A few days after the terrorist attack on the World Trade Centre in September 2001, writer Paro Anand was startled to overhear a declaration from a young student “I hate Muslims.” As a group of students near the girl nodded and agreed, Anand, who was conducting a workshop at the school, noticed an ashen-faced student standing a little way away. “He was clearly a Muslim,” said Anand. “I wondered what must be going on in that child’s head. I knew that this was a story I had to write.”
Anand’s story inspired by that encounter, “Those Yellow Flowers of August”, is part of a collection of short stories from her book Like Smoke. The story opens with its Hindu protagonist, Nitya, uttering the same words Anand overheard in the school. In the story, Nitya’s hatred for the Muslim community is explained as a result of a tragedy: her father died in a blast orchestrated by Muslim militants in an unnamed city.
Later, the teenager meets a Muslim boy, Khalid, whom she finds herself drawn to despite his religion. She learns that Khalid’s father is in the Indian army, and begins to learn to let go of her prejudice. “Bombs don’t have a religion,” Khalid tells her in a rage on day. “Terrorists don’t have a religion.”
This is not the first time Anand has written about tricky subjects like Kashmir from a child’s point of view. One of Anand’s most popular books, No Guns At My Son’s Funeral is about how a young Kashmiri boy, Aftab, is introduced to money, weapons, and a new excitement that eventually leads him to join a terrorist group.
But this type of literature, which Anand believes is important for children to read in order to acquaint themselves with the realities of the world they live in, appears to be finding fewer takers in educational institutions. On June 2, Anand wrote an editorial about how some of her books, like No Guns At My Son’s Funeral and Like Smoke, were “under a new kind of scrutiny”. No Guns... had previously been on the recommended reading list of several schools and, since 2011, even on the Central Board of Secondary Education’s list of books to promote reading habits. It was taken off the list in the academic year of 2016-2017.
Anand, who has been writing books for children for over two decades, frequently chooses to write about themes like religion, violence and terrorism, along with books filled with magic, talking animals and eccentric but loving families. The more serious themes however, are rare in the genre of young adult fiction in India, which tends to speak only to urban teenagers who live in metros like Mumbai, Delhi and Bengaluru. While some international best-sellers, like Wonder by RJ Palacio and The Fault In Our Stars by John Green, have dealt with disabilities or terminal illness, books in India for this age group, like those by Durjoy Datta or Ravinder Singh, mainly explore romantic relationships. (There are exceptions, and these are among the writers Anand finds most interesting in the present generation of writers – young adult authors like Payal Dhar, author of Slightly Burnt and Rukhsana Khan who wrote Wanting Mor are exploring subjects like non-traditional sexuality, conflict and war.)
Many of Anand’s stories are inspired by the children she met in Kashmir wholost homes and families to terrorism and separatist violence. As part of her work with the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation, Anand met a young boy who inspired the story “This is Shabir Karam” in Like Smoke. “Shabir lost his father in the militancy in Kashmir,” she said. “He and I became very close while I was there, and he told me that he wanted his story told and that it was important to him that his real name be used.”
A few months before her editorial, Anand was invited to speak at a school in New Delhi for an interaction with school students. Before the event, the school’s principal asked her to speak about her work – on the condition that she make no mention of Kashmir.
“None of my books are condoning violence,” said Anand, who chose not to name the school in question. “All I’m saying is that you as a young person are in control and not just helpless bystanders. You need to be heard, you have a voice and there is hope. I’m also trying to bring out the importance of being inclusive.”
Thus far, Anand has not been given an official reason by any of the schools for the removal of her books from the students’ reading list, but was told that some teachers and parents expressed concern that the book is too violent.
“Reading lists are not set in stone and it’s the school’s decision to revise it each year,” said Arun Kapur, director of the Vasant Valley School in Delhi, which has many of Anand’s books, including No Guns... and Like Smoke. “It isn’t mandatory to read each book and one may choose to not include any book. However, I’m horrified that a school would invite an author and then ask her not to speak about a certain topic. That is very worrying.”
