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Neha Singh’s recent release Is it the Same for You? challenges the idea that children’s books shouldn’t tackle ‘difficult’ themes, while beautifully capturing the universality of young girls’ experiences.
One tends to relate children’s literature to a simple world with few troubles, happy adventures, and morals based narratives. However, this space is actually full of vibrant stories that creatively capture more ‘mature’ topics.
In recent years, a number of children’s books have been published that appeal to the empathetic capacity of children and, with illustrations and humorous writing, aim to spark their curiosities. Authors do not seek to provide all the answers but do seek to motivate children to ask questions and explore the world.
Is it the Same for You? written by Neha Singh, is the story of a young girl in conflict-ridden Kashmir.
As the people around her are dealing with their own struggles, she attempts to come to terms with her changing body. Left alone to deal with her questions, she experiences despair and loneliness but also shows resilience with the faint knowledge that maybe it is not very different for other girls in the world. “Is it the same for you?” she asks.
Neha Singh is also an activist, who had started the popular movement, Why Loiter? in 2014. She is also the editor of the blog that talks about this movement. In 2016, she made BBC’s list of 100 women who made a positive impact across the world.
The loneliness that one senses in the young girl in the book has been so poignantly depicted that I have to ask, have you ever experienced a similar sense of loneliness, or perhaps observed it in your personal life?
Neha Singh: I have had my phases of loneliness and feeling misunderstood. I guess because my father was in the army so it was two years in a place and then you get posted somewhere else. A lot of people say ,“Oh that’s so cool”, because you get to be in so many places. But it works differently for different personalities. For me, it would be a traumatic experience to leave behind my friends and house, and move on to find a new place and call it home again.
Those phases would get quite lonely because I would take time to make friends and open up. I would never compare whatever loneliness I have experienced in my life with the kind experienced by kids in conflict areas – there’s so much fear with dear ones going missing or dying. Everyone is just in their own space because there is so much to take in and deal with.
What I’ve attempted to do with the book is to find universality – girls not being able to talk to their mothers with the whole taboo against talking about periods, about changes your body goes through, [or] sexual attraction and being sexually harassed. You go through this phase when you feel like nobody understands you, nobody can see you, and you feel invisible. Sometimes you feel too visible and everyone is looking at you. These experiences are what most Indian girls go through – so I tried to make such connections between my growing up years and the girl in this book.
In this book, there is no mention of Kashmir itself. It’s in the foreword, but the manuscript does not specifically mention a place. I wanted it to be this way, and conflict areas can look so similar so I wanted the ambiguity. But I did not want ambiguity in terms of emotions. I tried to go really deep into the emotions. The more specific the emotional connect is, the better.
We’ve kind of cordoned off Kashmir and said it’s a Kashmir issue with its own experiences, then there’s the ‘rest of India’. The ‘us and them’ division within Indian women is so strong as well.
I think that’s why the name ‘Is it the Same for You?’ is relevant. The character is pretty sure that the experiences outside of Kashmir are similar. But then people say ‘aurat hi aurat ki sabse badi dushman hoti hai’ [women are women’s worst enemy]. Yes, because the Indian woman is also growing up with the same patriarchy and is grown up to believe that her life is worthless unless she’s attached to a man. So she obviously will be patriarchal for her survival.
In this book, it seems like the mother is not being nice to her daughter. For instance when the girl gets harassed by the army officer, one may wonder why didn’t she say something to her mother, she just walked away. But then in most situations, girls don’t speak up because these things aren’t talked about. There’s no language for talking about things like sex.
You’ve written a few other children’s books in the past. What is it about this space that attracted you as a writer?
I work a lot with kids because I do theatre – I do workshops and storytelling with them. I started reading a lot of children’s books because I had to specify which book I’m using. I was reading so much. Then one day I got inspired and I wrote a story, which I used in a workshop. The kids loved it so I sent it to get published and the journey started.
I engage so much with children and this area is so exciting. I come from an activism based worldview so it’s exciting to share it with children. A lot of the stories for kids are no longer preachy but show a different way of looking at things, with a lot of wit and humour. At young ages, you can shape perspectives and show the world in a new light. It’s an important yet ignored space of literature. Kids have no prejudice, you give them a good story and they lap it up. They always have so many questions.
With this book, I’ve usually done this with older kids, around 12. And oh my god, they do come with a lot of prejudice about Kashmir. They say things like, “My father said, pachis pe toh marna hi hai toh tehra main hi maar dena chahiye.” [they have to die at twenty-five anyway so might as well kill them at thirteen]. There are a lot of interesting conversations which leads to them going back home to have conversations. But most of them haven’t been directly spoken to about what’s happening in Kashmir.
The book has now been published, has been reviewed and discussed. In this process, have you discovered or heard something that made you reflect upon your work?
Ironically, a lot of publishers who rejected the book said there’s no story or no plot. The feedback was that it’s so minimalistic. But once the book got published, the readers would say that they had to read the book multiple times to understand each sentence and create their own narrative. The book gave so many triggers to imagine so many scenarios – it consumed them a lot more than ‘a full book’.
Two friends of mine who are authors took the book to an NGO which works with orphaned girls in Dharavi. So they asked the girls if the girl from the book asked them, “Is it the same for you?”, what would they say. The girls said they would respond that yes, it is. They were in Mumbai, but they could relate to what the book was saying.
This book deals with themes that are very controversial and quite personal to many. How do you navigate such issues in the space of children’s literature?
I actually don’t know how to navigate but I don’t know how to write something that is not true for me. When I’m writing something I don’t think about whether what I write about may put me in a situation where I might not get published; otherwise I would never be able to write.
I once wrote a book called ‘I Need to Pee’ which was for children and it was about a girl who needed to go pee. The adults around her keep shaming her but she doesn’t take that shame. She instead says it is the fault of the adults for not having proper public toilets around. I had a lot of trouble finding publishers for it. They said children would love it but parents wouldn’t pick up the book. I had to wait for three years to get the book published.
A publisher asked that for the illustration of the girl character, the shorts should be longer. So I asked if I would have been asked to do the same if the character was a boy. They got angry and said they couldn’t understand what I was asking, but the publishers were sexualising a child!
So, it takes time. Publishers grow up in the same societies we do. You can blame them but I didn’t want to change anything or succumb to them because I wouldn’t have been happy. We are also changing and evolving as a society. We need to keep taking chances and go with our gut feeling. If it takes time, then it will take time, that’s okay.
Has your experience in activism impacted you as an author?
Of course! I don’t think anyone can write outside of their politics. Maybe some authors aren’t so aware about it or pointed about it, but their lived experience will come through in their writing. If I’m going through this whole process of being published, then I might as well be conscious of what it is I want to say. It’s not that there’s no humour and adventure but children really do look forward to adults talking to them instead of keeping them in some fantasy world. I try to make as much use of this space to connect with the reader using the truth I see.
I feel strongly for women’s issues and gender equality, which reflects in my work. All my protagonists are girls but they aren’t stereotypical pretty girls waiting for prince charming. They’re human beings going through adventures with friends. They have questions and curiosities about the world. But to see illustrations of a girl doing things that usually Mowgli or Huckleberry Finn do leaves an impact.
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Image sources- Picture of Neha Singh sent in herself, pictures from book taken by writer of this article
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