An Archive of Prize-Winning Chatterboxes
By: Annie McCarthy
Annie McCarthy is currently an Assistant Professor in Global Studies at the University of Canberra. Her ethnographic work has focused on the way slum children in Delhi pursue their own projects of development through participation in NGO programs. Her book, focussed on children’s storytelling and performance, and titled Children and NGOS in India: Development as Storytelling and Performance will be published with Routledge in 2021. She is an avid collector of children’s stories, old and new.
From 1950 onwards, the Delhi based publication Shankar’s Weekly, founded by Keshav Shankar Pillai, began sponsoring an International competition for children up to the age of 16. The winners of this competition of children’s writing and artwork were each year published in Shankar’s Weekly Children’s Art Number. Volumes of this publication are bursting at the seams with children’s art and writing, featuring as the 1957 edition suggested: “the work of children from sixty countries” or from 1965: “the best of over 100,000 paintings and writings.” This publication was endorsed by the likes of the Director General of UNESCO, Dr. Luther H. Evans as “a precious gift offered to mankind” (Children’s Art Number 1957) and the President of India, Dr. Rajendra Prasad as forging “a new link in international understanding and promotion of good will” (Children’s Art Number 1954-55). However, the sentiments contained in children’s stories at times depart⎯ in fantastically mischievous ways⎯ from these lofty ‘adult’ ideals. This is to some extent recognised in the review of the 8th Annual from 1957 which declares,
It is no longer necessary to justify the Children’s Art Number in terms of the encouragement it provides or the mutual understanding and good will it promotes on an international level. The children have justified it for themselves.
Going even further the Report to the 6th Annual from 1955 declares that,
Elders can hardly do justice to this dream. Yet, for the time being, as heretofore, they have arrogated to themselves the right to interpret it, and to judge it, by standards that are patently outmoded. These standards cannot but provide an imperfect perspective for the judging of the modern child’s mind.
Here are four wonderful examples of chatterboxes from India, from Shankar’s Weekly ‘Children’s Art Number 1954-55 and 1961.
For Girls Only
Rani, aged 10, Izatnagar (1954-44)
Oh dear, the naughty boys are always after my two pigtails. Wish to God I had to eyes at the back.
I don’t know why they tease us so. They laugh when we cuddle a doll. How silly not to know that we will become mummies tomorrow. Who then shall take care of our babies if we don’t learn about it now?
These naughty fellows will become bad men. They will go away to the office. We shall have to go do all the work for them. At night they will go to the club and enjoy while we wait.
That is why I say I will not marry. I shall become the President of the U.N.O like Vijayalakshmi and we girls shall get together and push the boys into the sea.
Figure 1: The Cover of Children’s Art Number for 1957 features an artwork entitled ‘A Bengali Marriage’ by Ashalala Das, aged 9 of Chandernagore, who won first prize for drawing in her age group.
Each Children’s Art Number concludes with a review of the entries and these regularly comment on the unique ability of Indian children to produce “candid and closely observed portraits of family life” (Shankar’s Children’s Art Number 1962). The 1961 report states:
The Indian child seems to observe home life, school life, family and friends with a gentle candour which occasionally slips into positive satire. After reading such pieces, to turn to the rather dreary accounts of holidays, ponies and little sisters is like turning from fresh ripe mangoes to the canned product.”
These no doubt are our chatterboxes, bursting with cheek and ‘satire.’
A Lady I Know
Jayashree Rastogi, aged 12, Jaipur (1954-55)
Near our house there lives a woman whose name I do not remember. She is about 35 years old. She is very fat and a bit dark. She always likes to beautify herself. She puts on a lot of powder, lip-stick, rouge and kajal. Her hair has started getting white and some times she colours them black. She is fond of jewels. So she wears them every time. I see her always wearing silk or georgette saris with nice and beautiful prints and wonderful blouses whether she is at home or is going out. She wastes all her husband’s money in beautifying herself. She has to cook and often her children have to help her. Many a time when I go to play with her children I hear her grumbling and using bad words to her children. Every body is afraid of her. Often I see her with a stick to beat her children, and the poor little children are so afraid of her that they hide behind cupboards or doors or curtains or under the beds even.
The smile she gives is attractive though she beats her children and fights with her neighbours and troubles her husband and uses bad words. It is fun to see her doing anything. I still cannot say whether I like her or not.
Figure 2: Children’s Art Number 1954-55, ‘Girl with Pot by Dipika Gue’ aged 7 from Ajmer.
Madu Sadhev, aged 13, Delhi (1954-55)
How very very often it is that we hear the detestable words: “When you are a grown-up only can you do this.” It is small wonder that we teen-agers think longingly of the time when we will be called by the respectful words “A Grown-up.” The privileges and comforts then would be as heavenly as if all the stars of the sky were put into our laps.
