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Ahimsa looks at the Indian Freedom Movement from the eyes of 10 year old Anjali. What sets this book apart from other books set in the independence movement are the several strands deftly woven into the plot.
First, there is a little ghagra and jasmine loving girl Anjali, and her school politics.
Then there are the other factors around her: the supercilious topper Suman; the freedom fighter’s daughter Anasuya who isn’t really thrilled by her father’s choice to heed Mahatma Gandhi’s call for one freedom fighter from each family; Irfaan, Anjali’s friend who is almost a brother; Masterji who liberally wields a ruler on knuckles while chewing paan, all in a school called Pragati in the nicer parts of Navrangpur, a Hindi speaking town northeast of Mumbai.
Then too, there is Anjali’s upbringing by a college professor father and a mother who was the secretary of Captain Brent, who is the head of the cantonment in town. Brent is contemptuous of ‘the natives’ while being the authority there, deciding on pardons while policing the freedom movement.
The book starts with Anjali and Irfaan nervously painting a ‘Q’ for ‘Quit India’ on the walls of the captain’s bungalow.
Anjali’s parents are well intentioned people, trying to make the best of the situation they are in, doing good and working on becoming liberal in their mindset. The book does a great job of showing us that sometimes all the best intentions in the world do not go on to translate into good work on the ground.
The going is just getting interesting when the next strand hits: the person joining the freedom movement isn’t her father, it is her mother. A clothes-loving Anjali ends up having to burn her lovely clothes in return for dowdy and stiff khadi. Anjali’s mother shows her spine of steel several times in the book, sometimes in the course of this new ‘job’ she has picked up in the freedom movement and several times in the ways she has to change her thinking about what should have been a liberal ‘good’ way of being.
The part I found most thought provoking was when Mohan, the teenage toilet cleaner of the basti was brought in. Mohan has a spark. His mother cleaned toilets, requiring fecal waste to be manually removed to a field far away. When he was young and required to start out working with her (instead of go to a non-existent school), he refused. His mother literally beats him into submission, trying to make him accept his place in life in the caste system. She succeeds on surface, that spark never extinguished. It peeps out when he sarcastically asks Anjali to stop calling them ‘Harijan’ because it is condescending and patronizing, that ‘Dalit’ meaning oppressed is the word he wants to be called by. Naming the atrocity would be the start of any kind of a solution.
Caste is mentioned through several characters: Keshavji, a freedom fighter who worked with Gandhiji and Ambedkar is a prime example. Many little kids in the ‘untouchable’ area are fleshed out as well as some adults. The Chachaji who stays in Anjali’s home and talks the usual caste nonsense is the counterpoint to all this reform. This ensures that making sure Mohan and the other kids are educated becomes Anjali’s goal in life aside of her schooling. “Perhaps you’re realizing now that it isn’t we Dalits who are backward. Who need to be save, who needs change. But rather, it is the rest of India.”
The plot continues to an exciting crescendo with her mother being jailed with many other freedom fighters. What does a calf called Ahimsa have to do with the story and why peacock feathers? You will have to read this wonderfully written book to find out.
In a time when Indian writing for children is exploding in English, where we are getting a bit closer to being spoilt for choice (with lots of space to grow!), books like this show us the next level up…where one questions and analyzes in that historical context, bringing out complexities. For example, Indians weren’t blindly united against the British in the cause of independence. We were united in our comfortable caste and class groups, still resentful, sometimes downright violent towards parts of the collective ‘us’.
I found Kelkar’s writing smooth, keeping the plot moving. Her Hindi film industry roots showed: I could picture a Holi song in there a la Hindi movies and in the melodrama in the way emotions were depicted. A must read for the entire package and the different strands interwoven well. I don’t know why we have to box books into categories – this one would be ‘young adult’ technically but has much for every kind of reader.
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Top image is a still from the movie Gandhi, and book cover via Amazon
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Sangitha Krishnamurthi is a special educator, blogger and mother of three. Her interests include living
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