Arundhati Venkatesh is the author of several books for children, including the Petu Pumpkin books in the hOle books series. The third instalment of the adventures of Petu Pumpkin and his gang will be released later this this month.
‘You read?’ a feminist friend raised her eyebrows at the little person. ‘That’s unusual,’ she paused dramatically, ‘for a boy.’
‘Don’t boys read?’ I was perplexed.
‘It is rare,’ she declared.
The boy in question had enjoyed books since he was a two-month-old baby. By the time he turned five, he measured time not in hours or minutes, but in pages.
If you’re wondering how that works, here’s a typical exchange:
‘Heads-up for dinner!’
‘Okay, I’ll be there in two pages.
It wasn’t just reading; other activities were off limits.
‘You’re a boy and you draw? Haawww!’
When we scouted for a new music teacher, everyone eyed the boy suspiciously. ‘You learn music?’ they’d ask, while he made his way through a sea of girls.
So what are boys supposed to do? The answer came from two of the boy’s friends.
‘You’re a boy, so you will like guns. I’m gifting you one for your birthday,’ said one girl.
‘Boys like cars,’ said the other. ‘That’s what I’ll give you as a birthday present.’
‘Is that all?’ I wondered. ‘Aren’t boys into anything else?’
The girls replied in unison, ’Also, superheroes.’
‘Boys are horrid,’ I was told. ‘Even in books!’
This may have been at the back of my mind when I wrote the Petu Pumpkin books. All I set out to do was to write about this kid who was perpetually eating. I had to keep myself from getting bored, of course. So, maybe, like one throws in dinosaurs, dragons or aliens to take the excitement up a notch, I put in these strange specimens to liven things up — Boys who indulge in banned activities! Boys who are adorable with all their quirks. Boys who cry and care and are comfortable in their own skins.
Yet, I’m willing to bet these books won’t appear on a list of books challenging gender stereotypes. Because boys hardly ever figure in conversations around feminism. Except when there is outrage over a rape. Then, my feminist friend tut-tuts, ‘Teach your sons not to become rapists.’
As a woman (and a feminist myself), I don’t want to be seen solely in relation to men, as mother, daughter, wife or sister. I assume any man, too, would aspire to more than being a “not-a-rapist”. That’s a really low bar! Boys ought to lead full lives; experience and express a range of emotions.
Being mean and macho, showing aggression and stifling emotion have become associated with boyhood. If we overlook men, and are concerned only with empowering women, we will still have a lopsided world. As we raise girls up, boys will be left behind. Boys, too, should be encouraged to work on communication and cooperation, to challenge what’s expected of them socially, emotionally and physically. It’ll help if they see themselves in books; encounter male characters who are kind and sensitive, smart and silly, vulnerable and dreamy, friendly and fun. One wishes that — in fiction and in life — they come across men of many kinds.
That, I think, is why I keep writing more books in the Petu Pumpkin series, and why the Petu Pumpkin books are enjoyed by readers (and non-readers) of all genders, dispositions, ages, shapes and sizes. But then again, maybe it’s the humour that appeals.