A parent of a class IX student in New Delhi student who spoke on the condition of anonymity said that she and her husband had chosen not to buy No Guns... for their child because the books spoke about terrorism. “If later in life he wants to read it, he is completely at liberty to,” said the mother. “Children these days are already exposed to a lot of content on the Internet and television that is not age appropriate. We encourage our child to read the news but we would rather he comes to us with questions to understand these issues.
Another objection to the book, said Anand, seems to be the mention of sexual encounters between teenagers. In ‘Those Yellow Flowers Of August’, Nitya and Khalid share a kiss, and in No Guns… Aftab’s elder sister falls in love with a terrorist and they begin to see each other as “man and wife”.
Dalbir Kaur Madan, founder and director of the One Up Library in Delhi, has also faced objections regarding No Guns.... “Indian parents are okay with their children reading about violence and disturbance in other countries or in history,” said Madan. “They want their children to read stories that are predictable and with a moral at the end. Critical thinking is not allowed. It’s okay to read about the Holocaust or the impact of World War II, but not about the violence in Kashmir or the segregation within their own society. Also, parents object to a book which has words like ‘kiss’, ‘crush’ or ‘gun’, in them.”
“Children today know their way around the Internet and TV and already know what’s happening in Kashmir, but their understanding is not deep at all,” said Anand. “Dig deeper and their strong opinions start to peter out as they cannot sustain the argument. They deserve to understand these topics. And I’m not even talking about the politics. The backdrop of my stories might be political but my focus is on the young innocent lives affected.”
Anand feels it is important to end her stories with a note of hope rather than despair. “It could have a happy ending, a hopeful one but never one that leaves a child feeling hopeless.”
Following is an excerpt from No Guns... which describes the first time Aftab met the man who would take him down the path of militancy.
It was a beautiful sun-ripened morning. But Aftab was on his own. He’d not done his homework. So he’d skipped school. Of course, his father, a schoolteacher in the same school, would get to know. He would feel the lash of his father’s tongue and, later, the stick. But that was later. For now, he was completely happy, diving into the gentle Jhelum. Swimming out to its soft centre and lying in wait…. Then he had it. Clutched firmly in his hand, held aloft. The silver fish thrashed, but his fingers did not let go. That’s when he saw the man sitting on the bank, watching him. He smiled, waved and Aftab waved back.
‘That’s very impressive,’ the man said, looking at the fish as Aftab waded to the shallows. ‘Can you do it again?’ There was the faintest hint of challenge in his voice. Aftab handed the fish over to the stranger, dived back again to his spot. Then waited, making himself a block of wood in his stillness. Then, quicker than the eye could follow, the man saw the boy disappear under the shimmering water and come up with a whoop of delight, the fish flaying in his triumphant hands. The stranger asked him how he did it and Aftab, flushed with recent victory, feeling most important, gave the stranger a step-by-step lesson on patience, watchfulness, stillness and speed. By the end of the lecture, Akram’s eyes were ablaze. He’d ask the boy about himself and the child, enjoying the company of this handsome man, flattered by the attention, told him all about his family, his likes, dislikes. And also, that he was often bored.
And Akram needed to hear just that. He’s caught his fish too.
Of course, that’s not how Aftab remembered all of it. It was as if there’d been an empty space in his life. And now, it was filled by Akram who showed him the most amazing weapons, gave him money whenever he needed it and most of all, brought excitement into the life that had been dull till now.
The hoot of a large owl frightens Aftab out of his thoughts. Animals whisper to him. His ears are filled with slithery, hissy sounds. Is it his imagination or is it a snake that shadows past him? In spite of his determination, in spite of his feeling of great pride that he has been summoned, he just feels alone. In spite of the best intentions, he longs to be with someone. He now wishes that he had Shazia with him. And then is immediately ashamed of wanting a girl – woman’s protection. But then, again, he longs for home. Right now, he wouldn’t mind ousting Amir out from the comfort of lying between Abu and Ammi. No matter how much he chides his weak heart, it fails him.
(Excerpted with permission from Roli Books)