"Ahimsa is the highest duty. Even if we cannot practice it in full, we must try to understand its spirit and refrain as far as is humanly possible from violence."
- Mahatma Gandhi
The image violence conjures up is one of bloody battles, broken bones and bloodshed. Violence can be inflicted without shedding a drop of blood. So great is the damage of such bloodless violence that many a flesh wound pales in front of it. Intolerance, bigotry, exclusion, absolutism robs millions of people of their fundamental rights on a daily basis even in free India. This idea comes through clearly in author Supriya Kelkar’s book Ahimsa (published in India by Scholastic).
Supriya Kelkar’s ‘Ahimsa’ is a chapter book for children. Written in simple and easy to understand prose with an interesting storyline, Ahimsa is a definite must-read. This book is set in pre-independence India. Our young heroine Anjali, all of ten can be seen at the opening of the book painting a Q of Quit India on the wall of a British Officer Brent. Nothing good can clearly come out of this. In fact she thinks “They wouldn’t hang a ten-year-old girl.” This sets the tone for the rest of the book.
Ahimsa Book Cover
Anjali’s mother joins the Freedom struggle on the call of Gandhiji and soon gets caught up in the activities freedom fighters were expected to do. Oppose unfair British policies, spread the message of education and equality among the local population.
As the story progresses we read with interest the journey of Anjali’s mother, a privileged upper-caste Brahmin lady who joins the freedom movement. We watch her actions being undertaken with her sometimes misguided idealism but being pure of heart and sincere, she stays on track to help realise the dream of freeing her beloved country India. The journey like all journeys is fraught with great difficulties. Based on the principles of Gandhiji non-violence freedom fighters are encouraged to throw off not just the yoke of British rule, but also the many customs and traditions of a deeply divided Indian society. The fight is from within and without.
Untouchability for one. Kelkar talks in depth about the night-soil collection by members of the untouchable community. Men, women, and children are put out to collect human feces from the back of every house with their hands. To add insult to injury, the community is then ostracised, made to live in a separate hamlet. Despite insurmountable odds, some members of the community get educated and realise that education is one ladder out of the darkness. But so entrenched are the ideas of caste that despite this they are always identified as such. In Ahimsa, the author talks about this through her character Keshavji, who despite being a freedom fighter often has to face caste bias.
Anjali herself grapples with stepping out of caste lines and truly seeing others as she does herself. Anjali’s mother is shown to face resistance from older members of her family, who are aghast at her activities such as her free mingling with other castes and communities.
Anjali’s father is supportive of Anjali’s mother but they are not without a difference of opinion. For instance, when Anjali’s mother burns her British mill manufactured clothes, her father wishes they were donated to others who had no clothes at all. In other instances, Anjali’s father fights for his wife to chart out her own path and stay true to her ideals.
Even Gandhiji is not above questioning. Keshavji argues that Dalits needed more than being called Harijans. Gandhiji did not fight for untouchables to have the system removed. In fact by calling them Harijans, however well-meaning his intentions he simply provided another name to ostracise them. When Anjali wonders how Gandhiji was right on about so many issues but totally off on the issue of untouchability, Keshavji answers, "I think you can care deeply about someone and still do the wrong thing."
This continuous introspection and understanding of the paradoxical nature of all the characters in the book, including Officer Brent keep the reader always wondering, questioning and thinking.
The timing may be in the past, but the questions, concerns, and solutions very much belong to today too. India still grapples with the seed of caste and most of its citizens even today see events and each other through the glasses of caste. The author has a very steady hand and pen that is unafraid to question uncomfortable practices.
Young readers will pause to think and wonder if India is truly free and how mighty she would indeed be if she were to be free of segregation and inequality.
In the book, the characters are subjected to humiliation and cruelty in the hands of the British on one side. On the other side idealists like Anjali’s mother seek a truly free world but are met with heavy resistance. The very people she seeks to emancipate are quite sure that the order of things as they stand is unlikely to change and this fills them with hopelessness. The dark depths of despair stare at the reader. The spark is Anjali and her friends who overcome their doubts and stay true to the ideals they believe in. Ahimsa or nonviolence truly saves the day and we realise there is still hope for those who are brave and seek peace.
I was shaken by the sheer fearlessness of author Supriya Kelkar and her ease in putting forth both sides of the coin for so many issues. In an email interview she answered some of the questions that were burning in my mind after reading her work ‘Ahimsa’.
Author Supriya Kelka
My question therefore is - What were you thinking when you wrote this book, especially in terms of what you hope it will achieve?
I initially was writing the book just as a story of a strong female character from a time and place in history that Americans did not often hear these kinds of stories about. But over the years of revising, the social justice implications of the story became clear to me. My hope is that young readers will look at history with a critical eye. I want them to get to know all sides of historical figures sometimes portrayed one-dimensionally in history books and pop culture. And I want them to question who is being centered in our narratives and who is being left out. Finally, I hope that they gain from the book a sense of just how powerful their voice can be, and how they have this tool of "ahimsa" within them. They just need to figure out how they want to express themselves, (through art, music, poetry, speeches, writing, etc.), and what they want to speak up for or speak out against.
Secondly, this conscious build up and tearing down of noble ideals, making the character truly look within and provide answers to themselves, how difficult was it?
I tend to look at things not as black and white but as having many shades of grey to them. People are not 100% good or bad in most cases. There are nuances and I love to explore them in writing. So it came very naturally for me to make Ma and Anjali question their actions and words once they became aware that even with good intentions one can make mistakes. I think it is important to show young people that it is okay to be flawed and make mistakes as long as you continue to grow from them.
Finally, we have sent the British home, but the internal shackling and bigotry seems alive and well. Where does tradition, privilege by birth end and how can we bring up truly casteless children?
As someone born and raised in America, I can relate this to something from my childhood. Back then (and even now) the prevailing way of thinking and talking about race was to be "color blind." That means you teach children that there are no differences between races and we are all the same and we don't see color when it comes to people. While that may sound beautiful in theory what it actually does is lead to adults who cannot understand or will not believe that people in America are treated differently based on race or that systemic racism does exist. To counter that, it is important to talk to children about racism and skin color and how people are treated differently. I think that can easily be applied to children in India as well. We need to talk about how some people have a different start in life than others and how things are not always fair. Children should be aware of history and the issues at hand so that they can recognize injustice and discrimination when it occurs and not be unaware of things happening in their neighborhoods and schools and streets because they cannot see them.
Book trailer here:
You can buy your copy by clicking on the link: Ahimsa
You can read more about Ahimsa and its creator Supriya Kelakar at: https://supriyakelkar.com/