Kids circled the stage as parents sat toward the back on their seats, watching a young lady read out stories to their little ones at Kala Ghoda’s Kitab Khana. They were all listening to the story of The Unboy Boy.
What’s that, you ask? He is a gentle boy, like the protagonist Gagan of Richa Jha’s book which has been illustrated by Gautam Benegal. He likes to play with ants, gets scared when his grandfather tells him tales of war and prefers to draw and paint rather than play boxing with his brother Pawan. Everyone except his mother calls him names and attempts to make him a “boy” boy — strong, macho and boisterous. And like all stories that end well, his does too and he becomes the hero.
Jha’s book is inspired by her own son. “When he was in school, soccer was very big but he was never interested. Some kids would call him a loser. Our extended family would comment, ‘Isme koi ladke jaisi baat hi nahin.’ And often, parents of rowdy kids have the excuse that boys will be boys. So even when they stop their kids from doing wrong, the child grows up thinking that they don’t mean it when they say no. Later in life, these boys feel emboldened to do things that are unacceptable. This is the root cause of so many social problems in India,” she says.
She not only wishes that society makes space for sensitive boys, but also wants it to stop attaching traits to gender. “There are no boy-like and girl-like qualities. Both boys and girls can be naughty. My daughter is the naughtier one,” she adds.
So does her book do justice to the intention? Priya Fonseca, a parent from Chembur who was attending the reading with her 7-year-old son, says, “I feel very strongly that we should wake up when our kids are babies. It is we who perpetuate the stereotypes. My son plays with a Barbie doll and also plays cricket. I just allow him to decide what he likes.”
She adds, “I identify with the book because my son is gentle too, but I wouldn’t buy it because here the unboy boy becomes a hero only after an act of bravery. Why do boys have to be brave? I would just want my son to be able to talk to kids who are different from him, help them understand his point of view.”
The author of The Unboy Boy, Richa Jha, says that her book is inspired by her own son. “When he was in school, soccer was very big but he was never interested. Some kids would call him a loser,” she adds