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Getting Sudha Murty to serve on the NCERT committee is a win for children's literature

The fixation with Sudha Murty's personal food preferences has resulted in massive trolling recently and her achievements seem to have been forgotten. As one of the most popular authors of children’s literature in India, she has much to contribute to NCERT

Chintan Girish Modi Last Updated:August 18, 2023 18:57:50 IST Getting Sudha Murty to serve on the NCERT committee is a win for children's literature

Sidha Murthy

The social media outrage over author Sudha Murty’s recent inclusion in the National Syllabus and Teaching Learning Material Committee (NSTC), constituted by India’s National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT), is shocking not only because of how vicious it is but also the extent of ignorance that it is built on as far as basic information is concerned.

One of the best examples is a tweet from August 13, when academic and writer Rohit Chopra, who tweets from the handle @IndiaExplained with 69,000 followers, wrote, “What is Sudha Murty’s qualification to formulate educational policy for Indian students? Friend of mine noted this is a uniquely Indian trait. Anyone who makes a little money is treated as an expert on everything. Maybe Virender Sehwag should now decide India’s tax policy.”

Murty is one of the most popular contemporary authors of children’s literature in India. How I Taught My Grandmother to Read and Other Stories, The Magic of the Lost Temple, The Magic Drum and Other Favourite Stories, and The Gopi Diaries are among her most well-known titles. Selling lakhs of copies is not an easy feat in the Indian market. She is a star among young readers, and professionals who are tasked with developing the school syllabus, textbooks and teaching learning materials for Classes 3-12 could certainly benefit from her expertise as a storyteller. She writes books that children read voluntarily outside of school hours. She knows how to excite their curiosity and hold their interest. These skills could be used to create engaging material for students, and to help teachers struggling in classrooms.

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In February 2023, when I attended an event hosted by Rajat Book Corner, FICCI Flo and Penguin Random House at Totuka Bhawan in Jaipur, I was stunned by her popularity with children. As she walked up to the stage, there were hundreds of children rushing to greet her, hug her and shake hands with her. Few authors are so deeply loved. Instead of an adult moderator, there was a panel comprising of six children on the stage. When she realized that they had rehearsed the questions, she said, “Ask me anything. You don’t have to ask what your parents or teachers have told you to ask.” I found her frankness quite refreshing.

The notice about the composition of the NSTC, which was sent out by NCERT Director D. P. Saklani on July 21, 2023, clearly states that the committee will be assisted by Curricular Area Groups (CAGs) to develop textbooks and other teaching learning materials for each subject. In addition to this, the committee “will be free to invite other experts for advice, consultation, and support as and when required”. Murty has a golden opportunity to bring more content from children’s literature that is written and illustrated in India into school textbooks. She can also invite her peers from the children’s publishing industry to share their valuable inputs.

Apart from the National Book Trust and Children’s Book Trust, India now has a large number of big and small publishers working with authors and illustrators to produce books for children and teenagers across age groups. Some of these are Pratham Books, Eklavya, Katha, Tulika, Pickle Yolk Books, Tara Books, Jugnoo Prakashan, Karadi Tales, Puffin, Duckbill, Talking Cub, HarperCollins India, Red Panda, Young Zubaan, Lettori Press, Tota Books, and Perky Parrot. Many of them have published books that engage with climate change, death, adoption, divorce, caste, disability, gender, refugee crisis and animal rights. These can be challenging topics for even the most well-meaning parents and educators.

The National Curriculum Framework for School Education(NCF-SE) 2023, which is available on the NCERT website, acknowledges that “children’s literature is a very important source of content for language and literacy development”. It points out that picture books, colourful graded readers, and books with engaging stories and poems must be made available to children going to school. The framework also notes that school libraries should have children’s literature with artistic illustrations, audio-visual resources, books on artists, museum and exhibition catalogues, magazines and periodicals about the visual and performing arts, songbooks with musical notations, and reference material on drama.

As part of the NSTC, Murty can contribute significantly towards achieving these objectives. Unfortunately, people’s fixation with her personal food preferences has resulted in massive trolling recently and her achievements seem to have been forgotten. This Padma Bhushan awardee was the first woman to be hired as an engineer by the Tata Engineering and Locomotive Company (TELCO). She spoke up against gender bias in the organization. Without her savings and support, her husband NR Narayana Murthy would not have been able to set up Infosys, which is recognized as a leader in the field of information technology.

Murty could use her position in the NSTC to advocate forlearning materials that encourage girls who want to pursue careers in the STEM (short for science, technology, engineering and mathematics) disciplines. Her recent books How the Onion Got Its Layers, How the Earth Got Its Beauty, How the Sea Became Salty, and How the Mango Got its Magic, show that she wants children to think imaginatively and critically without accepting things at face value.

In the introduction to her book The Magic of the Lost Temple, she writes, “When a child makes a mistake, it can turn out to be a lost treasure, or maybe an important discovery. Children are unbiased and can easily think out of the box. They have a lot of interest even in little everyday things because of their innocence.” While I am wary of such generalizations about children, as a former teacher and teacher trainer, I agree that schooling often curbs children’s curiosity instead of encouraging it. Murty seems to be in favour of questioning.

Her family established the Murty Classical Library of India at Harvard University, with a gift of $5.2 million. This project funds the publication of modern English translations of classical works in various languages by Tulsidas, Abu’l-Fazl, Guru Nanak, Mir Taqi Mir, Surdas, Bullhe Shah, Kalidasa, Swayambhudeva, Kumaravyasa, and the earliest Buddhist nuns. Given the National Curriculum Framework’s mandate to have our “rich heritage of stories, folklore and legends” translated into different languages, and to produce children’s literature from these sources, it would be unfortunate to not draw on Murty’s experience and networks.

Chintan Girish Modi is a writer and journalist who tweets @chintanwriting

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