Huffin, Puffin and Correctin

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Roald Dahl
Roald Dahl with his young readers

Nirendranath Chakraborty, was a great writer and a household name in most of Bengal, especially amongst parents who had at some point or the other read out his writings to their children. One of his most well-loved poems is ‘Kolkatar Jishu’ (Christ of Kolkata). Like all classics, the poem transcends time and age groups, bringing joy to everyone, while also making them reflect upon life. The poem in question, talks about a small naked child trying to cross a busy road in Kolkata, and records the reactions of pedestrians and drivers on the road to this child, who walks around brazenly without a care in this world. 

Chakraborty was a well-loved children’s writer amongst other things, and gave the poem deep philosophical undertones, while also making the act of a naked child walk around a busy street, a delightful spectacle. One wonder though, had the poet written this poem today would it have been received with the same delight, the same sense of wonder? More importantly, would the poet have even attempted to write about a naked child wandering the streets?

Also read: Georgia O’Keeffe the Mother of American Modernism

I am of course referring to the worldwide outrage against Puffin (the children’s publishing wing of Penguin), and its decision to bring out a revised and ‘corrected’ edition of Roald Dahl’s short stories for children. Apparently, the publisher has taken the help of censors (read Sensitivity Readers) to go over Dahl’s books in an effort to make the text more politically correct for young readers. This, in spite of the fact that Dahl (while alive) was extremely vocal about how he did not want any of his books to be changed in their wording after his death.

Roald Dahl books
Roald Dahl is one of the highest selling children’s authors

While the debate and consequent questions about racism (Re: the correction of Ian Fleming’s books), bigotry and other offensive material sometimes found as a part of many children’s books might be dealt with in other ways, one must acknowledge and understand the fact that much like life, art has always been imperfect, even incorrect, and will continue to be that despite all attempts at censorship.

We live in times when the personal, and everything along with it, is not only intensely political, but also needs to appear correct on all counts. The question we should be asking ourselves perhaps, is, who gets to decide what is correct and what isn’t, what is acceptable to be read and what is not? Like many of you, I grew up at a time when the book shelves at home were not censored, we moved through different shelves and different books, read the bad from the good, and came to our own understanding of what constituted good literature and what was not. And while that subject might still be a bone of contention, there were no censors that decided things for us. 

I am of course referring to the worldwide outrage against Puffin (the children’s publishing wing of Penguin), and its decision to bring out a revised and ‘corrected’ edition of Roald Dahl’s short stories for children. Apparently, the publisher has taken the help of censors (read Sensitivity Readers) to go over Dahl’s books in an effort to make the text more politically correct for young readers.

The question of correctness inevitably also brings us to the topic of AI related devices like ChatGPT that are all set to take over the world of the written word in the most appropriate and correct fashion. What then, might one ask, is the future and purpose of any kind of art and its expression, is it being correct above everything else? And if that really is the purpose of all creativity, does art still imitate life?

Maybe it is the right time to remind the world, and especially the publishers who hold the reins of the writing world, that most good writing comes from a lived experience. These experiences deeply affect writers and enable them to put down into words, what then is brought to us in the reading form. If political correctness and AI interpreted situations are here to stay, where does that leave us the readers? More importantly, is the act of writing relegated to the mere stringing together of beautiful and correctly arranged words?

If you delve a little deeper, and go back to a time before ‘collected editions’ became the norm for matters of convenience, we had already begun compromising on the smell, colour, font and feel of every individual book and its thought process. This colourless homogenisation of everything had already begun.

Puffin has of course reiterated that ‘correcting’ of these books, is an attempt to provide an option to readers along with the original, but corrections aside, one can firmly assume that this cat is definitely out of the bag, and similar corrective measures will soon be a norm. What this does to our reading and its understanding, and whether “enormously fat” to just “enormous” or “crazy with frustration” to “wild with frustration” are just first nails in this coffin, remains to be seen.

Images courtesy: Amazon

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