The Ugly Duckling

Lockdown has brought many kinds of problems in its wake.  Probably the worst hit are the children, who find themselves totally confined within four restrictive walls.   Most of them miss their daily dose of fun and games. There are some special children, who might not be able to play physical games, but they too look forward to a change of scene, in the form of vocational classes or crèches, or day-care centres.  So, what do we grown-ups do to keep such children occupied? We tell them stories.

Part of my everyday timetable these days is to tell a story to my own child, an autistic, mentally challenged child of 48.   We have a stock of books at home, her own personal library, a fairly large, though jumbled–up collection of children’s books. There are Bengali classics like Tuntunir Golpo and Khirer Putul; many English tales including fairy tales and classics like Heidi and Little Women; Amar Chitra Katha comics and Karadi Tales. Old, well-loved, well-thumbed, dog-eared books, for my girl Emgee is slow to take to anything new. A fairy tale she’s read a hundred times gives her more pleasure than a new story, for she can follow the familiar story with greater ease.  So I took out the volume of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales for our story-reading session today. Emgee is very fond of these stories.

She selected ‘The Ugly Duckling’ for today’s session. I began by describing the mother duck waiting for her eggs to hatch. “Babies will come”, my girl kept repeating. “Mummy duck going to child!” Her tone was excited at the thought of the mother’s joy at giving birth to a child. We had given up trying to correct her grammar decades ago. I continued to read the story with her, embroidering it as we went along. For this was also a drama session for us.

We reached the section in the story where the “ugly” duckling is beginning to realize that he is not like the other ducklings. Initially, his mother tries to hide him under her wing and protect him by making excuses for him. But soon, she runs out of excuses. Other ducks, even Daddy Duck, are offended by the ugliness of this baby. They refuse to talk to him or play with him. He doesn’t know what his fault is.

I am a little absent-minded today. Suddenly, I recognize the many layers of meaning I can invest in this story, something I had not done earlier. Many parallels with my 21st century world crop up in my mind: many true incidents and a few imagined tales, but all with themes similar to the Ugly Duckling’s experience. I think about the girls who are constantly shamed because of the colour of their skin. Practically every Indian family boasts of one example where a non-descript but fair daughter ‘catches’ a promising groom, but the intelligent, though dark daughter is left high and dry.  “Shyama”, says my Emgee. This is a television serial about a dusky girl who is constantly heckled and mistreated because of the colour of her skin. Emgee  has understood that the themes of the T.V. serial about the dark girl, and the travails of the Ugly Duckling are broadly similar. I hasten to rub in the lesson that such discrimination is wrong. Emgee has another poser in store for me. “The Blacks?” she chirps. “Uncle Tom’s Cabin?” And I am immediately reminded of George Floyd. But it’s not just him.  I also think of others in our part of the world…Chuni Kotal,  Reingamphi, Mary Ezung, Rishikesh Wawalker, Moni Orang…and countless others. 

Though Emgee has the intelligence level of a five-year old, she also has the lived experience of 48 years. But she has combined her limited intellectual prowess with her intuitive awareness and made the necessary connections between a fairy tale and the world she had experienced.  Yet, why had I, a mother, a teacher and an avid reader, not understood the simple description of discrimination in this tale during all these years of telling and retelling it? Instead, I had always seen it as an ethereal story of wish fulfillment. As for the fairy-tale ending, composed of  radiant happiness, rainbows and beautiful wings: these  were dreams with which to beguile innocent children and nothing more, I used to think.

We come to the portion in the story where the duckling has fled from his family and wanders forlornly in search of shelter. The farmer’s wife in the neighbouring village shudders with loathing when she spies this unsightly creature, and attacks him with a stick. As he flees, he is pursued by wicked-looking barking dogs, and even the hens and cockerels are ready to peck at him. I have been too generous with my realistic descriptions. Tears flow down Emgee’s cheeks.

I hurriedly assure her that all will eventually be well. But scene after scene from the news we see on the television everyday rises up before my eyes. A little brown boy drowned while trying to reach a safe haven in the white man’s land, where he went in search of shelter. Refugees, Rohingyas, Kashmiris, Internally displaced people… different in appearance and dress, and speaking a different language from the locals, who were all ‘suspects’….brutally rejected, treated with cruelty, with contempt. Just because they were different, hence “ugly”.  Just like the Ugly Duckling!

At last we have come to the satisfying fairy tale end, the “happily ever after” moment of the story. Transformed into a majestic swan, his graceful wings bearing him higher and ever higher into the air, the Ugly Duckling has experienced his own moment of catharsis. But he had to achieve Beauty to be acceptable! Did the original storyteller have any idea that he was setting up a template for prejudice, I wondered. How far did children automatically and unconsciously imbibe such ideas through fairy tales, even without any clear knowledge of the ways of the world?

As the story ends, Emgee’s face is lit up with a radiant smile. Her eyes have almost disappeared as her plump cheeks glow, her lips widened to their limit and her face resembling the full moon. Then she gets up slowly and looks at herself in the mirror. “Am I looking pretty?” she asks.

Such an innocent question but what heartbreak it contains!  I looked back to a time, around forty five years ago, when a beautiful child with the saddest eyes in the world would wait anxiously as the school bus came up to where we stood. As the door of the bus opened, every window held a face, and some of those looked at the child with scorn, others with an ugly curiosity, a few with contempt. Just one or two flashed a sweet, compassionate smile. A desperate hand would cling to mine. ”I won’t go to school”, she beseeched. But all those years ago, I hadn’t known that her shyness and slowness had been the signs of autism and a less developed brain! I had thought she needed the stimulus and exposure of the smarter kids. Yet over the years, with intense pain, we realised, the two of us, that when someone is different, she becomes “ugly”!

