Ahimsa by Supriya Kelkar

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!

 

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Small Acts of Amazing Courage by Gloria Whelan

I can’t remember when I was last as frustrated with a book as with Gloria Whelan’s Small Acts of Amazing Courage (2011), an MG novel set in British-ruled India. I don’t normally post negative blog reviews (what’s the point?), but this book is from Simon & Schuster, and Whelan is a well-established author who won the National Book Award for an earlier MG novel (also set in India). THESE PEOPLE SHOULD  HAVE KNOWN BETTER.

It’s 1918, and fifteen-year-old Rosalind, whose father is a Major in the British Army, lives in a small Indian town. Rosalind constantly  ventures beyond what’s expected of her, much to her parents’ chagrin–she befriends the locals, visits bazaars, and wonders aloud why India should be ruled by Britain. When her father discovers that Rosalind snuck away to attend a talk by Gandhi, he packs her off to England to live with her aunts. But here, as in India, Rosalind follows the dictates of her conscience rather than convention, with profound consequences.

The plot has rich potential, but oh, this book is written with little regard for either accuracy or tone.  Let’s start with accuracy. Rosalind’s friend Isha, daughter of Amina, is married to Aziz. These names cue that the family is Muslim; yet Whelan has Isha wear vermillion in the part in her hair and a red tikka (translated in the novel as “dot”) on her forehead–both strictly Hindu marriage markers. This faux-pas is the equivalent of a Calvinist wearing a kippah. Isha addresses her father as “Baap”, as in “Baap says he beats his servants”; this is idiomatically ludicrous. Isha is “singing her favorite raga, a song about two lovers who were separated by cruel parents.”  A raga is a series of musical notes; a song is set in a raga. There’s a whole host of lesser but equally irritating inaccuracies–for instance, Whelan talks about Rosalind’s father’s cyce (groom); that’s syce to me and you and Merriam-Webster.  Gopal is spelled Gopel… why?

When writing from the outside,  authors need to tread very carefully and examine the privileges and attitudes they inject (often unconsciously) into their work.  “How can kindness get you into so much trouble?” asks the blurb. Sure, Rosalind is kind–in a white-woman-saving the wretched natives fashion, rescuing a (low-caste, of course) baby sold to a beggar-master. The Indian characters are mostly denied agency, and presented as fearful and caste-oppressed. The usual clichés of Orientalist writing abound–there’s the faithful native retainer who  calls Rosalind “Missy Sahib”, and who is comically devoted to his British masters, with his turban toppling off (ha ha!) in his  zeal to clean his master’s house. There’s the enlightened British lady who’s set up an orphanage for Indian children, and her progressive  son who develops a sympathetic friendship with Rosalind.

In England, Rosalind meets a young Indian schoolboy Ravi, whose main function is to educate the white characters in this book. Ravi, perpetually hungry because his boarding school fare consists mainly of beef, helpfully explains to Rosalind, “It is the sacred cow I cannot touch.” (One would assume that  Rosalind, who has lived in India longer than Ravi, knew this already?) The dialogue featuring Ravi is didactic–and terribly heavy-handed.

[Ravi:] “My father is a solicitor, Miss Hartley [Rosalind’s aunt]. He helped Gandhiji in his fight against the Rowlatt Act.”

“What is the Rowlatt Act?”

“It is a very unfair thing done by the British, Miss Hartley. It says you can imprison someone without a trial.”

“Your father is against the British Government!”

“No, ma’am. We Indians have all learned the blessings given to us by the British…I can still recite them: public health, law and order, schools, roads, irrigation works, bridges, telegraphs, and railways. But in the Rowlatt Act and in other things the British gave us injustice as well.”

Small Acts… often feels like an educational text perfunctorily disguised as a novel. Children are quick to spot this sort of thing, and I know I’d feel cheated if I were an MG reader. Rosalind is interesting, but the other characters feel rather flat, and the frequent info-dumps don’t help. There are dozens of writers (not just South Asian) who speak with power and authority about the Indian subcontinent, and who take the trouble to do their research; why on earth would anyone choose this book?

The more charitable reader might feel that Whelan writes with curious naiveté, expecting to carry her reader along despite the glaring issues raised by her narrative, but I’m so tired of making excuses for this sort of writing. Frankly, dear readers, Whelan and her editor don’t give a damn.

When Maharajasaurs Walked the Earth

The Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) in Toronto is currently running an exhibition called “Maharaja: The Splendor of India’s Royal Courts”. The museum recently hosted a tour for journalists and bloggers, which I attended. The AGO earned my eternal wow by allowing my three-year-old son to tag along, and no, it wasn’t a disaster. My husband, who accompanied me, introduced my son to the security guard with the warning that the nice man would give him a time-out if he touched the exhibits. It was a very necessary manoeuver, for the exhibition included a car, a carriage, and life-size wire models of an elephant and a horse, all of which begged little boys to climb right up and ride away.  But the threat worked, and the Maharaja items  survived unscathed.

Maharaja consists of over 200 objects, most of which were loaned by the V&A Museum in London. The exhibition takes you through the many trappings of Indian kingship,  from sceptres to spittoons, and several items  had been  painstakingly restored for this event–a king’s costume on display had been re-lined with silk. The crowd-pleasers included a silver carriage adorned with bulldogs and hounds, a Rolls-Royce, and a howdah on a mock elephant. And of course, bucketfuls of bling, including a belt with diamonds the size of new potatoes.

Carriage pic. from here

“These magnificent objects chronicle the many aspects of royal life and celebrate a legacy of cultural patronage by generations of maharajas, both in India and in Europe,” says the website. Maharaja essentially aims to present a glimpse of the lifestyle and splendors of the Indian kings in the eighteenth and nineteenth century,  and I think it succeeds in its mandate. As a collection of  royal objects, Maharaja is quite spectacular, and well-worth a visit.

The  loaded political questions such treasures pose regarding their acquisition and ownership were, however, mostly side-stepped. One of the items on display is Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s golden throne, and an elderly Indian gentleman could not quite contain his shock or ire upon seeing it.  (The throne, along with several other precious objects, was  “taken” by the British when they annexed Punjab in 1849.) Understandably, the AGO downplayed the knotty historical context, but in my opinion, such erasure did tip the exhibition in the direction of Orientalism.

Ranjit Singh's throne (wikipedia)

Soooo…I have mixed feeling about the issues herein. On the one hand, many of the kings were corrupt, good-for-nothing layabouts who were utterly divorced from reality and who cared little for the welfare of their subjects–the average Indian peasant’s lot probably didn’t change much when the British Empire took over. But equally, the deliberate humiliation of the kings of India at the hands of the British isn’t comfortable history. The  rights and responsibilities of the Maharajas were systematically diminished by the British until their power was reduced to material wealth and little else, and I was both aghast and saddened by the excesses they subsequently embraced–there was an air of desperation about it all. Yes, these maharajasaurs mostly had extinction coming, but oh, it must have been quite a show when they ruled their earth.

I should also mention that we were guided by an exceptionally nice museum employee Rachel,  who probably  knew more Indian history than the rest of us put together.  And Piali, the Maharaja community blogger, was a fund of fascinating historical trivia–that sales of Rolls-Royces tapered off during the Great Depression except in India, where the kings continued to buy new toys with glee, starving subjects be damned. The exhibition runs till April 3; do visit if you have an hour or two to spare. And don’t forget to sedate the kids.