A gift from the Soviets

A gift from the Soviets

A whole generation of Indians grew up with books from a distant land and felt a kinship with boys and girls who seemed strangely familiar though their names sounded alien.

The Fire-Bird

In the 1980s, publishers from the erstwhile Soviet Union brought out a large number of wonderful books for the Indian market. These books had extraordinary illustrations, fabulous stories, and were very affordable. They were originally written in Russian or Ukrainian, and were translated into English, Kannada, Hindi and many other Indian languages.

As a result, a whole generation of Indians grew up with these books from a distant land. Some were filled with Russian and Ukrainian folktales. Others were about mathematics, popular science, nature and the environment. There were animal tales and adventure stories full of fantastical creatures. Some stories were just about little boys and girls involved in ordinary childhood activities — and somehow, these were the stories I liked most. For one, all the other books I read elsewhere were about adventures and mythology and rakshasas, but these children were just going about doing their own thing, going to school, visiting friends, playing in the park. I felt a kinship with these children — they were different from us, they had names I didn’t know how to pronounce, and yet, they liked the same things I did!

And that is how I spent some precious hours of my childhood, going along with Olegs and Veras to visit their grandparents, giggling at the deviousness of Sister Fox and Brother Bear, worrying about the fate of Vasilisa the Beautiful, wearing a scarf like Alyonushka, setting off on adventures with Tsarevich Ivan and his trusty steed Chestnut Grey to catch The Firebird and lying awake at night terrified of Baba Yaga the Witch with the Switch!

Why this flashback? I was conducting an online session for a school recently, and a child asked me if I read picture books as a child. I told them about these books and how I had a whole shelf full of them. After the session, I took off on a flight of nostalgia, and googled the names of some books. To my delight, some kindred spirits have uploaded some of these books online, and I spent several happy hours going through them, and nearly missed the deadline for turning in this column. As I flipped through the books, I realised to my amazement that even though it has been more than 30 years, I remember the books and pictures clearly, and the way the books made me feel. Even before I turn the page, I can tell exactly what’s on the next page.

As both a children’s writer and as a parent, this is a sobering thought. What we read in our childhood leaves deep impressions on our young minds, enough to last decades. We adults are the conduits through which children get their books. What a huge responsibility we have, as parents, educators and creators, to make good books, and to ensure that the best kind of books reach their hands!

The author has written 10 books for children and can be reached at www.shruthi-rao.com

GobbledyBook is a fortnightly column that gives a peek into the wondrous world of children’s books. Hop on! Or as Alice did, plunge into the rabbit hole.

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