#INDIAKIDLIT – The Invisible Visibles – Sikh Representation in Children’s Literature

by Rasil Kaur Ahuja

Sikhs are ostensibly the most visible minority in the world, yet we remain near invisible in the books children read.

Famous Sikh Gurus (Guru Nanak, Guru Arjan, Guru Har Gobind, Guru Tegh Bahadur, Guru Gobind Singh) – Amar Chitra Katha comics – edited by Anant Pai

Growing up in the India of the 1970s, many of us read about our Sikh Gurus and historical heroes in Amar Chitra Katha comics. These infused readers with an appreciation for the many sacrifices our Gurus made so that we could freely practice our faith, but mirrors they were not. In contrast, the early 1980s US I grew up in was all about stories – contemporary and historical, fantasy and science fiction. This was my Judy Blume bhakt phase. I may not have looked anything like Margaret, but I was equally awkward. Mildred E. Taylor “woke” me at age 11 shocking me with the injustice to which Cassie and her family were subjected.

The themes in the books I read were universal, crossing all boundaries, and permanently etching themselves into my inner consciousness. Every week, I joined a friend on a weekly jaunt to the local Fairfax County public library where I could borrow a precariously tall stack of books without raising nary a brow. In today’s world, I would be a meme of the analog.

Back in India again between 1984 and 1986, I was disappointed to find the school library perpetually locked. The pay-per-use neighbourhood library was the size of a hawker’s truck sandwiched in a narrow by lane between the chemist and the dry grocer. The only books this “librarian” had of interest were of Greek and Italian men with strong jawlines. There was no way for a curious 13-year-old to get her hands on those so I stuck to the widely and easily available mystery sleuths of the Secret Seven, Nancy Drew, and Hardy Boys. I never looked for books about people like me. I hadn’t grown up with the expectation that I had a right, and that it was right, to find mirrors.

Where are the books about the lived experiences, both universal and unique, of kesadari Sikhs (males and females who do not cut their hair), sahajdari Sikhs (who have cut their hair), and “non-Sikh punjabis—those who may be ‘culturally’ Sikh but not ‘religiously’ Sikh”? [1] Where do we find them – in India or the diaspora?

To answer these questions, I ran an informal, completely non-scientific survey amongst close family and friends whose ages ranged from their 30s to 60s. [2] Not one survey respondent reported ever having read English children’s fiction in their childhood featuring a Sikh as a protagonist, secondary character, or even tertiary one in the illustrations. [3] (To be fair, there wasn’t much children’s literature for most Indian children in the 1970s.) One respondent shared that she was in her 60s when she first chanced upon a Sikh in a children’s book while browsing a UK bookstore with her toddler grandson. Few could name more than two children’s books with Sikh characters. Most reported that while they are pleased that books now portray a more realistic and accurate visual of kesadari Sikhs, they still carry childhood scars from the manner in which Sikhs were caricatured by popular media.

Fauja Singh Keeps Going: the true story of the oldest person to ever run a marathon – by Simran Jeet Singh, illustrated by Baljinder Kaur (2020)

The good news is that, with a recent spate of new books [4], if we may call it that, by both Sikh and non-Sikh authors on Sikh lives, a correction has begun. The beautifully illustrated Fauja Singh Keeps Going epitomizes the Sikh spirit of courage through the story of one of the world’s oldest marathoners (now 111 years) who was born with a disability.

The Many Colors of Harpeet Singh – by Supriya Kelkar, illustrated by Alea Marley (2019)

Overwhelmed by a move to a new city, the young protagonist in The Many Colours of Harpreet Singh dons a different colour patka every day to match the whirlwind of emotions within as he settles into his new life.

Hair Twins – by Raakhee Mirchandani, illustrated by Holly Hatam (2021)

Another picture book that celebrates the faith and its most identifiable marker is Hair Twins, manifested by a little girl and her father’s bond of sharing long locks. It transported me to one of my most cherished childhood memories – my mother braiding my then long hair while my father tied his regimental turban as we together recited the Japji Sahib morning prayer in harmony.

Pinkoo Shergill Pastry Chef – by Vibha Batra, illustrated by Shamika Chaves (2021)

While these exemplars of good storytelling offer a mirror to Sikh children, they also serve as windows to educate young readers who are unfamiliar with the faith. But all kids grow up and as they do, they want books that tell stories about where they are in their stage of life. In the early chapter book Pinkoo Shergill Pastry Chef, a budding baker defies gender stereotypes and his father by following his passion for baking over the family sport of competitive shooting. Which young child can’t relate to being pushed into interests that aren’t theirs?

Step up to the Plate, Maria Singh – by Uma Krishnaswami (2017)

The Sikh community, whether in India or the diaspora, is not homogenous. Where do we see stories that celebrate a mixed or hyphenated heritage? The middle-grade historical fiction Step Up to the Plate, Maria Singh brings us a Sikh-Mexican protagonist who pushes against the boundaries set by her conservative father. Through Maria we learn about the challenges faced by Sikh immigrants who arrived on America’s west coast in the 1940s, unable to legally own land or marry outside their race (Loving v. Virginia).

