Monday, August 12, 2013

Totto-Chan: The Little Girl at the Window

In the initial years of my reading life, I used to read more Malayalam books than English books. Thanks largely, I think, to the amazing work done by DC Books. They had a great range of children's books - not only novels and short stories written originally in Malayalam, but works translated from other languages as well. My first introduction to Satyajit Ray's Feluda, for example, was in Malayalam. My familiarity with Indian mythology has been purely in Malayalam and only the children's versions at that - Mali RamayanamMali Bhagavatham, etc.

It was in Malayalam that I was first introduced to Totto-Chan. Totto-Chan: The Little Girl at the Window is an autobiographical book by the Japanese TV celebrity Tetsuko Kuroyanagi. Originally published in 1981, it became the best selling book in Japanese history. A couple of years later, it was translated into English as well. A Malayalam translation was available by the mid-nineties - I don't know how or why. 

Testuko's adventures were amongst my favourite as a young girl. So when I saw an English version recently in Blossom's, I picked it up on a whim. It was wonderful to re-read a book that I had loved as a child, and find those same images popping up inside my head again - even though I was reading it in a different language this time!

The book - more a collection of short stories than a novel - tells the story of the two years that the young Tetsuko (nick-named Totto-Chan) spent in an unconventional school named Tomoe Gakuen in Tokyo in the early forties. It appealed to both adults and children alike because of the simple narrative style, the unusual escapades that Totto-Chan got into, and above all, the wonder that was Tomoe Gakuen.

I didn't know all this history when I read it for the first time, of course. For me, the idea of a school where the classrooms were train coaches was absolutely wonderful. The idea that kids could wear whatever they wanted to to school, swim naked in the school swimming pool, decide what classes they wanted to have - Tomoe was indeed the perfect school. The school had only fifty students, and they had adventures of the sort that a child in a normal school can only dream about.

I'm not sure what the author's intention was in writing the book - was she trying to immortalize Tomoe and its visionary founder-headmaster? Or was she simply writing a book for children to teach them basic human values? The book is a success on both counts. Totto-chan's adventures bring out the school's unconventionality, but also show how successful it was in shaping its students. Her stories also provide valuable lessons in values and behaviour to the young reader. One of my favourite anecdotes from the book is one where Totto helps a polio-disabled classmate climb a tree. A young child reading the story would immediately pick up the lessons of being nice to physically challenged people, and of not giving up till the objective is achieved.

The book ends on a note of doom - Tomoe has been bombed out of existence by Allied forces, and Totto-chan is on an evacuation train out of Tokyo. Perhaps that's one of the reasons the book was such a success in Japan - it evoked a time of innocence, before Japan was defeated in the war, before Hiroshima and Nagasaki, before the Reconstruction and the frantic pace that life in Japan attained in the second half of the twentieth century. 

But that doesn't explain its success outside Japan. Personally, I think it's the innocence and the wonder permeating the book that makes it worthwhile.

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