The case of the missing girl: Where are we in Bangla children’s literature?
It wasn't until my 20s that I realised I had read less than 10 Bengali women authors in my childhood and adolescence.
The problem, I have found, doesn't quite lie in the absence of female characters. Some of it lies in the way these stories are told, but most of it stems from the many faults in our publishing industry—from overreliance on a few male authors to lack of innovation in the genre to the absence of formal editorial practices and critiquing mechanisms.
I spoke to a few young readers, and from those conversations, I recalled that children enjoy reading, but not reading between the lines. For them, reading is about devouring one story after another, which was precisely my mindset as well, when I was younger.
"Have you read Tuntuni o Chhotachchu? It has a fun [girl] protagonist", I am told by 14-year-old Shamayla, who doesn't think there is an outright lack of female protagonists in the books she has read. "Meyetir Naam Narina and Brishtir Thikana, too. I really like Shahriar Kabir's books. I loved reading about Abir, Babu, Loli, Tuni", she added.
Shamayla is right. To their credit, Muhammad Zafar Iqbal and Shahriar Kabir actively tried to incorporate female protagonists in their adventure novels upon hearing complaints from readers about representation, and Kabir, undeniably the more mature writer of the two, did well to portray the joys and woes of adolescence without stereotyping girls in his works, a practice that might have been well ahead of its time. Both Nuliachharir Sonar Pahar (Protik Prokashon, 1995) and Pathariar Khoni Rohossho (Protik Prokashon, 1989) tell the story of Shamayla's favourite Abir, Babu, Loli, and Tuni. Besides the adventure they embark upon, these books contain wonderful side plots about teenage infatuation which leave readers feeling warm and fuzzy. Elsewhere in Ratneshwari-r Kalo Chhaya, Kabir manages to portray multiple female friendships in a wholesome, empowering manner. While neither Iqbal nor Kabir write purely character-driven stories, Kabir's characters have more depth and personality; they aren't always there just to drive the plot.
I will digress from the essay now to remind you of a line from the TV show BoJack Horseman. In the final episode, Mr Peanutbutter tells BoJack something that will stick with me forever: "Yes, women are involved. But it's never really about the women".
It takes just this one line to understand why underrepresentation is not the final boss in this fight. In Nitu ar Tar Bondhura (Anupom Prokashon, 1999), a book that appears to have been heavily inspired by Roal Dahl's Matilda (Jonathan Cape, 1988), Zafar Iqbal does not once describe what Nitu looks like. One of her friends is described as "golgaal, forsha"; another is "shyamla, mishti".
This is a trend in most of Iqbal's works. One of my favourite books, Bachcha Bhoyonkor Kachcha Bhoyonkor (Anupom Prokashon, 2006), begins with a detailed description of Rois Uddin in Iqbal's signature subtle Bangla humour. He gives us a clear picture of what the man is like, how he talks and dresses, and why he's scared of children, but we never get a detailed description of what eight-year-old Sheuli, the next most important character, looks like. The same can be seen for the protagonists of Brishtir Thikana (Somoy Prokashon, 2007) and Rasha (Puffin, 2010). Tushi from Kabil Kohkafi (Maola Brothers, 2006) gets one descriptive—she's "kalo, kucchit"—and the relatively newer character of Tuntuni from the Tuntuni o Chhotachchu series (Parl Publication, 2014-2019) drives the story forward—she is the real detective in her uncle's investigation agency—but her being a girl adds nothing to the plot.
Iqbal doesn't specifically stereotype girls, nor does he treat his women characters with disrespect. There is surely a place for stories like Tuntuni, but the problem is that the adventure-fantasy genre is the only kind of popular children's literature we have in Bangla, and these books do not tell stories of womanhood, nor do they explore the trials and tribulations of going through puberty.
This criticism is often met with, "These are harmless books, leave them alone. We all read these as a child and everyone turned out fine". There is truth to that statement—Kabir and Iqbal's books aren't causing any harm to children who have no intention of closely analysing what they read. But children do internalise the stories they consume, and it is the absence of a young-adult genre that explores truly what it's like to be a girl that causes more lasting harm.
It is important that we have proper descriptions of woman characters that don't just mention their complexion or weight but also their fashion choices, body language, quirks and interests, and how they feel about themselves. Surely, there can be morally grey characters that are also women. Surely, women characters can bring something unique to a story, instead of simply being there to progress a plot.
It wasn't until I started reading women writers from the West that I could finally find some relatability. In Meg Cabot's The Princess Diaries series (HarperTrophy, 2000-2018), Mia Thermopolis' favourite underwear is branded with Queen Amidala prints. That little detail adds nothing to the story, but it adds a lot to Mia's geeky personality. Princess Diaries is about a young girl's personal growth throughout high school, and it exists as a contemporary piece of entertainment that allows readers to feel less alone by talking about periods, teenage heartbreak, sexual consent, homework, family pressures, and more.
This genre of YA fiction for girls is missing entirely in Bangladeshi children's literature. My Gen X parents read Shahriar Kabir and Muhammad Zafar Iqbal during their childhood in the 1970s and '80s, and so did every other generation after them. Revered alternatives like Himu and Misir Ali only appear in books riddled with Humayun Ahmed's signature misogyny. And the two other characters to receive cult status in Bangla literature are also exclusively male—Feluda and Kakababu, created by Satyajit Ray and Sunil Gangopadhyay, have such distinctive quirks that people want them on t-shirts, sarees and accessories. Feluda has inspired my own art and writing multiple times. Yet I don't recall any woman characters from the series. While the iconicity of these characters is a testament to the writers' skills in creating stories that last, it is disheartening that there have been no new writers, especially no women, who have managed to rise to that level of popularity.
On the other hand, the names of Nancy Drew, Matilda, Heidi, and Anne of Green Gables are instantly recognisable for most readers of English literature. Nancy Drew in particular has seen multiple iterations of her character transition through adolescence and adulthood, and the story lines have adapted to changes in societal thinking. Granted, the West had a headstart in pursuing gender equality and representation on all fronts, but it has been decades since Bengali authors stepped foot in that battle, yet every year, our industry only churns out the same old wine in new bottles.
The only series that comes to mind as an example of exception are the Mitin Mashi detective stories penned by Suchitra Bhattacharya. I first read them in an Anandamela "Pooja Shongkha" in 2004, and it was refreshing to both read something written by a woman and to see female characters being portrayed with nuance. However, the Mitin Mashi series failed to make a lasting impact in mainstream culture, and I rarely hear talk of it.
There are stories, of course, of girlhood and womanhood written for adults by women, such as Ashapurna Debi's wonderful Prothom Protisruti (Ananda Publishers, 1964) trilogy, but such stories for children and teenagers are few and far between. Organisations such as HerStories Foundation are attempting to tell more of these stories through informative storytelling and art, but there is still much progress to be made when it comes to fiction.
Most importantly, cis women have at least had some representation in Bangladeshi literature—trans women identities are entirely missing, and stories on minorities are rare in the mainstream.
On this International Women's Day, I'd like to encourage all those who identify as women to start telling their stories, regardless of what they would like to say. Some very important voices are missing in the stories we tell our children, and it is high time to remedy that.
Aanila Kishwar Tarannum is a journalist who enjoys being overly critical about things at the cost of her mental well being. Email: [email protected]