Malayalam poet and writer, Veerankutty (Courtesy: Veerankutty)

In Conversation with Veerankutty: On Children’s Literary Writing in Kerala

in Interview
Published on: 25 July 2019
Abdul Jaleel M. in conversation with Veerankutty on children’s literary writing in Kerala

Veerankutty is a contemporary environment poet. He is currently Associate Professor in the Department of Malayalam at Government College, Madapally. As a writer, he has published several anthologies of poems and children’s fiction. His poetry collections include titles such as Jhala Bhoopatam, Manthrikan, Autograph, Manveeru, Thottu Thottu Nadakumbol, Veerankuttiyude Kavithakal, Mindaprani, and Always in Bloom (in English). Besides school textbooks, many of his poems have been included in academic books of various universities in Kerala.

Abdul Jaleel M is Assistant Professor in the Department of English, EMEA College of Arts and Science, Malappuram. He is pursuing his doctoral degree in Comparative Literature at University of Hyderabad on ‘Politics, History and Oceanography: A Study of Mappilas of Malabar.’ His areas of interest include Indian Ocean studies, Mappila community, Dalit literature, literary and cultural theory, Malayalam literature.


Abdul Jaleel M. (AJM): What is your general perception of children’s literature as a literary genre?

Veerankutty (VK): Children’s literature as a literary genre has always been dynamic and important. Most of the writers who enjoy universal acclaim have also written for children. So, children’s literature can be understood as a way of writing aimed at children where the writer sees through the perspective of children by being one among them. So through this genre, the writer produces a work that accommodates the imaginative world of children who are familiarising themselves with language and entering the world of reading. Every language, including our own, has produced children’s literature of great intensity and merit. Regarding most children and their imaginative realm—they like magical elements, fantasy, fairy tales, and so on. A child’s mind can easily be stimulated by all these. So through all these, introducing the child to language and other experiences and thus slowly bringing him or her to serious literature and reading can be considered as the function of children’s literature. For instance, if we analyse the life of any great writer we can clearly see that they would also have entered the world of reading through literature written for children in their respective language. And, I feel that there are two categories of children’s literature: the first category has new works that are originally produced by writers of the time whereas the second category has works that are adapted or translated from legends or tales that have already been in circulation in different cultures. Stories with illustrations including Jataka Tales, Panchatantra Tales, Aesop’s Tales, and so on, are some examples. They may be either written tales, or tales narrated as part of the folk tradition of different cultures. This category of fairy tales and similar stories attracts children the most. Both these categories remain active subgenres of children’s literature.

AJM: It is a common belief that ‘only a good reader can be a good writer’. So, can you explain your encounter with children’s literature, as a reader and then as a writer?

VK: My entry to the world of reading was not actually through the works that come under the category of children’s literature. Instead, I had started my reading career by introducing myself to works which did not belong to this category. I am not saying that I have never read anything as such. Because I used to read children’s magazines as well as works written for kids available during the time. But, when I was studying in the primary level itself, I was able to move on to serious literary works. However, in between, I used to read children’s literature whenever it was available. When reading these works—either translations or the original—they were able to satisfy the needs of that age, the mind-set, the imaginative journey, the curiosity, etc. to some extent. This world of literature journeys with us as a companion that talks about us and expresses our experiences and fulfils our wishes. The simplicity of language is very important. There is a level of language and vocabulary that children can follow and most of the writers write children’s literature keeping all these factors in mind. For instance, Mali has written abridged versions of Ramayana and Mahabharata for children (Mali Ramayanam [1962] and Mali Bharatam [1979]). He has narrated the stories of Ramayana and Mahabharata by reducing their complexity. Likewise, writers such as Sumangala wrote by understanding how children’s minds work and the realm of their imagination and also by being one among them. So, when we read such literature we naturally imbibe certain features of our language. To add to this, mainstream writers like Basheer can be called a children’s writer because Basheer’s style of writing can be understood by anyone, irrespective of age. Besides, there are children as characters in his works like Pathummayude Aadu. Some mainstream writers write that way. Their works can be read both as children’s literature and mainstream literature. Thus, we gradually move on to reading texts meant for adults.

AJM: It has been understood that children’s literature has had an active presence in Malayalam literature for the last one hundred years or so. Both originally written and translated works could be seen to belong to this category even though the availability of such works was limited. So, were they available in abundance during your childhood—either in school syllabi or in the form of children’s magazines?

