Stories dominate my life. In fact when Niall Williams in ‘History of the Rain’ stated “We are our stories. We tell them to stay alive or keep alive those who only live now in the telling.” I just fell in love with these words, since they resonated the most. Be it walking through the narrow aisles of Dimapur market fresh and live with colours and sounds, or a souvenir in a small artisan’s shops in Fort Kochi, every single time it’s the lure of the story behind them which keeps me moving.
Now when I look back to understand how I had come to fall in love with stories and eventually books, I find myself often embarrassed at this point. The first few years of my life as soon as I learnt to read (which I happened to start at pretty young age of 4), I had the ladybird series of fairy tales, Cinderella, Snow white and the entire range. My mother recollects that I loved them so much with the glossy pages and the golden haired princesses, that I refused to part with them even when sleeping.
The vernacular range of fairy-tales, Thakumar Jhuli (when translated from Bangla, reads ‘Grandma’s Bag of Tales’) also had similar themes, only sword-swinging young princes replaced often by witty, young ones who won by outwitting enemies rather than slaying them. The women in the stories used to be whining mothers or distressed princesses, waiting for the prince, or fairies, or frogs or whomsoever, but never having the agency to act on their own.
Often, as a child I used to think; Why do they never do anything, except being dragged around, kidnapped, rescued, tortured, scared (by wolves and their kind), and above all…in one story checked their “princesshood and its reality” by being made to sleep on layers of mattresses with a pea pod beneath or a hair strand. The ideal princess had to be sensitive about the small hair strand and unable to sleep, lest the prince be betrayed by a strong-willed woman, irreverent about hair strands and blue eyes.
And now when I think of gifting books to children, for a considerable period of time, I am harrowed by the choices. How can I create imagination and love and joy of reading without creating and furthering stereotypes? What options do I have at not stepping on the “danger of a single story” and holding multiple possibilities for all to question? And here comes the challenge for us adults to re-look at what we read and what we can have now.
In recent days, we can see winds of change. Children can cherish and so can we all. Now, there are ‘Unprincesses’.
Unprincess! by Manjula Padmanabhan
Manjula Padmanabhan writes about princes and princesses in her collection of three stories titled ‘Unprincess!‘ of 3 feisty girls. When confronted with a problem,
“being princesses there was only one thing they could really do well in a crisis. And that was to scream and cry and so they did. Meanwhile, there were little boys who were princes. But no one had taught them how to deal with giants (read problems) of the type that attack school buses. Being princes they knew that the only right and honourable course of action to take in the situations they had not been trained to face was to play some sort of game. So they all whipped out their trusty Nintendos and Game Boys. And they played with ferocious zeal known only to those whose lives are endangered by situations they have not yet been trained to face.”
Manjula says things in an extremely light-hearted way, but doesn’t it resonate so well with the patriarchy. But it makes us wonder just how often men laugh about and stay out of situations at home, saying those are domestic, feminine issues and we should not interfere!
Manjula creates her heroine Kavita as the unprincess who ‘had not been born with her instructions for life already arranged neatly inside her brain even before she had learnt to understand speech. She had to stop and think before she acted. And so she frequently did so.’
Kavita was freed from social conditioning and the burden of obedience. She believed in having a mind of her own and that made her ‘un-Disneyfied’, the ‘Unprincess.’
All the 3 stories are unique and challenges stereotypes, part fantasy, part science fiction coupled with wonderful illustrations, Unprincess is a refreshing read for all. The story Urmila the Ultimate in fact is even more stark. Urmila from the beginning of the story is said to be ‘ugly’, a burden her parents are oblivious of. They prefer an unsocial life rather than considering Urmila ugly. In fact the most heart-warming part of the story is the instance when in a bizarre incident someone openly tells her parents about her ugliness and the distress it causes to others, her parents say- “She is too unique to be contained by mere laws and statutes. If the rest of the world doesn’t appreciate your appearance that’s their problem, not ours! You look perfectly wonderful to us, and that’s what counts! I hope you realize that we, your parents, value you for what you are, and don’t care a fig for the bourgeois notions of beauty that appear to exercise the minds of everyone we know.”
Girls to the Rescue by Sowmya Rajendran
Sowmya Rajendran’s Girls to the Rescue is another interesting read. Sowmya, feels “princesses are mega bores. They simply wait; for the prince, even for someone to find their shoes, waiting for the world to turn better.” Sowmya knows that none of us have that kind of patience. So she decides to twist the tales of the princesses. She gives them the might and they claim their rights.
Hence, Rapunzel’s father is a barber who thinks she should have long hair, while her mother is an astronaut. Rapunzel is locked lest she cuts off her tresses, which she does on her own. The prince, poor thing already burdened with the expectations of his king-father of him becoming a warrior, while he loves slow dance and studying beetles, just happens to pass off his sword. And yes, Rapunzel, does make him her friend, but “to enjoy the moment”.
Talking about the ‘Sleeping Beauty,’ well she happens to take birth with the king and queen literally blackmailed by all to have a baby of their own. The Queen has dreams of her own, to finish her book on botany, but she still struggles how to manage with a baby whose biological clock never sets to let her sleep. There comes the mad fairy to make the baby sleep, till the mother gets over her post-partum anxiety and manage her career and ambition.
These stories gives me hope; hope that the word ‘agency’ will not solely be a part of the gender-conscious circles but will be a choice for everyone alike. Stories have a deep impact on all of us and especially on children. Hence as adults, it is our responsibility to show them a world without borders, with more colours, excitement, where all that is required is to step up and not wait unlike all those princesses they read about.
Featured Image Credit: Cover image of Unprincess! | Amazon