Thursday, 8 March 2012

Books for Children: 'We are all Born Free: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in Pictures'

We Are All Born Free The Universal Declaration of Human Rights in Pictures Publishers: Tara Books (with Amnesty International) Price: Rs 240

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights lies forgotten today, shrouded in the mists of time, blurred by 9/11 and 26/11, by the Iraq war and communal disharmony, by famine and exploitation. It was published by the United Nations as far back as 1948, when World War II ended.

This interpretation in pictures and simplified text reminds us of the fine print of humankind, beyond History or Civics lessons. Of the forests and oceans that are mankind’s legacy. Of the right to breathe and be joyous that belongs to us as it does to those in PoW camps and in prisons, to those who are variously challenged or live in physically impoverished conditions. For we are all born free.

Addressed mainly to children (or to the child within each adult), Tara Books has published this magical edition in tandem with Amnesty International. It arrived in 2008, when hundreds of children died in Gaza, when Barack Obama was elected US President, when recession hit the global economy — and hard!

We live in a time when communication is almost instantaneous, via sms, email, podcasts, Youtube, blogs and other tech-enabled routes. Our information is increasingly visual, more potent than mere words can ever be.

We now accept that the global is local, as we struggle to find our increasingly invisible roots. This book, with 30 basic rights illustrated brilliantly by acclaimed artists from Australia, Brazil, Sweden, South Africa, Canada and South Korea and so on, socks us in the solar plexus. For we’ve drifted worlds away.

Flipping randomly, a child appears asleep under a comforter, with toys scattered all around, in a delicate watercolour by Argentina-born, Spain-based Gusti. The image represents Article 12: “Nobody should try to harm our good name. Nobody has the right to come into our home, open our letters, or bother us, or our family without a good reason.”

This child-friendly rendition by Amnesty International is framed by an introduction and educator’s notes by Gita Wolf and V. Geetha of Tara. They point out: “In the Indian context, where children routinely hear news of pavement dwellers being evicted or slums demolished, this Article assumes importance — it helps children understand that rich or poor, everyone has the right to the safety and protection of a proper home; and that whoever harms them, even if they are powerful people, are doing wrong.”

Visually vital, this book could bridge the generation gap. Through learning to read the pictures, perhaps with guidance, children could explore issues such as untouchability, child labour or gender rights. Or free expression or the role of governments.

By degrees, adult and child alike could step into a larger minefield of ideas, such as the right to be a citizen of a country or to seek refuge elsewhere.

Or to choose our own friends or hold religious/ political beliefs. For instance, a lyrical painting of babies in prams, elderly folks on a park bench, a young man in a wheelchair by Swedish artist Brita Granstrom reminds us: “We all have the right to a good life. Mothers and children and people who are old, unemployed or disabled have the right to be cared for.”

Another dramatic black, brown and red graphic scene with silhouetted figures by brilliant Brazilian Fernando Vilela drives home this: “If we are put on trial, this should be in public. The people who try us should not let anyone tell them what to do.”

A large green dragon by Briton Chris Riddell somehow sums it all up: “There must be proper order so we can all enjoy rights and freedoms in our own country and all over the world.”

Are we talking of a new global order? More, perhaps. Our world has been deconstructed, then reconstructed by wars and politics since 1948. These rights, once upheld as inviolable, have been violated repeatedly. That’s why a reminder of what we bequeath to our children today seems invaluable.

As the editors point out, “Articles are fundamental values which we need to defend for the common good. They may have to do with individuals, but we also need to defend them in the common interest. They are worth struggling and fighting for, because they grant us dignity, and tell us how we may relate to other people and learn to live with them.”

Documented 60 years ago, these rights spell out the difference between the world as it is, and the world as it should be. Perhaps we have forgotten that we can recognise ourselves in each other. These pages — whether quirky, comic, subtle or graphic in their images — remind us of promises being made to the next generation. As responsible adults, as parents, as teachers, our time starts now.

(Originally in The Hindu Business Line, February 2009)

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