VK: This has two aspects. Unlike today, in those days, public resources including schools were not the spaces that advocated and encouraged reading habits among children. Those places were not facilitated for such activities. I do not even remember a library functioning when I was in primary school. I used to read stories from textbooks. And, only if some teachers shared books from their personal libraries that students would get to read. I came across something like a school library only when I had reached high school. Even there, it did not function properly. They used to circulate books only during the year end so as to manipulate the register and show that the library had been active and books had been issued. But now the scenario is different. Today, almost all schools have a classroom library, department library and some students have home libraries as well. Unlike those days, there is a more pro-reading atmosphere. Talking about children’s magazines—during my childhood days some 40 years ago—children’s magazines were plenty. Balarama, Balayugam, and so on, for stories, and Balakavitha for poems were a few among them. Along with reading these, I used to write and publish in some of these magazines. Children’s magazines, in those days, were more serious in nature because they incorporated so many things that were of high significance to older children as well. Later on, with the introduction of chitrakatha (comics), children’s literature got diluted in its content and treatment of topics. The race to get more readers among magazines, in turn, had a deteriorating effect on its standard.

AJM: Veerankutty, the poet, is a familiar name in the current Malayalam literary circles. But as a writer of children’s literature, you have not been discussed much. Can you please explicate about your entry to this particular literary field and what your significant contributions to this genre are?

VK: During my childhood, most of the newspapers had their own children’s magazines—Baladeepika being an example. While reading those, the thought of trying my hand at writing grew in my mind. I always felt that I could write without putting much effort into it. I got accepted by publishers in a way I had never expected. When I was studying in tenth standard, my works got published and I was even awarded remuneration. At college, I kept writing stories titled Unnikathakal (Kids’ Stories) in Balarama regularly. At that time, it had remarkable circulation and a massive readership. Since I myself was not much distant from children I could see how their minds worked and write accordingly. Later, when I became active in the poetry scene, at first, I found it very difficult to make my mark there. I had always felt guilty that I was trying to imitate others in my writing. This made me turn to writing for children again, because I got more satisfaction doing that. It was around this time that I published works like Undanum Noolanum (The Fatty and the Skinny), Nalumanipoovu (Four o’clock Flower), Kuttikkavithakal (Kids’ Poems), and so on. I didn't put in a great deal of effort while writing these works, but wrote with the intention of keeping my engagement with language alive. I received positive feedback from children in the form of letters, which was very satisfying. Later on, I became active again and focused on poetry that slowly distanced me from writing for children. But now I am planning to resume writing for them as I feel that to address them is, in fact, my obligation as a writer.

AJM: As you have already said, when you became committed to poetry you became less active or, in a sense, abandoned children’s literature. Does it show your progress as a mature writer?

VK: When we engage with something, we need to be fully committed to and be concentrated on it. When my poems got accepted and gained accreditation I started fully concentrating on poetry. One writes children’s literature with a different mind-set and language. It could be because of a decision taken unconsciously that I stopped writing for children when I became engrossed in poetry. As I used to write for children earlier, even though I had not written any poem specifically for children, I always feel that many of my poems address children as well. I have written many poems, where either children are the characters or their world becomes the subject matter. The world of the child inside me, even when I was not writing for children, has often emerged through my poetry. The simplicity of the language of children’s literature might have passed on to the language of my poetry as well.

AJM: Like Basheer, Kunjunni is another important figure, who has produced prolific literature that can be read by children and adults alike. His Kuttikkavithakal and others are popular in this regard. What is your opinion about that?

VK: I was fortunate enough to have had a close association with Kunjunni Mash and his world of writing. While studying in the Government Arts College, Kozhikode, I used to stay next to Mash’s (sir) residence. I got the opportunity to write down some of the works by Mash. Among Malayalam writers, it was Mash who wrote most beautifully and effectively for children. The way he recited his poems for children had a perfection equal to any art. He was able to closely observe and explore the world of children around him. Like Mash, I also taught in a school for a while, which helped me get in touch with the world of children and their gatherings such as balasamithi.

AJM: Besides being a writer, you are also a teacher. Especially since you teach language and literature at college level you are also performing the task of a literary critic. So from such a scenario, according to you, what is literature and what does it stand for? Similarly, what constitutes children’s literature and what are the functions it has to perform in society?