Karma Khullar’s Mustache – by Kristi Wientge (2017)

In Karma Khullar’s Mustache we explore the angst of a pre-teen girl as she sprouts hair on her upper lip, relish and relate to her “joint” mixed-heritage family, and appreciate the non-traditional gender role of her stay-at-home dad.

Shine Coconut Moon – by Neesha Meminger (2009)

As we mature into young adults, books dip into more pixilated themes. Shine, Coconut Moon chronicles the journey of a young girl in New Jersey who learns about her identity both in terms of faith and family against the backdrop of 9/11.

A Match Made in Mehendi – by Nandini Bajpai (2019)

Back in Jersey again is A Match Made in Mehendi, a delightful story about a family of generational matchmakers. The young female protagonist carries her hyphenated Sikh-Indian-American identity refreshingly lightly.

Grit: The Major Story – by Major DP Singh, VR Ferose, Sriram Jagannathan (2019)

On the opposite end of the spectrum is the graphic novel Grit: The Major Story about the life of Major DP Singh, India’s first blade runner. It’s a brutally honest and inspiring account of a painful childhood, a never-gonna-give-up dream to join the Indian Army, and the injury sustained during the Kargil War that left him without a limb, but not without the resolve to live his best life.

I grew up with a strong sense of Sikh identity and pride. Just because I was a minority didn’t mean I was insecure. As I grew old(er), the Indian diaspora came to life with stories that mirrored some of my own immigrant experiences. At first it was enough, until it wasn’t. Here I was, in plain sight and still barely visible. This post and my work with the Neev Literature Festival give me reasons to feel optimistic that change has arrived.

I would liken the growth of children’s literature about young Indian lives, including Sikh ones, here at home and in the diaspora, to a renaissance. School libraries or home collections, the bookworm with the torchlight or the reluctant reader – we all benefit from true diversity, equity and inclusion. For me, inclusion extends to books that draw neglected populations into our consciousness as background characters in the story or illustrations. Equity is augmenting our libraries with books in which Sikh lives are central. Diversity is when, within that collection, we show a range of Sikh lives because neither the Sikh experience nor identity are singular.

There is no shortage of stories to tell be they about our individual identities or our shared humanity. As Lucy Mangan reminds us, books … “are insurmountable proof that the bundle of flaws, fancies, idiocies, instincts, anxieties and aptitudes that is you is neither unique nor alone.” [5]

Mirror, mirror on the wall, Let’s find stories that show us all.

Other titles featuring secondary or tertiary Sikh characters or our shared stories:

The Miracle on Sunderbaag Street – by Nandita da Cunha, illustrated by Priya Kuriyan (2020) / Ada Twist, Scientist – by Andrea Beaty, illustrated by David Roberts (2016)
The Big Thoughts of Little Luv – by Karan Johar, illustrated by Priya Kuriyan (2020) / The Bench – by Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex (2021)
All Are Neighbors – by Alexandra Penfold, illustrated by Suzanne Kaufman (2022) / Party for Dads – by Adam and Charlotte Guillain, illustrated by Ada Grey (2019)
The Night Diary – by Veera Hiranandani (2018) / Across the Line – by Nayanika Mahtani (2019)
The Piano: Story of a Friendship – by Nandita Basu (2020) / Being Gandhi – by Paro Anand (2020)

[1] Geetanjali Singh Chanda, “Sikh Children’s Literature in the Diaspora,” in Sikh Diaspora: Theory, Agency, and Experience, ed. Steven Engler, Richard King, Kocku von Stuckrad, Gerard Wiegers (Brill, 2013), 351-79. Available at: https://brill.com/view/book/9789004257238/B9789004257238_016.xml

[2] The sample size of 20 is perhaps not statistically significant, but helpful for the purpose of this post as similar thoughts were echoed by multiple generations who are or have lived in India, the US, the UK, and Switzerland.

[3] Respondents were requested not to include didactic books on the Sikh faith or Amar Chitra Katha comics.

[4] Included here are only those titles that I have personally read. For more booklists, please visit The Sikh Coalition and Kaur Life).

[5] Lucy Mangan, Bookworm A Memoir of Childhood Reading (UK: Square Peg, 2018), p. 306.

Rasil Kaur Ahuja

Rasil Kaur Ahuja is a reader, writer and educator now based in Bengaluru, India. She is the author of two middle-grade novels featuring Sikh lives, Watcha Gonna Do, Rosie Singh? and the award-winning Unfair. She is a co-founder of the Neev Literature Festival and a juror for the Neev Book Award. Rasil’s work is her passion and both are inspired by Toni Morrison’s words, “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” Her Instagram handle is Rasil_Reads.

Watcha Gonna Do, Rosie Singh? – by Rasil Ahuja (2017) / Unfair – by Rasil Ahuja (2020)

September is #WorldKidLit month and in 2022 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.

The Editors for #WorldKidLitMonth and #IndiaKidLit

  • 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.

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