains a few sexually explicit scenes built around Draupadi and her Pandava husbands. As Yudhisthira and Draupadi attempt to settle and expand their agricultural land, there are many lewd analogies involving “eager curved ploughs” (of the princes at a swayamvara, for instance) and moist furrows.
A visitor to the house, flipping through the pages, is aghast. “Look what he’s reading!” she tells my mother, opening and displaying a few choice passages. “Disgraceful. I am confiscating this book for a few years.” (Personally, I suspect she wants to add to her own soft-porn collection.)
Nothing doing, says mum. It stays here.
Other comparable incidents, involving other books, took place in those years, with my mother’s response pretty much always the same – whether the objection was to sexual content or something else “disrespectful” (many of the mythological books I was reading didn’t conform to sanitized mainstream tellings, and got devout people very nervous). As a result, I rarely had to think about the question: what is inappropriate for children to read, what sort of writing should they be shielded from?
Much as I would today like to reply “Nothing. They should read whatever they bloody well want”, it would be silly to pretend there can be a one-size-fits-all answer. It depends on many things, including the nature of the child’s relationship with his parents. My mother not batting an eyelid about Samraj was a combination of having faith in my maturity at a certain age (a quality her upbringing had in the first place helped shape) and the knowledge that, if I showed signs of being “badly influenced”, she could candidly speak with me about things that many other parents would find hard to discuss with their children.
There are other factors. As a child, I had experienced real-world unpleasantness and domestic violence firsthand, and possibly this raised my threshold for unpleasant content in art (or made me aware, at a very young age, that the world can be a ghastly place). But it’s equally possible that another child, with very similar experiences, may have responded by seeking more comforting, sunshiney places as a reader.
All of us also have very different capacities for (say) black humour; some of us are more squeamish than others. Genres like horror and gore (in literature or cinema) evoke a range of responses. “Did you read the one about the lift?” my mother asked me with a delighted snigger when we happened to discover Roald Dahl stories together. She was alluding to “The Way Up to Heaven”, in which a long-suffering wife, about to leave for a long holiday, realizes that her husband has been trapped in their malfunctioning house elevator… and simply leaves him there and carries on with her plans (no one else is around to hear or help).
Related to the question of what is too dark for young readers is the subject of fictional children who are not “adaarsh” baalaks and baalikas: from the merely naughty (Amelia Jane in Enid Blyton) to the satanically possessed (Regan in The Exorcist) to the ones who seem relatively normal on the outside, but are capable of delightful malevolence. The frisson-creating climactic sentence of Agatha Christie’s Crooked House (*Spoiler Alert*) is from a diary entry that reads “Today I killed grandfather.” Gerald Kersh’s witty short story “The Crewel Needle” – you’ll find it in the superb Black Lizard Big Book of Locked-Room Mysteries – centres on an eight-year-old girl who did something Truly Bad, with the narrator drolly observing, in the story’s present, “I shouldn’t be surprised if she had grown up to be a handful.”
These characters are not great role models if you view literature purely in terms of its overt “usefulness”, or for the life-lessons it should impart the young. But good, engaged reading is a much more complex thing than that. Why shouldn’t a child be able to simply READ about children who are actually DOING wicked things? Must we have such a reductive view of the link between impulse and action; the difference between having the synapses of our reptile brains stimulated by something we read or watch, and putting that thing in practice?
Anyway, my heart was gladdened when I recently learnt of a back-story around a favourite book. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, artist Eddie Campbell was working with Alan Moore on the colossal graphic novel From Hell, about the Jack the Ripper killings and what they revealed about the Victorian age as well as the twentieth century to come. Though the book is far from gratuitous, its realistic and detailed treatment of its subject matter can make some of it heavy reading even for hardened adults. Yet, on his blog years later, Campbell revealed that his little daughter Hayley had sat up with him during many of those drawing sessions, creating her own grisly artwork.
In the manner of the proud parent, he shared some of this in The From Hell Companion, beginning with his drawing wherein the seven-year-old is shown mumbling the adorable line “I finished Jackarippy. I go to bed now.” This is followed by the moppet’s depictions of not-very-nice ways to die – “when your cut up while your sleeping”, “being basht to death” – and even a kidney rotting on a handkerchief (which is from a detail in From Hell).
No one would mistake these for Shirley Temple’s polly-wolly doodles, and I was unsurprised to learn that Hayley – now in her thirties – is “working on a book about death”. So far, however, as far as we know, she has not cut up anyone and mailed their internal organs to the police. Even if her childhood adventures caused a few nightmares at the time, I have a feeling they were balanced by the experience of having a close parent who was willing to trust and confide, and share his work and time.
[Earlier Bookshelves pieces are here]