VK: When living in this world, man is bound by many restrictions instituted by society, culture, religion, morality. Still, within him is a quest to transgress all these boundaries. In fact, literature and art gratify these quests within each individual. He makes the impossible possible through art. He creates characters and situations in his books that are not achievable in his real life. Literature provides us with an ‘other’ universe that is parallel to our own. That is why we often follow this parallel universe. But, the scenario is quite different with children’s literature. The above mentioned restrictions, spiritual barrenness, etc. do not exist in their lives. But, one needs to acknowledge that they have their own mental realm which diverts and directs their interests to the colours and beauty of the world around them. This realm of beauty could be made possible through the language of literature. This leads them to serious and mature reading, later on. Einstein has said that children must be given books of fairy tales if you want to make them intelligent. Similarly, children's memory can be improved by making them read regularly. It was with the advent of printing that reading became common in human culture. It is important to nurture such practices even during childhood. This is precisely what children’s literature has been doing in our society.

AJM: You construct an ‘other’ parallel universe through your poetry. At the same time, being a teacher you inculcate values from real life. Have you ever felt conflicts of any sort while enacting these two different roles at the same time?

VK: Poetry is solace to me. I feel this way perhaps because I am a teacher, and since these two professions do not usually go that well together. A teacher is a person who is part of a power structure that creates disciplined citizens and a structured society. A poet, actually, trespasses all these. Perhaps the poet inside me helps to overcome the restrictions I feel by teaching students discipline inside and outside the class. I am an instructor inside the class, but I do not like to instruct through my poetry. I am cautious that my poetry should not be instructive or philosophically loaded.

AJM: Does teaching morality become a central concern in your works? For example, your novel Undanum Noolanum has many instances in which awareness against smoking and other similar bad habits occurs. A section from the book Kunjan Puli Kunjan Muyaalaaya Kadha (The Story of a Leopard’s Cub’s Transformation into a Leveret) has a clear message against being haughty about one’s beauty.

VK: One finds in every literature—not only children’s literature, but epics like Mahabharata and Ramayana and classics like Les Misérables—attempts to protect and transmit the values of humanity. It is an indisputable fact that this must be there in children’s literature too. A child is a being who has all the human instincts within him. It is only through the nourishment that he receives from his mother, family and books that he turns into a good human being. Such stories have a lot to play in the character formation of each child. Literature has a function to do in treating the anomalies found in children, refining their behaviour and turning them to a group with social commitment. It does not mean that such literature should always talk about goodness; because without villains and follies, literature does not actually exist. But, the aim of children’s literature, video games and similar programmes available today need to be subjected to discussion. Children have become an important target group for multinational companies. When the values of capitalism get highlighted, the values and life experiences imparted through books will get lost. This new world of capitalism opens before the children the door to destruction that promotes cruelty and killing using guns and other arms. The things children have been given are completely opposite to the humanitarian values they have been given through ‘Aesop’s Stories’ and ‘Panchatantra Stories’.  Some of the new books for children also follow the same pattern. As their language is good and they provide instances that stimulate the curiosity of children, such books also have a very high readership.

AJM: Constructing a better childhood and, thus constructing a better society is a point of concern in your writing?

VK: Absolutely. But, it is a different process unlike the state constructing its citizens, because there, it is the state that decides what elements are to be (not) found in the citizen. This is not what a writer does. A man has different layers of emotions—love, affection, kindness, etc.—inside him. These emotions need to be nurtured further. Or else that individual does not become complete and perfect. It is literature that helps the individual to reach such perfection. Literature does have such a function. Literature, especially children’s literature, is not written with aesthetic pleasure as its only function.

AJM: Different religious groups bring about their own children’s magazines with the intention of spreading their ideology and bringing up children in a religious environment. There are a few with a clear political agenda as well. Bal Narendra—so-called ‘stories’ from Narendra Modi’s childhood days that have recently come out comes under this category. This has been translated into different languages across the country. Were there such works with religious/political agenda in your childhood days?

VK: Not at all. This type of literature began to emerge only after such organisations began to realize that it is a good tactic to mix religion and politics for their benefit. The last ten to twenty-five years have been the peak period for such works and they are still in currency in our society. These people also make use of new technological tools such as cartoons, trolls and so on. Be it religion or politics, they are well aware that if they can get hold of children their job is done to some extent. For instance, all political and religious organizations have children’s wings. If they gather children, brainwash them with their ideologies, these children are going to be slaves to their ideology forever. The activities of such organizations need to be confronted systematically. Wole Soyinka narrates an instance: White men used to distribute English comics such as Superman and other books among the African children. These comics had white men as heroes and black men as inferior, culture-less villainous characters. By constantly reading such comics, a kind of inferiority complex and a feeling of submission before white men emerged among the black African populace. But later on, Africans realized the crooked colonial policy behind this plan and started defying them. Writings and arts for children can effectively be used as tools for anti-human activities if they are not directed in a positive direction. Actually, the State should intervene and bring about certain laws to restrict such endeavours. But unfortunately, those who are in power practice this the most.

