The Presence of Silence: Quietness and Agency in Contemporary Indian Children’s Fiction
In this post, Ritwika Roy meditates on silence as a form of power and consent in childhood by examining four contemporary Indian children's texts in English. It looks at the mutability of silence, its presence as a choice or an imposition, and the consequences of its violation.
While writing my MPhil dissertation, where I studied the cross-cultural adaptations of Mark Twain’s children fiction by applying Silence Theory, I realised that I would have to formulate my own theory of silence given how abstract and vague silence is. So, I defined manifestations of silences, forms of silencing, and tried to identify the space where silence exists as an entity between difference as “silence becomes a tool in the power politics which marks the navigation of these differences and the effort to establish superiority and dominance over the Other”.
I drew on race and gender theory, but I kept going back to the Adult/Child binary and use of silence in power assertion, for adulthood exists in the forgotten presence of childhood. There is no adulthood without childhood. Yet Adulthood silences childhood – it shapes, manipulates, defines, infantilizes childhood – and that is so peculiar “for the very groups who endeavour to construct a concept of childhood, out of pedagogical duty, were once children themselves./… if the child is a constructive being, resisting the imposed constructs of voicelessness and helplessness and ideal perceived childhood, once they transition on to adulthood, they participate in the same imposition of constructs.” 
What of the silenced children? Do they resist? Can they resist? Or are they forever hemmed into quietness, for the silenced child and the quiet child are intertwined, often one and the same. Is the adult author projecting their own desire for quietness on the child, or a social desire in a misplaced attempt to educate? Are they resisting a narrative which upholds quietness? Are they looking at the characters as autonomous beings with agency, or enforcing a quietness on them that they may have had enforced on themselves? By constructing a child who tries to resist enforced silence by literal silence, are they in fact, re-silencing the child, through usage of stereotypes of quietness, like the nerd trope? Is the child who reads the ideal quiet child? Is reading at all proportional to quietness? Is fear? Is it desirable to traumatise a child into silence?
Contemporary Indian children’s literature has thankfully come a long way from the Victorian adage of “children should be seen and not heard” but silence and quietness persist and fill up the nooks and crannies when one isn’t looking.
In Payal Kapadia’s Wisha Wozzariter (2012) the entire narrative occurs in Wisha’s head. There are no real adults to be seen and no tangible friends either. The illustrations and the number of books she reads indicates that her family is wealthy enough to provide her with her own space and fulfil her desires and hence, from the outside, Wisha seemingly fulfils all the nerd girl tropes of having a quiet disposition and habit of reading.
The story is an interior journey focusing on the very act of writing and shaping imagination, born out of prodigious reading. This interior is a dark room, the Solitude Room, where Wisha meditates on her inspiration for her story; a mental manifestation of the fact that reading and writing can be solitary, lonely, individual experiences.
“You’re not alone,’ said the Bookworm. ‘Don’t you have yourself to keep you company?’
Yet, it cannot be a wholly internal experience, though it is private. To find her inspiration in the Solitude Room, Wisha must wear the Observation Glasses, so she can experience the external world, from her internal mindscape.
“Everything she had seen but not noticed; heard but not listened to; touched but not felt; meant but not said; smelt but not experienced went rushing into that balloon.”
Reading and Writing is a solitary, interiorised process, but the interior must be stimulated by the exterior, on one’s own terms, by one’s own agency. Wisha is in control of her engagement with the world outside from within her bubble. It is an overwhelmingly cathartic sensation; all familiar but ones Wisha is choosing to connect with, choosing to open up to.
That Kapadia claims this book to be the one Wisha wrote takes the story out of Wisha’s interior space to put it out in the real, tangible world. In doing so however, the result of Wisha’s reading and writing also moves from a private to a public space – Wisha may have written the book alone, but the publishing involved a whole host of people beyond her. Who knows how they might have edited her voices and created silences in the process? As Wisha constructs her book, Kapadia also constructs Wisha. Just how much of Wisha is wish fulfilment for Kapadia herself? Wisha is not quiet in her head, she is quiet in person, and out of that Literal Silence, something is created.
