by Devashish Makhija
In ‘When Ali Became Bajrangbali’, a monkey is portrayed as being a god on the one hand while on the other hand, a monkey and his fellow creatures in a tree are shamelessly deprived of their basic rights. Through this story we tried to question whether ‘development’ means anything outside of the needs of human beings.
Most religions seem to have conflicting opinions on our origins and reasons for being. And they fight and kill over that. Yet, people of all these religions seem to wield a smug authority over nature. Heroes are those who can tear a lion open with their bare hands. Gods are those who sit astride peacocks. Have we ever been allowed to think about the lion that is being torn open? Or that the peacock would rather be dancing than slaving as a throne?
Why should things be the way we are told they should be? If a tree is to be cut down in the name of ‘development’, why do we need this ‘development’? Can there not be a road that can weave around these trees? Our mountain highways weave around mountains too, just because we can’t cut down a mountain. Then why not the same treatment to trees? If there is a monkey that some humans call ‘god’ why can’t He solve problems for monkeys too? If all our bodies eventually become dust and return to the earth then how can we ‘own’ pieces of this earth? And fight one another to hold on to these pieces?
The monkey in this story is called Ali. Why? To make us – the human readers of the story – wonder if he is even cognizant of the religious connotation of his own name. And that he sets out to seek, discover, and ‘become’ Bajrangbali – a god of a different religion from his own. Would we be more peaceful if we were all of the same religion? Or of no religion at all? Would we be less divisive? Or not divisive at all? Would a common higher belief – or no higher belief at all, except for a belief in togetherness – make us a better species for the other species to cohabit this world with?
Development. God. Religion. Ownership. War. Nationalism. The Right thing to do. And the Wrong. Light is good. Dark is evil. Obedience is rewarded. Disobedience is punished. Who decided these things for us? And why should we all accept them without questioning them?
Questions like these are what the structured systems we are born into would like us to NOT ask. And its questions like these that I consistently try to raise in my writings for children and young adults. The younger the mind, the lower the walls it may have built around itself. I seek to have these difficult conversations over those low walls through stories that thrill, tickle, tease and tantalise.
The monkey in ‘When Ali became Bajrangbali’, the little boy in ‘Why Paploo was perplexed’, the Adivasi of ‘We are the dancing forest’, the protagonist’s adventurous journey in ‘Oonga’ all seek to raise questions within their worlds where others around them are scared to not just ask but even to acknowledge the answers these questions may compel them to confront.
The greatest stories for children and young minds have often been those that tried to talk about things the societies of that time and place wouldn’t allow. ‘Alice in Wonderland’ is a subversive mathematical treatise disguised as an absurdist children’s book. It speaks of violence and abuse and addiction and otherization and breaking stereotyping in the most fantastical of ways. Rereading it as I grew I never even realised when the book started making me think about, doubt, and question things I had started to take at face value in the narratives of the world around me.
The fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm were often bleak historical reportage in childish disguise. In their time no one was allowed to speak openly about child abuse, the subjugation of women, slavery, class structures. Scratch the surface of their stories and you will find socially unacceptable questions and ideas brilliantly disguised in a socially acceptable form – bed time stories. I riffed off one such – Little Red Riding Hood – and found in the story’s beating heart a heart breaking expose of child abuse within the near-unbreakable superstructure of patriarchy. It morphed into my first feature length film – ‘Ajji’.
Where history books and scientific journals cannot tread, stories can – they can remind us that we don’t own this earth, that we need to be gentle, peaceful, loving, respectful, nurturing. And stories can do this without preaching or instructing. They can do this by making us question blindly accepted norms. And arrive at our own personal answers – epiphanies, truths, realisations, understandings that then make each of us unique. Because we didn’t accept what others wanted us to. We made our own roads that we then proceeded to walk on.
Devashish Makhija has had a solo art show ‘Occupying Silence’ (2008), written the children’s books ‘When Ali became Bajrangbali’ (2011) and ‘Why Paploo was perplexed’ (2011), as well as a Harper-Collins collection of short stories ‘Forgetting‘ (2014), the forthcoming book of poems ‘Disengaged’, and the YA novel ‘Oonga’ (2020). His work has also featured in numerous anthologies including ‘Mumbai Noir‘ (2012), ‘Penguin First Proof‘ (2005) and Sahitya Akademi’s ‘Modern English Poetry by Younger Indians‘ (2019).
He has written and directed the short films ‘Taandav‘, ‘El’ayichi‘, ‘Agli Baar‘ (And then they came for me), ‘Rahim Murge pe mat ro‘ (Don’t cry for Rahim LeCock), ‘Absent‘, ‘Happy’, and the feature films ‘Ajji‘ (Granny) and ‘Bhonsle”. See his IMDb entry here.
September is #WorldKidLit month and this year the GLLI blog is exploring different aspects of #IndiaKidLit in the run-up to the 2022 Neev Literature Festival, a celebration of Indian children’s literature being held Sept 24 and 25 in Bangalore. At the Festival, the winners of the 2022 Neev Book Award, which aims to promote and encourage high-quality children’s literature from India, will be announced in 4 categories: Early Years, Emerging Readers, Junior Readers, and Young Adult.
- Karthika Gopalakrishnan is the Head of Reading at Neev Academy, Bangalore, and the Director of the Neev Literature Festival. In the past, she has worked as a children’s book writer, editor, and content curator at Multistory Learning which ran a reading program for schools across south India. Prior to this, Karthika was a full-time print journalist with two national dailies. Her Twitter handle is g_karthika.
- Katie Day is an international school teacher-librarian and one of the Jury Co-Chairs for the Neev Book Award. An American with a masters in children’s literature from the UK and a masters in library science from Australia, she has lived in Asia since 1997, including 15 years in Singapore, first at United World College of Southeast Asia and now at Tanglin Trust School. She has also lived and worked in Thailand, Vietnam, Hong Kong and the UK. Her Twitter handle is librarianedge.