Easterine Kire’s The Log-Drummer Boy and the Case for Children’s Literature- Veio Pou
[dropcap]I[/dropcap] was much delighted to see the publication of Easterine Kire’s The Log-Drummer Boy. Not just because it was written by a foremost Naga writer writing in English and somebody I really admire, but also because I had always wished for the day when I’d see children’s book based on our own culture and tradition. The book has a simple narrative structure, but captivating enough to interest adult readers too! (Somehow, and strange enough, it is often the adult readers who are engrossed with the so-called “children’s books” and rushes to watch “children’s movies”! Perhaps, it is the child’s fantasy in all of us that refuses to die with age.)The book opened to introduce us to two young children who begged their grandmother-storyteller to tell them “another” story. Relenting to them, the story she went to tell was about a young boy named Nokcha, who lived with his grandparents. He had a fascination for the log drum and his grandfather, one of the log-drummers in the village, instantly recognized the latent talent in the boy. And so, the young boy of seven was enthralled one day when his grandfather decided to make him a small log drum. Since then he would practice beating the drum into different rhythm. In olden times, the log drum was an important item for the people as it could be used to announce war or announce a big festival. People could recognize the rhythm of the beat and accordingly be alerted. One day, during the time of harvest, Nokcha could not accompany his grandparents to the field because he had sprained his ankle. It so happened that on that day the enemy warriors were waiting to lay siege on the village. Those were the days of warring against each other. Alarmed at the impending threat and prompted by his caretaker-of-the-day, an old woman, the boy ran to where spot where the log drum was kept and “beat out a warning beat very rapidly, his little hands moving fast as he could manage”. The sudden sound of the log drum surprised even the enemy for they thought there was no one in the village. It sounded like almost a dozen of men beating the drums. The alerted villagers ran back to the village and enemy ran off, some of whom even fell into the hand of the villagers. That day the boy saved the village from being attacked. And the entire village praised him and made him an honorary drummer.
Books, whether they are part of the school curriculum or not, certainly shape a child’s outlook. Therefore, there is an increasing need to introduce children to books that will be constructive and not just supply them with whatever is available. In our context today, the influence that comes from those that children read apart from the school curriculum is huge. What we read in our leisure time can shape our thinking to a large extend. But what is given to us in school form the basis of knowledge. One cannot deny that the impact that institutionally transmitted knowledge has in our attitudes to everything around us. It comes almost naturally to any child to accept the formally taught materials in the school as complete knowledge. As fertile as a child’s mind is, anything sown in it can grow well.
Somehow, we all imitate or live out what we have seen or read when we were young. For instance, consider the kinds of books we read during childhood. I’m sure it is a shared experience for children growing up in the eighties and nineties of the last century when for most part of our early schools years the kind of stories that interested us were limited to the few comic books available to us; Western comics like Superman, He-man, Phantom, Batman, Tintin, Commando War comics, etc. and Indian comics like Tinkle Digest and other Amar Chitra Katha series on Indian myths/epics, Chacha Chaudhary and other stories from Diamond comics. Later on, one would slowly graduate to the Archie’s comics and the various photo romance magazines. Strangely, during those days, I don’t remember having read any story or comic strips based on our folktales. [One may, of course, say that Tinkle comics incorporated some folktales from the Northeast and other tribal communities from various parts of the country, but if I’m not wrong it came to be seen in the much later editions.] Thus, being exposed to materials with no connections to my culture, for a long time I considered my cultural items ‘unimportant’ and even being ‘ashamed’ of being identified with them. And by being ‘western’ in my style and outlook, I mistook it for being ‘modern’. I’m sure many of you had that experience. It took years for me to ‘unlearn’ many of what I’ve learned through ‘institutions’ and redeem a sense of dignity in my own culture.