“Literal silence is the most obvious and common form of silence employed by authors. It exists when the character’s presence is developed by their lack of active speech, without being mute…[with] characters being illustrated not by dialogue but by authorial narrative…/…taken to imply an introversion or a helplessness, depending on the context and the text studied; it is not an inability to communicate…”
What about when one chooses to be literally silent? To be quiet, yet also a resisting child asserting their own agency in maintaining quietness and silence? When literal silence and quiet is a personal choice, it takes away the power of an imposed silence and from those who do the imposing – bullies, adults, adults who are bullies. Choosing quietness and silence as an exercising of one’s own power disturbs and threatens the foundations of the external power which seeks to control by silencing. The converse of that is when the child traditionally expected to be quiet, a model child, the ideal girl, un-silences herself; when she exerts her own power to make noise as she constantly struggles against a system which tries to silence her, a child in an adult world, as Mayil Ganeshan does in Sowmya Rajendran and Niveditha Subramaniam’s Mayil books. The title of Book 1 is rather on the nose – Mayil Will Not Be Quiet! (2013).
The romanticisation in the constructions of childhood silences all other alternatives. “Locke’s assertion of the purely blank and formless state of the child’s mind renders the child as a space of silence, a void without instinct, thought and understanding, not very different from a constructed automaton in whom commands must be fed; and the Romanticising of childhood innocence is negated by the reality children” face. The constructions of childhood innocence not only homogenise pluralities of the childhood experience but also erases – silences – the identity of the child as a complex being. It simultaneously infantilizes the state of childhood and the complex child as a thing to be controlled – and how better than to keep them quiet – and glorifies it as a state of being to be aspired to. On the way to the pedestal, the child becomes quiet as its ability to speak is muzzled. It takes different forms – whether through the constructions of the “good boy” and the “naughty boy” and which has developed into the rowdy, boisterous, aggressive, mischievous boy becoming the standard of boyhood – masculine and loud, not effeminate and quiet; or that of the quiet, homely, obedient girl; the tomboy who becomes a girly-girl; or the chatterbox who learns quietness. Literal silence is hence a gendered silence when it is the product of enforced silence. When Literal silence is a tool of resistance – a False silence – it develops two prongs. It resists gendering, and it resists social power.
“…silence can be the result of introversion and therefore a false silence because in this case there is no outside party, or circumstance which is hindering communication, but rather a personal inability or trepidation to communicate or a choice to simply remain silent with the freedom to speak at any given point…/But false silences can also be used as weapons of rebellion and rewriting, through the employment of subliminal messages and subversion all the while maintaining a cover of silence.”
Susie in Susie Will Not Speak (2018), frustrated by the endless teasing and bullying because of her lisp decides to flip the narrative and take back her agency by refusing to speak altogether.
“People laugh at me,” she said. “And they make me thay thingth for their entertainment. Or they try to correct me and tell me how to thpeak. Or they call me a baby. Thome even think I’m thtupid. I don’t like any of it. The problem ith with the way I thpeak. Tho I’m going to thtop thpeaking.”
This is a false silence for she subverts and undermines her bullies, some of whom are adults, to exercise her right to not speak. It inconveniences those who are unable to adapt to other forms of communication, which is just the point. Though by the end Susie starts speaking again and going for speech therapy – is a lisp that bad and uncomfortable for people to hear? – do the adults and bullies learn their lesson? Susie’s resistance works to a point, but eventually she must give in to the larger system, unlike in Big Bully and M-Me (2015), where there is a discernible change.