People say that a sensible student always plans her profession before entering the vast and obstructive field of life. Let me plan too, like the wise sage of old, what kind of a ‘grown-up I would like to be.’
I remember a day well when, while sitting and dreaming of a world of kind and understanding people, a thunderous knocking was heard on our front door. I got up and opened the door to the most detestable grown-up you could ever meet. Like a police inspector of the C.I.D. he demanded in a voice somewhat similar to his knocking, if anyone was at home, and introduced himself as Daddy’s friend. Then plodding he came to the drawing room. My whole time was taken up in reading and explaining to him the worst possible book I had ever set my eyes upon. Not only this: I had to make him understand the meaning of difficult words. Which were so very long that I could scarcely pronounce them in a single normal breath. This kind of grown up I would least choose to be.
A bit less bad kind of grown-ups are like my old Aunt. A very tall woman, she has a commanding personality. She always wears her spectacles, and does her knitting in the clumsiest way. I can still recall the long stare she gave me when she came, and my heart still sinks at the thought of her. When she stayed with us, I remember what long lectures she gave me “Discipline, child, is what is a miss in you. If I were your mother, I would have put you in the boarding school for a long time and never let you come back even though you would offer to finish my knitting.” Then she was sure to screw her nose up in an odious way and continue about how very loveable and disciplined she was when of my age.
The other type and the worst type of grown-ups I have seen are the ones who really are no more than a few years my senior and yet think themselves to be very elderly. I shall just explain. I have met many of these at school. Always their faces are marked by an arrogant and boastful look, whenever you chance to be near them. They are always sure to break their conversation to make some remarks on us. When we ask them to let us see the pictures or read the book they are reading, they are sure to reply with a mocking smile and firmly, “not meant for you kiddies,” as if they were themselves old ladies.
I have described the three kinds of grown-ups I hate, but we should not think that all grown-ups are like that (though the majority are of course!). My neighbour who passed her thirteenth birthday, is the kindest soul one would be fortunate enough to meet. She is sympathetic and cheerful, ever ready to explain or teach anything I was unable to follow at school. She is loved by everyone and held in esteem both by youthful children and the wrinkled grannies. I visit her everyday and when I see the smile that flickers at the corner of her mouth, and then lightens her whole face with good-nature I say in my heart: “I wish that I shall be as beloved and gentle as her when I grown-up.”
While many stories such as the one above comment on the condition of adulthood, several stories such as the one below chatter about the awkwardness of being in-between ‘big’ and ‘small.’ In the 1962 Children’s Art Number, Geeta Chakco (aged 11) writes in her story titled ‘What should I Be?’:
“Oh! How I used to with that I were a big girl of ten or eleven who did not have an ayah pestering her…Now I am a grown-up girl of eleven. I have got all the things which I used to wish for during my childhood. But I have now to make my own bed, mend my own clothes, wash my own socks and poish my own shoes. Also see whether I have finished my home-work and prepared for the next day’s class. And worst of all I should top the list in my class. I think it is very tough. I now really wish that I could be small again."
A similar sentiment is captured in our final story from Sunaina Rao:
On Being Thirteen
Sunaina Rao, aged 13 India, 1961
Oh God! Will anyone tell me where I stand? What am I supposed to do? Oh! this horrible, boring age of 13! For some things I am too big and for some too small!
Once when our servant was on leave and mummy was alone to cope with the kitchen work I decided to help her. But she said that I was still too small to go near the fire. Sometimes I am told to do the dusting of the house as I am big enough to do some work in the house.
One day when my brothers were playing, I asked if I could join them. But they laughed and said that they would not play with a big girl like me! When a friend of mummy’s came to visit her and I went and sat down with them, mummy said I was too small to sit with adults.
Mummy says I am too big to wear skirts any more and when I wanted to wear a saree I was told that I was too small. You can well imagine my plight as not only my age but my height (I am 5ft. 6 ½ inches and 1 ½ inches taller than mummy) is a great nuisance.
When my brothers and sister were going to see some children’s picture and I too wanted to go I was too big! Once my friends asked me to go to pictures with them, but I was not allowed to go as I was still too small.
As if this problem was not enough to trouble us at home, it also arises in school. The other day we were told by the Principal that, as the holidays were nearing, each class could go for an outing. Some one suggested that we should all go for a picnic. But the teacher said that we were too small to go alone. Finally it was decided that, we, being big children, should be serious, and so we were taken to see some silly factory! We were big enough for that.
One day mummy said that now that I was a big girl I should take some responsibilities and do my own work. From that day I was expected to wash my own clothes, do the dusting etc. But when I asked mummy to raise my pocket money she said that I was too small to keep too much money with me.
Oh! Can any of you help me out? Why is that one minute I am a big girl and the next moment I am too small? It is said that 13 is an unlucky number. I quite agree with it. It is unlucky in every respect, even age!