I’ve searched many moons for a nuanced kid’s book that explains India’s struggle with British colonial rule prior to the country’s independence in 1947. Supriya Kelkar’s middle grade novel Ahimsa (Tu Books, 2017) is that book. It provides a lucid, thoughtful explanation of the ethos and evolution of India’s journey to self-governance–and acts as a welcome antidote to Empire defenders with their rallying cry of “But the railways!” Nope, dudes.
It’s 1942, and Gandhi, jailed by the British, has urged Indians to go on a strike to compel the British to “Quit India” already. Gandhi has asked for peaceful civil disobedience, based on the principle of ahimsa or non-violence, to never hurt anyone. Young Anjali, all fired with patriotism, decides to paint a large Q (short for “Quit India”) on the local British officer’s house. After all, the British won’t hang a ten-year-old girl…or will they? Anjali’s mother used to be the officer’s secretary, but then resigned. Or was she let go? It’s all very complicated, but one thing is clear to Anjali: her duty lies in fighting injustice, beginning with a little well-intentioned vandalism.
And then the Gandhian movement comes to Anjali’s backyard, when Anjali’s mother becomes a freedom fighter. Ma’s first step is to burn all their British-manufactured clothes. (Why? Because India’s raw cotton was exported, at pitiful rates, to Britain, whose mills processed it into cloth that was sold right back to the hapless Indians. The freedom fighters vowed to hand spin their own yarn on a spinning wheel, and have that yarn made into coarse cloth locally, rather than patronize mill-made British cloth; many activists burnt their British-made outfits as a gesture of rejection.) Ma’s gorgeous wedding sari, her father’s work clothes, Anjali’s dresses–even her beloved gold-embroidered Diwali outfits– are all gone. And Anjali’s father isn’t happy–maybe those clothes could have been donated to the poor?
Anjali is courageous, stubborn, intelligent, and most importantly, capable of critical thinking. Even as she’s protesting the indignity of British rule, which treats Indians as unfathomably inferior to whites, she gradually realizes that many Indians are just as culpable of cruelty to their own people. The caste system she’s never questioned (she’s upper caste) treats low caste people (called untouchables) inhumanely—just as horribly as the British treat Indians. And once sensitized to injustice, Anjali is forced to question her own attitudes–towards Muslims, towards the caste system and its deep roots in Hinduism, and even towards Gandhi, whose Hinduism-based approach to helping lower castes might have more than a whiff of condescension.
This can all seem a bit preachy, but Kelkar paces the novel beautifully, sans info-dumps–we learn about India and British colonial rule along with Anjali. Perfect reading for 7-14 age group. And the problem Anjali faces is a universal one–people resisting change when it results in the loss of their (unfair + unearned) privilege and power. It’s lovely to watch Anjali’s speedy transformation from one of the NIMBY crowd to a principled fighter who does the right thing even when it’s hard physically, intellectually, and emotionally. And it’s equally satisfying to witness the journeys of the supporting characters. Take Ma, whose attempts at caste integration begin as well-meaning but insulting charity. But by reflecting, and listening to other perspectives, she moves from token gestures to genuine empathy.
Sometimes Ahimsa feels a bit like it’s ticking off boxes–Anjali’s best friend is a Muslim boy, she has a pet cow (who’d make the perfect emotional-support animal!), and she lives with an ultra-conservative great uncle who freely vocalizes on the dangers of women working outside the home, disrupting caste barriers etc. etc. Kelkar, however, injects the plot with enough twists that it never feels predictable, and in all, she does a superb job of balancing historical detail with the honest-to-goodness confusion of a ten-year-old figuring out her role in a turbulent world. Ultimately, Anjali captures our hearts with her vulnerability, her compassion, and her determination to be the change she wishes to see. And we learn, along with Anjali, to never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world.
Kelkar was born and brought up in the Midwestern United States, and for readers unfamiliar with India’s freedom struggle, she’s included a helpful Author’s Note which provides a more detailed social and historical context for the events in the book. Fun aside: the author’s great-grandmother Anasuyabai Kale was a freedom fighter who worked with Gandhi. She “was imprisoned for civil disobedience, fought for women’s rights […]. After independence, [she] went on to become a two-term Congresswoman.” Woo-hoo!