Krish’s trauma is similar to Susie’s – both get bullied and face adult apathy for their speaking disabilities. Whereas Susie uses quietness as a weapon, Krish’s desire to escape public speaking is a trauma response. His silence at always assumed or harshly enforced. “Silence can be assumed when the subject being looked at is not directly engaged into interaction but nevertheless judged to be silent and without opinion.” Silence can also be assumed when the subject is assessed to be weak, a soft target. The first-person narration of Big Bully means that the reader personally experiences Krish’s struggle as his agency to even his own name is thwarted repeatedly. His literal silence which he enforces on himself to avoid stuttering and getting bullied is however also responsible for the bully’s change of heart, when Krish is literally quiet about having witnessed his bully get bullied.
Literal Silence is a manifestation of agency – of both the assertion and the lack of. It is also a social construct, appearing differently in boys, and those who do not identify as heteronormatively masculine, and as such it also inevitably leads to traumas, even when it is a personal choice. For while literal silence or quietness is a trauma response to the enforcing of silence, the act of choosing silence and quiet brings a trauma caused by external elements who do not respect the choice. And so it mutates, as seen in Lavanya R.N.’s The Bookworm (2010), where Sesha’s personal choice of maintaining his own silence and quiet is warped into a traumatised muteness due to the bullying he faces, his agency stolen from him. The already quiet child is furthered silenced.
Like Susie and Krish, Sesha speaks with a stutter but his wielding of absolute silence by reading voraciously saves him from the worst of teasing. The kids make songs:
"Does he have a mouth,
Can he speak, can he shout?" 
His reputation as a silent bookworm adds to his mystery, but it also leads bullies to assume him to be a soft target – the quiet, un-masculine boy like L.M. Montgomery’s Walter Blythe or the schoolboy John Keats famously was – and deprives him of his agency, for as long as he was silent, the power was his. But with his shame exposed, he neither has the power to be quiet on his own terms or maintain his protective bubble. He loses his agency and that affects his mental health. His socially enforced silence breaks when he transforms his reading into beautiful art and speaks non-verbally, thereby regaining his agency.
Each of the child characters looked at here come from spaces of financial privilege. Paro Anand’s Puja in A Quiet Girl (2020) doesn’t. Yet her choice to stay quiet till she chooses to speak and go to school is unquestioningly respected. It is also the simplest expression of quietness in any of these texts – Puja is quiet because she wants to be and that is the only reason.
So having said all this, I’m left with the following questions: Why does personal right to quietness get so often framed within a disability? Why must there be reason at all for a child’s quietness? How is an introvert a threat? How is a child a threat?
Anand, Paro. A Quiet Girl. Duckbill Books, 2020.
Kapadia, Payal. Wisha Wozzariter. Puffin Books, 2012.
Lavanya, R.N. The Bookworm. Karadi Tales, 2010.
Rao, Shruthi. Susie Will Not Speak. Duckbill Books, 2018.
Roy, Ritwika. Silences for Education: Cross-Cultural Negotiations of Mark Twain’s Children’s Fiction. MPhil dissertation, Jadavpur University, 2019. Unpublished.
Sonthalia, Arti. Big Bully and M-Me. Duckbill Books, 2015.
Ritwika Roy, Silences for Education: Cross-Cultural Negotiations of Mark Twain’s Children’s Fiction, MPhil dissertation, Jadavpur University, 2019, 19. ibid 29 Payal Kapadia, Wisha Wozzariter, Puffin Books, 2012, 14 ibid, 19 Roy, Silences, 20 – 21  ibid, 27  ibid, 42-43  Shruthi Rao, Susie Will Not Speak, Duckbill Books, 2018, 42. Roy, Silences, 41 Lavanya R.N., The Bookworm, Karadi Tales, 2010, 6.
Ritwika Roy is currently a Senior Research Fellow pursuing a PhD from the Department of English, Jadavpur University on Mental Health in Contemporary Indian Children’s Fiction. Her MPhil dissertation from the same department was titled Silences for Education: Cross-Cultural Negotiations of Mark Twain’s Children’s Fiction. Areas of interest include mythology and folklore, visual arts and literature, 19th century literature, literature and psychology, and postcolonial studies.