AJM: In the modern world, especially among children, a distancing from the habit of reading is becoming evident. Children are becoming more and more attracted to cartoons, video games, etc. through TV, mobile phones and the internet. In this scenario, what is the role of children’s literature in society?

VK: There are two aspects to it. The first one is that a world of visuals has emerged and devices and equipment which enable us to enjoy without straining ourselves have also made visuals more attractive. And operation of such devices and visuals is easy and in such a circumstance people, especially children, get easily addicted to modern innovations. Still there are children who approach reading with seriousness and they do indulge in reading for pleasure as well. People with the reading habit have always been less in number and they are less even today. But those who read approach reading seriously. Nevertheless, the main problem today is whether most of the work that gets published under the genre of children’s literature be considered as children’s literature in the real sense. Most works today do not take into consideration their readers and lack the quality of good literature. Works that suit the tastes of children are rare these days. There are certain world-famous works like Toto- Chan which were able to bring about changes even in our school curriculum. Most of the work written for children today is substandard. So naturally, children get attracted to other modes of expression. Through such literature, we need to be able to provide them with stimulation which can equal the sensations that are being provided by these modern technological innovations such as video games, cartoons, etc. Our mainstream writers should also turn their attention to writing for children. They should focus on the children also while writing. Good translations from classical works could likewise be helpful in this regard. Then, children will automatically get attracted to reading children’s literature again.

AJM: Are any of your works—stories or poems—included in the school syllabi?

VK: Two poems titled ‘Nakshatravum Poovum’ and ‘Athijeevanam’ have been included in the Malayalam textbooks prescribed for the third standard and the eight standard classes respectively under the Kerala state syllabus. Some other poems of mine have been prescribed in the University syllabi for college students. There are different criteria for a poem and a writer to be included in the syllabi. If those criteria are met, works and writers get included in syllabi and curriculums. I have come to know that some of my poems are being used in training sessions conducted for teachers. My project/ambition ahead is to write more for children. For many reasons, I had kept myself away from doing that for years. But I feel that still a lot has to be done for children within Malayalam language. I may not be able to do all that. But, I should perform my role; because it is these children, who will become serious and mature readers in the future. If we ignore them and miss the opportunity, it might cost us: losing a future reading public. Now, there exists a group of writers known as ‘Writers of Children’s Literature’ that writes only for children. Our mainstream writers should also start writing for children, from their own perspective, in such a way as to triumph over their minds. People like Kumaranasan and M.T. Vasudevan Nair have already done that. My intention is also to write like them.

AJM: It has been said that your stories that had been serialised earlier under the title ‘Unnikathakal’ are going to be published again as an anthology. Details?

VK: It is under way now. It has illustrations, and work has been progressing quite well. It is going to be brought out by DC Books Private Limited. The exact publishing date has not yet been decided. Hopefully, it will be released within the next six months.

AJM: OK. Now let me ask you a general question. It does not have any direct connection with children’s literature. In the preface to your poetry collection Mindaprani (The Speechless) you have mentioned a few instances—one of your colleagues’ daughter entering into a bet with her friend who argued that a poet with the name Veerankutty can never exist; another in which a teacher showed you the answer script of a student in which you had been designated as Sri Veerankutty Nair; your son while doing a random check finding that your name had not been included in Malayala Kavitha Saahithya Charithram (The History of Malayalam Verse Literature) prepared by Prof. M. Leelavathi. What is your view on these issues?

VK: In Malayalam, poetry is a cultural symbol as well. To be specific, it is a symbol of the savarna (upper caste) cultural practices. I am not complaining about that, but it is a fact that it has always been so. Writings by others have been categorized either as nadanpattu (folk song), folksongs, Mappila songs, etc. So, for a person, who lacks these savarna cultural traits, to gain entry to this canon is a problem. Therefore, when someone with a name having religious connotation like me enters this particular space that was long reserved for savarna people, such issues arise. There is no point in not highlighting and addressing such issues. On the one hand, we are writing and on the other hand, we have to undertake such a struggle as well. Hence, a few indications to these issues had been included in that preface. But, the promising thing for me is that the Malayalam reading public is highly progressive that these kinds of elitism do not bother them. They are enlightened enough to accept the works not based on the name of the writer but based on the merit of the writing. To trust and consider this, reading in public is the only possible way ahead for us. And, of course, that is the future.