Supriya Kelkar’s book Ahimsa, published by Scholastic India, is set in pre-Independent India and tells the story through the eyes of 10-year-old Anjali, whose mother has joined the freedom struggle. The US-based author talks about her book and the importance of Ahimsa or non-violence today.
The story was inspired by your great-grandmother, who joined the freedom movement. Tell us a little about her and also her relationship with her husband, whose book you have mentioned inspired your story.
My great-grandmother’s name was Anasuyabai Kale. When Mahatma Gandhi asked each family to give one member to the freedom movement, her husband, my great-grandfather, could not go. He was running his business and they needed his income. So she decided she would go and he supported her decision. They were both very progressive people who overcame tragedies and persevered. My great-grandmother was a champion of women’s rights and fought for the oppressed. She met with Dr Ambedkar and met with and corresponded with Mahatma Gandhi. (Readers can see one of his letters to her on my website). She was imprisoned for her role in the freedom movement and after independence went on to become a two-term congresswoman.
Ahimsa is a timely tale for today. What is the message you would like to send young readers through this book?
I want young readers to question who is being included in narratives and who is being marginalised. And I want them to know they have a very powerful tool within them that they can use any time to change the world: Ahimsa. As soon as they know a cause they believe in or an injustice they want to speak out against, all they have to do to use non-violent resistance is to find out how they want to speak up or speak out, be it through art, poetry, speeches, music, etc.
When I initially began the book, I was really exploring the time period. But over the course of several years of revisions, the themes of social justice, racism, inequality and injustice became clearer and took shape. I was always aware that these themes were being presented for a younger reader, and made sure they were handled in an age-appropriate way.
In the book, little Anjali and her friend Irfaan’s relationship goes through ups and downs. How did you see their friendship in the larger context of the book?
While Anjali and Irfaan’s friendship goes through the usual ups and downs that close friends go through in childhood, they have to deal with external forces thanks to what is going on in their world at the time. I used their relationship to explore resentments and feelings that could be brought up during stressful times, and how one can get over them and remember that we are all people who deserve respect and love, and are equals, regardless of our different backgrounds.
This is your debut novel. What drew you to write this for children?
I was drawn to this story initially as a story of a strong female character from a time and place in history we really had not heard much of in America. But through the years of revisions, the universal appeal of the story became clear. Although the issues discussed in the book took place decades ago, a lot of the social justice themes are relevant in today’s world. These are issues children should be aware of so that they can actively help dismantle prejudices and oppression when they come across it, whether they are experiencing it firsthand or witnessing it.
Initially, Anjali feels it’s her father who has joined the freedom struggle, but then discovers that it’s her mother. Later, she takes the fight forward when her mother is imprisoned. Is there a message for women’s empowerment, too, here?
Yes, absolutely. Although we are living in 2018, there are countless examples where females are treated as less-than. The way a girl or woman chooses to dress is blamed for the reason a boy or man committed a crime against her by some people in India. Women earn less than their male counterparts for doing the same job in America. Female education is denied in parts of the world. Their assertive behaviour can be seen as bossy whereas the same behaviour in boys can be seen as a trait to admire throughout the world. The list goes on and on. My hope is that this inspires children everywhere to see girls as equals, in all aspects of life.
We see pre-Independence India through Anjali’s eyes, she and Irfaan running through the Harijan basti, how she lives, the school she goes to. What was the research that went into this?
There was a lot of research involved in the writing of Ahimsa. I spoke to professors and read several books and newspaper articles on Dr Ambedkar and Mahatma Gandhi and the freedom movement. I used my great-grandmother’s biography to understand the mindset of the average freedom fighter. And I talked to several relatives who were children or young adults living through the times.
You have painted everyone in shades of grey, from Anjali who had to get rid of her imported clothes to the British officer who has a change of heart. Was that deliberate?
Yes, that was deliberate. I like to think there are very few people who are 100 per cent evil or 100 per cent perfect. I think of people as having shades of grey and love to explore that in my writing. I think it is important for children to see that everyone has their own motivations for their behaviour. It’s an important foundation for good problem solving skills and helps build empathy. I also think it is important for children to see Anjali and her mother making mistakes, despite their best intentions. We all make mistakes, so I like to show young readers that it is okay to be vulnerable and admit you’re wrong and continue to grow.
Any other books on India for children that you would recommend?
I’m lucky to have gotten to know many wonderful authors from the South-Asian diaspora in America and Canada who have written books that take place in India. Veera Hiranandani’s The Night Diary explores Partition through the eyes of a young girl. Uma Krishnaswamy’s Book Uncle and Me is a charming story of a book-loving girl and her activism. N H Senzai’s Ticket to India is a coming of age story that explores the effects of Partition. And Padma Venkatraman has written several books set in India, including The Bridge Home, about four homeless children living in Chennai, which comes out next year.