Why India should claim Enid Blyton as her own5 min read . Updated: 12 Oct 2019, 09:20 AM IST
- The Royal Mint blocked plans to mark the 50th anniversary of the writer’s death with a commemorative coin
- Blyton’s influence over Indians is probably more outsized than her influence over British children
Poor Enid Blyton will not get her commemorative 50 pence coin. New documents have revealed that Britain’s Royal Mint’s advisory committee found her “racist, sexist, homophobe and not a very well-regarded writer".
The Royal Mint was considering a commemorative coin to mark the 50th anniversary of her death in 1968. But their meeting’s minutes, obtained under freedom of information laws, reveal they decided against it fearing a backlash. She did get a stamp on her 100th birthday celebrating the Famous Five but she didn’t make the coin.
Her critics certainly have a point, though the creator of the Five Find-Outers, the Saucepan Man and Kiki the parrot famously said she paid no attention to critics above the age of 12. She has been accused of racism because wicked Golliwogs mugged poor Noddy in Toyland. The girls of Malory Towers (soon to be a live action series on CBBC, the children’s BBC) and St Clare’s are peaches-and-cream English and the only foreigner there, the French teacher, is the butt of jokes. Even her own publisher, Macmillan, detected a “faint but unattractive touch of old-fashioned xenophobia" in her work.
In her world, gender roles are set in hard scones even when she seems to be bucking gender stereotypes. George, the tomboy with short hair, is told, “You may look like a boy and behave like a boy, but you’re a girl all the same. And like it or not, girls have got to be taken care of." George, I realize now, didn’t want girls to have the same rights as boys. She just wanted to be a boy.
Blyton’s children never age, their hormones never kick in, they are stuck in a Peter Pan time warp where Kiki the parrot always says “God save the King, Polly put the doctor on, send for the kettle". J. K. Rowling once said she wanted Harry and his gang to age like normal children and not be stuck in “permanent pre-pubescence like poor Julian in the Famous Five."
As a writer, Blyton’s vocabulary was panned as anaemic. The BBC would not let her stories go on air because they found her a “tenacious second-rater" and her stories too much “Pinky-winky-Doodle-doodle Dum-dumm". In hindsight, poor Blyton looks like ginger beer without the fizz, just a sickly sweet aftertaste.
Yet despite her anaemic pinky-winky vocabulary, despite never seeing an Asha or Raj or anyone with brown skin in her work, generations of Indian children grew up craving things they had not the faintest idea about all thanks to her. I wanted to have picnics in the woods with hampers filled with potted meat and tongue sandwiches and ginger ale. I wanted tea with clotted cream and crumpets. I had no idea what any of it tasted like but that I even craved something clotted and something potted shows the extraordinary power of Blyton. She made even English food sound fabulously exotic.
Blyton’s high teas were truly magnificent. Here is one from the Famous Five series’ Five Go Down To The Sea: “A huge ham gleaming as pink as Timmy’s tongue; a salad fit for a king. In fact, as Dick said, fit for several kings, it was so enormous. It had in it everything that anyone could possibly want. “Lettuce, tomatoes, onions, radishes, mustard and cress, carrot grated up—that is carrot, isn’t it, Mrs. Penruthlan?" said Dick. “And lashings of hard-boiled eggs." There was an enormous tureen of new potatoes, all gleaming with melted butter, scattered with parsley...."
This woman made salad cream and potatoes sound like biryani from Shah Jahan’s kitchen!
It was the Enid Blyton magic touch. My grandmother’s rooftop garden in Kolkata had a madhabilata creeper (Chinese honeysuckle) covered with beautiful pink flowers that attracted bees. Spider lilies grew in her pots. Bougainvillea—magenta, yellow, white—smothered our walls. But under Blyton’s hypnotic spell I dreamt of snowdrops and daffodils and buttercups, flowers far more underwhelming in real life. Just like crumpets.
In a sense, Blyton’s influence over Indians is probably more outsized than her influence over British children. In England, she might have been a phenomenally successful children’s writer. In India she was, as we call it nowadays, an influencer. She colonized young Indian minds far more effectively than the East India Company. And we willingly remained in the enchanted woods of Blyton long after we had expelled the British themselves.
I had a neighbourhood “secret club" like her Secret Seven. We would meet on the roof next door. I think we had a secret password too. But there were no smugglers to nab in our middle-class neighbourhood in Kolkata. Our mothers provided us no hampers filled with drop scones and strawberry fizz. Starved of mystery and sustenance, our poor society folded quickly.
When I think back now, Blyton’s world was like a magic brownie compared to our dal-and-rice-and-fish-curry lives. Her stories related to no issues we were confronting at home and school. Actually, they barely related to any social issues in Britain either, stuck as they were in some timeless Neverland. Her Britain was one where bhangra and chicken tikka masala had not yet become part of the landscape. No one looked like us or sounded like us in her books.
But she gave us one precious gift. She provided us with an escape hatch from our humdrum sweaty lives with hair checks and shoe checks at school. Her Julians and Annes did not have mathematics tutors and science tutors. They didn’t have to go to drawing class on the weekends. They had what was expressly forbidden to us—adventures without grown-up supervision! They went camping on the moors, they had picnics in coves and they ran away from mean uncles and aunts to live in a hollow tree in the woods, all by themselves.
The adventure trumped everything else. And that’s why we didn’t care that they looked nothing like us. We didn’t want to be white like them. We wanted to have adventures like them. As Shashi Tharoor wrote in 1991, “After 200 years of the Raj, Indian children knew instinctively how to filter the foreign—to appreciate the best in things British, and not to take the rest seriously."
Blyton helped build the Lutyens liberal, brown outside, angrez inside. She allowed us to shrug off colonialism but not hate the British. She sold us a dream of endless achche din with a midnight feast and a picnic hamper. And now that Britain is rejecting her, this is the moment when the erstwhile empire can strike back. Britain cannot spare 50 pence for a woman who wrote some 700 books which have sold 600 million copies to date.
India can swoop in and claim her as its own. Second-rate writer? That’s no problem. We prioritize success above genius and success in English above all else. Blyton, potted and clotted, is perfect for India these days. She gives us a sense of adventure without ever rocking the boat.
Enid Blyton should be on India’s ₹50 note.
Cult Friction is a fortnightly column on issues we keep rubbing up against. Sandip Roy is a writer, journalist and radio host.
Twitter - @sandipr