The power of a children’s book: “What Then, Raman?” by Shirley L. Arora

Posted by Gay

About a year ago I was asked to give a talk at a fundraising dinner for literacy.  This post is an excerpt.

Cover for the 1963 Blackie & Son Ltd edition of What Then, Raman? by Shirley L. Arora, illustrated by Margery Gill

When I was nine or ten, I read a book that stayed with me forever: What Then, Raman? by Shirley L. Arora.  It’s the first book I remember that gave me an ‘aha’ moment – one of those moments when your world expands and your eyes open suddenly on new vistas.  I borrowed What Then, Raman? on one of our family’s frequent visits to the School of Arts library in a Queensland country town.  I remember entering through a dim, shadowy hall with a long carpet runner, and encountering a glass display case with a diorama of seahorses and seaweed inside.  We’d go into the library room and there was a maze of very tall shelves and sunbeams slanting down from high windows with dust motes floating in them, and I’d immediately get lost in this little world of books and my parents would have to call out and find me when they wanted to go home.

Consider this for a moment: I remembered this book for forty years – and I read it once.  That’s the power of a children’s book.  In 2013 I decided that I absolutely must re-read What Then, Raman? and see if I’d remembered it correctly.  Getting it was the problem.  In fact, I had misremembered the title as What Now, Ramon? and didn’t know the author.  The phrase ‘what now’ was supremely useless as a search tool, and my misspelling of Raman’s name was fatal.  For three days, I searched the web for every imaginable combination of text about the plot, concept, setting, and era.  I was sure that this was a good book; that somebody, somewhere, must remember it too, that it couldn’t have sunk without a trace – but I was finding nothing.  On the third day I closed my eyes and visualised the book cover, hoping to see the author’s name, and the cover illustration popped into my head: it was by the marvellous Margery Gill.  Now I was able to Google ‘Margery Gill book covers’ and found it immediately.  On searching the real title, I learnt that I was not alone in remembering What Then, Raman?  Other people had written of their reactions to the same ‘aha’ moment, and the book had even been made into a film.  I looked for sellers and a few weeks later, the edition I remembered was in my mailbox.

Why is this book so compelling that people remember it for forty or fifty years?  Firstly, I think its subject matter was unusual in an era when fantasy, historical fiction and stories about English and American children dominated the market.  Secondly, Shirley Arora’s theme is sophisticated and she writes with tremendous warmth and sympathy for her characters.  Raman is a little boy, the son of a woodcutter, who lives in the hill country of southern India.  His mother grows vegetables and sells them in the market, and they’re poor.  Raman wants something better.  His father believes that education is a way for Raman to build a better life, so he makes sure that Raman goes to the local school, even though this is quite unusual for a woodcutter’s son.  Raman himself really wants an education, and he also desperately wants to buy a beautiful book from the local bookseller’s stall.  It’s in a glass case and has a proper binding and illustrations.  Naturally I liked Raman and identified with him.  Despite his situation in life, he was just like me. 

It’s not easy for Raman to get his education or to earn enough money to buy that book.  As the only person in his village who can read, he finds his desire to be educated sets him apart from his former friends.  Raman’s relationship with his parents is also complex.  His father encourages Raman to hold fast to his dream, while at the same time recognising economic imperatives.  As his father needs to go away to earn money, Raman is charged with looking after the family in his absence.  Raman’s mother is occupied with the here and now of family support, struggling to avert starvation.  For her, the choice between books and food is no choice at all.  Ultimately, Raman has to leave school after only a year of education.  He finds a way to earn money collecting wild flowers for an American woman, a college teacher taking time out in the hill country to write and illustrate a botanical book.  In a spine-tingling chapter, Raman risks going into the mountain jungle where there are wild tigers, to hunt for orchids and earn the money to fulfil his dreams.

The first shock for me, in reading this book, was that Raman had to struggle so hard to get an education.  Up until then I’d taken my education for granted, along with access to as many books as I wanted.  I hadn’t known that some children had to fight for things that to me were natural rights and even something to complain about.  So this alone made a big impression on me.

But the thing that really opened my eyes was the way in which this book took the idea of education much further.  Raman is just a boy and he hasn’t really thought beyond the idea of getting an education and owning a book.  To him, these are ends in themselves.  He just wants to be a scholar and not a woodcutter.  But the American woman who buys his orchids has conversations with Raman and takes an interest in him.  Raman tells her about his desire for an education and that he’s the only person in his family and village who can read.  He’s expecting her to be very impressed, but instead she answers him by saying, ‘That’s a great responsibility.’  Raman feels she isn’t showing enough admiration, so he goes on and tells her that he’s going to be a great scholar and own lots of books.  At this point, she looks him in the eye and asks the title of the book: ‘And what then, Raman?’

At this point Raman, and the reader, understandably feel quite miffed.  Seriously – it’s not enough that Raman should break out of this cycle of poverty and illiteracy and become an educated man and a scholar?  She wants him to do more?  But somehow this idea starts working like yeast in Raman’s mind, and it started working like yeast in mine, too.  I thought:  What is the point of education?  What is the point of reading a lot of books?

Raman goes home and while he’s thinking about all this, his little sister says wistfully that she would really like the chance to go to school too.  Raman knows this is impossible, so he offers to teach her himself.  The next day her best friend shows up wanting to learn to read, and Raman’s old friends start showing up as well.  Raman starts to see that his education doesn’t have to set him apart from the rest of his village.  He can keep trying to get an education, and use it to do something that relates to the people around him.

The climax of this story comes right at the end (spoiler alert!) when Raman has finally saved up enough money to buy the beautiful illustrated book he covets.  He takes six rupees in his hand and walks to the market.  He’s a bit distracted because winter is coming and that morning he saw his little sister’s foot sticking through a hole in their worn-out old blanket.  But he’s worked so hard for this money; he’s even gone into the jungle where the tigers are.  This is his dream.  So Raman goes to the bookseller and starts to hand over the money.  He pauses.  He thinks about his sister’s foot.  He just can’t get her out of his head.

Raman turns around and goes up to the top of the market.  Using the arithmetic he struggled with at school, he bargains carefully and buys a big, warm, red blanket.  It’s the worst moment of the book.  What a choice!  This kid has to choose between a book for himself and a blanket for his little sister.  But it’s also the ‘aha’ moment that makes sense of everything that comes before it.  The book is so well written that even as a child, you know that Raman has made the right decision.  He’s suddenly understood the point of an education.  Education isn’t just for your head, it’s for your heart as well.  It’s not an end in itself; it’s not something that you have just for yourself because it makes you happy.  It’s worthless unless you’re willing to use it to do something for the people around you.

I’ve spoilt the climax, but you may be wondering what happens to Raman in the scene after he buys the blanket and walks back through the market.  With the subtlety she’s shown throughout, Shirley Arora leaves the reader with enough information to show that Raman may have ended up with a blanket, but it’s far from all he’s got.  Raman has a future.  Why not read the book to find out?

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