The Log-Drummer Boy came at a much needed time. The young Nagas are living in a time when there is a sense of cultural loss because we’ve only being taught with materials that are foreign to us for all these time. And yet, in a way, the younger generation cannot really be blamed for possessing too little knowledge of culture and tradition. The educational materials that we have been exposed to through out our school life have no links with their own history and culture. Thus, by being not included in the educational curriculum, a message gets passed on that sources from the oral tradition do not fit as materials to be learned or taught. This attitude can be traced to the early years of Christianization, the missionary run schools/institutes being the main source of modern/western education. Though it may have seemed inevitable then, for various reasons though debatable, we’ve reached a stage now where there is potential in creating an indigenous knowledge database. We can start by incorporating children’s book like The Log-Drummer Boy into our school curriculum and encourage production/writing of books like that. The cultural content of the book can help children appreciate our tradition, and in a good way preserve various cultural markers of the society. Undeniably, Nagas have too long depreciated our own culture by thinking that there is hardly any value. But that is not true. There are lots of things that we need to know of our culture, not just to uplift our cultural identity but also because they were part of what made us a people till today.
Often we consider our old storytelling tradition as a kind of time pass activity, merely to listen and enjoy. But it does much more than that. The stories are narrated and songs sung with certain coded message to teach life’s lessons or tell us about people’s history and culture. For instance, in The Log-Drummer Boy, we were informed that in the olden days “the log drum” is considered to be “a spirit and that it protects the village. That is why we respect it and give it honour.” Besides, the grandmother, while telling the story, went on to explain the important functions of the log drum those days and the different motifs labeled on it, representing different symbols and meanings. Being from an oral tradition, the songs and stories are repositories of our rich cultural heritage. And the storytellers hold big responsibilities of passing down information accurately and the wisdom of the forefathers kept when they tell stories. Yet, sad but true, for most Nagas it is only at the research level where we become conscious of the disconnect with our culture. And then we begin to find topics of study to recover, or make an effort to reclaim, the loss. But by the time we move into the field to gather materials, we’re faced with the unfortunate predicament of the scarcity of what we’re looking for. One of the most regrettable losses, I think, is the almost complete disappearance of our culture specific songs and stories.
The inclusion of The Log-Drummer Boy and other similar books into our school syllabus will not only help younger generation of Nagas appreciate our culture but also restore a sense of dignity in who we are. On a personal note, I was very much encouraged to find that the book was published in collaboration with Fernwood School. Though I don’t know the school personally, it is heart warming to see that at least schools (hoping that there are more schools) are taking interest in promoting books like that. I’m sure such an effort by schools will go a long way in imparting cultural values to the budding minds. And of course, there’s the wonderful illustration by Canato Jimo. (My daughter loves the cute illustrations!) I hope we’ll see more of it! Easterine Kire has been one of the most prolific writers among Nagas writing in English. She is the acclaimed writer of A Terrible Matriarchy (Zubaan 2007, second edition 2013), which was also among the selected books by the government of India to be translated into the six UNESCO languages in 2011. Her novel Mari (Harper Collins 2010) has also been translated into German, and her latest novel Bitter Wormwood (Zubaan 2011) was shortlisted for the Hindu Lit Prize 2013. Through her writings a lot more of the Naga story is heard by others from many parts of the world. The Catalan prize for free voice which she won last year (2013) is a commendation of how her work is speaking for a people whose stories have long being subdued. Her initiative for a publishing house, Barkweaver, along with a couple of others is aimed at promoting our stories and songs. And in the recent years Barkweaver has published many people centric story book including Naga Folktales Retold, Forest Song, Life on Hold and two other children’s books, Once in Faraway Dorg and Dinkypu (all authored by Easterine Kire). Another book by her released along with The Log-Drummer Boy was Different Strokes, a book dealing with some pertinent issues that young students face in schools, that is, bullying. Though I would not like to elaborate on the book here, I should say that Different Strokes is a ready made book for schools with study guides for teachers and parents.
The writer is Asst. Professor, SBSC, University of Delhi