It required the wisdom of a grandmother to bring solace, to heal wounds. Emgee’s grandmother would make the prettiest of dresses for her, knit beautiful sweaters, deck her hair with colourful ribbons and sparkly clips. Then stand her in front of the mirror and tell her, “Is any other child as pretty as my little one?” And somewhere along the way, Emgee came to regard her prettiness as her armour. 

The face of another child floats into my mind’s eye today: eleven-year-old Ritam,  a student of a school outside Kolkata where I was a teacher.  He was a frail child with a head that appeared too large for his rather weak body, and enormous blank eyes. We had realized early on that he was a slow learner. He was also given to strange wild moods, when he could be disruptive, or callous or just ungovernable. I recalled the time when, after getting very low marks in a class test, he actually tore his answer sheet to shreds in the classroom. Yet, when he was scolded or counselled, he didn’t seem to understand what he had done, or why he had received a reprimand. On such occasions, his face would remain completely dead-pan, his eyes expressionless. Gradually, he became the butt of his classmates’ jokes, his teachers vented their frustration and impatience on him and he remained alone and unwanted. Occasionally, I would spy the same forlorn look in his eyes as in Emgee’s, but I too failed to do anything about it. Ritam was indeed another Ugly Duckling, whose strangeness had made him an outcaste.

Finally one day, a couple of boys in his class stole some books from another child, but carefully made it appear that Ritam was the culprit. Unfortunately, neither his teachers nor his parents believed that Ritam was a victim of mischief, or that, with his level of understanding, he couldn’t possibly have committed that smart crime. Nor did we realize that he was actually being punished for being “ugly”. We should have found a way of making him feel secure.  Instead, like the duckling in the story, Ritam faced rejection from his own family and the grown-ups in school, and scorn and ridicule from his classmates. By the time efforts were made to reach out to the hurt child, it was too late…Ritam had retreated inside a shell that would not be broken easily. And there was no way to remove the tag of ugliness which had been affixed to him. Alas, there was no happy ending for Ritam’s story.

As I mulled over this tragic real story, I wondered why Ritam’s classmates and the children in school had ostracized him. Where did they learn the lessons of stereotyping? Was it natural to feel discomfort when facing someone who is different?  Weren’t children supposed to be innocent…then why were they so cruel towards Ritam? Were they unconsciously picking up the clues from society? How much of this awareness was contributed by stories like The Ugly Duckling…stories, which even now, were mindlessly repeated, without anyone looking below the surface at the ways in which they created stereotypes?

I used to consider myself to be a fairly sensitive, knowledgeable individual, aware of the different kinds and levels of prejudice rampant in our world. So, my rather belated re-evaluation of the story of ‘The Ugly Duckling’ was like an eye-opener to me. Yet, in some hazy, intuitive way, I also realized that there was no simple moral to such a fairy tale, as we had been taught half a century ago. Nor could we expect simple, clear-cut answers, easy solutions or the happy-ever-after endings that would heal all the wounds created by prejudices. To overcome prejudice, the Ugly Duckling had had to attain to Beauty. So did my child, though not Ritam.  But what is that ideal of Beauty which ALL can see, comprehend, aspire to and attain?

We adults seem to require a very strong sense of personal identity, one which conforms to uniformly accepted, universal social standards. Perhaps that is why we fail to recognize the beauty which lies in mere being and existing and which makes variety such a fascinating  quality of life. Instead, we allow the juggernaut of uniformity to roll over every blossom, stamping out every late-blooming or unique flower, which we conveniently label as “ugly”. Conversely, children often possess a wide, all-embracing vision, which allows them to unquestioningly incorporate the whole gamut of existence within one inclusive world-view. If tales written for children also nurtured such a fraternal vision, coloured with childlike innocence and wonder, surely this would prevent stereotyping, and would, therefore, make discrimination and prejudice redundant… even irrelevant! So, let us rewrite our fairy tales. Let us consciously banish the very concept of ugliness and incorporate greater wisdom and light in them. Let us do this honestly and sincerely. For the future of our children depends on it.

Further Reading:
1. https://thelogicalindian.com/news/bengal-school-book-calls-dark-people-ugly-21629

2. https://roundtableindia.co.in/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=9805:beauty-femininity-and-the-politics-of-desire&catid=120:gender&Itemid=133

3. https://magazine.outlookindia.com/story/india-news-opinion-is-india-racist-from-migrant-labours-to-sushant-singh-rajput-biharis-have-been-ridiculed-with-gay-abandon/303557

Poem in Featured Image by a 12 year old, Abhideep. Submitted by Author.

Author Bio

Born in 1955, Sipra Bhattacharya studied History at Presidency College, and post-graduation in History from Delhi University.She has been a student and teacher of History in college and school, retiring recently in 2019. International Relations of the 19th and 20th century, as well as the History of Modern India are of special interest to her. She is also a translator of fiction and non-fiction works from Bangla to English.

Published by The Delek Archives

This project intends to archive instances of identity and religion-based discrimination in schools. It will map policies, surveys, curriculum evaluation and self-reflections; with a larger goal to providing a vision for justice, equity and inclusivity in school education.

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