My books are suddenly under a new kind of scrutiny. I have written for children since the 1980s, and for young adults and teens since the early 2000s. I’m 27 books old. And I’ve worked with over three lakh children through my programme, Literature in Action. But suddenly, two of my books are being pulled off school library shelves and curriculums. No Guns At My Son’s Funeral, published in 2005, by India Ink, Roli, is in its seventh imprint.
One of my fastest-selling books, it has been on recommended reading lists of several schools in India and abroad, including on the CBSE’s list of books to promote a “reading habit among students”. Internationally, it’s been on the IBBY Honour List — the global gold standard for literature for young people. No Guns has been translated into several foreign languages and is being made into a film. But there’s something about the book that is making people very uncomfortable today — a decade after it was first published. No Guns tells a story from the point of view of an ordinary, red-cheeked Kashmiri boy who grows up to become a terrorist, sucked into the vortex, trapped and engulfed by violence, powerless to its pull.
Another of my books, Like Smoke (Penguin), first published six years ago, is a collection of 20 short stories about teens on the edge of crisis, from a Hindu Pandit girl whose father is killed in terrorist violence to children witnessing the brutality of the 1984 anti-Sikh riots. But again, of late, it’s been making people uneasy and skittish. Perhaps because there’s also a story among those 20 of a Hindu girl and a Muslim boy who fall in love and — shock, horror! — they kiss.
In recent months, these two books have been taken off reading lists. In one school, teachers decided that they were “inappropriate”; in another, parents apparently objected to their children being made to read such “improper” children’s books. The school authorities have withdrawn them.
This, after years of being taught to class nine and ten students. I am now being invited to talk in schools on the condition that I don’t bring up these titles under any circumstances. I am told that I should stick to some of my “safe” ones.
Is this happening out of fear? Is it the worry that, in these black and white times, a mob will find out about these books and come at the school, guns blazing? Is it a “better safe than sorry” thing? The “suppose something happens” factor? In a way, I can understand this — after all, young children are involved.
But, on the other hand, aren’t we robbing our young of open debate and critical thinking? Of late, we have been repeatedly giving in to a handful of people with easily hurt sentiments. But is our children’s curriculum to be decided by the mob? By khap panchayats? Are young people to stay forever within the safety of the lakshman rekha drawn by Cinderella? When the mob infantilises even adults with violent censorship — think Ramjas College — it’s no surprise that children’s literature is in the firing line, too. The only surprise is that it didn’t happen earlier.
But even people who otherwise baulk against mob censorship ask me why I choose to write such “depressing” children’s stories. I enjoy fantasy and talking-animal stories as much — perhaps more — than the next person, but that’s not the only kind of book children need.
They need help to make better sense of the world in all its ugliness and beauty. They need stories that more closely reflect the reality of their lives. We need children’s literature centred around conflict, body-image issues, bullying, domestic violence, divorce — and, yes, terror and falling in love with the “wrong” person, whether of the wrong religion or sex. These stories can be incredible tools for children to navigate their world and become thinking, compassionate adults, as opposed to robots that can only chant the pieties of the Panchatantra.
Perhaps we need to look the mob in the eye and get real stories back into our schools.