by Samina Mishra
Equality is – when Mummy gives my sister and I the same amount of money
Inequality is – when Mummy takes my brother out visiting but not me
Equality is – when my friend and I get the same marks
Inequality is – when Sir does not give girls a chance to go on stage on Aug 15
Equality is – when there’s a fight in the building and the people on our floor support us
Inequality is – when our neighbours don’t celebrate our festivals with us
Equality is – when everyone goes to vote
Inequality is – when someone says “Don’t talk to her, she’s from a lower caste!”
I wish – for a world that was equal in which no one was shamed
This is a poem written by a teenaged girl from a Dalit family in Govandi, Mumbai, as part of my ongoing project on children and citizenship.
The girl lives in a multi-storey resettlement complex with huge infrastructural challenges and studies at the local government school. The area outside her building is surrounded by what seems like years of garbage, lying uncollected. She talks of rarely going down to play because the streets are crowded and because there are groups of boys that make her uncomfortable. So she spends a lot of her free time looking at videos on the phone and practising dance moves. In the last year, there’s been a new development – as part of an urban development project, a library has been opened in the complex and she has started going there regularly. She loves that she can just sit in the library, look at the beautiful art in the picture books and read what she feels like. Will she find an image of herself in those books?
Almost two decades ago, when my son was a toddler, I remember discovering and reading Anthony Browne’s Voices in the Park in Delhi’s British Council Library, a book I keep going back to. The book is about a small encounter in the park told Rashomon-style in four voices – two children and two parents, from very different class backgrounds, who come to the park with their respective dogs. The book may have been located far away from us, but in the first decade of 21st century India, with its new gated communities, the less-diverse schools and the shrinking of public spaces accessible to all, it was not distant in experience. I think my little boy found an image of himself.
This is the role of literature – to act as windows and mirrors; to allow us to find ourselves, find others and make connections; to encourage us to look at the world in more nuanced ways. Children’s books must be about children’s worlds – all the worlds that all the different kinds of children inhabit. When children’s everyday lives are filled with layered experiences of inequality and injustice, it is the role of literature to reflect that and to help nurture an imagination that can look for ways to create a more just and equitable world. My son was lucky to read in a language that could find its way to Anthony Browne’s work, and the book encouraged us to have a conversation about differences and similarities, about inequality, about friendship. But do those opportunities exist for all children in India? And even for the English-reading children, are there enough books that open up the complex diversity of our country?
For a very long time, we have been bereft of this kind of representation in English language children’s books. Fortunately, the last two decades have seen a spurt of writing that has looked beyond the urban English-speaking child’s world. Books by writers like Rinchin and Siddhartha Sarma, and illustrators like Priya Kuriyan and Deepa Balsavar are rooted in the many contexts that our children are growing up in, offering multiple ways of seeing and understanding the world.
While these are early steps and there is much that needs to be done, these books have opened up worlds that privileged children have little experience of as well as becoming mirrors for those children who come from these worlds– the galis of the urban slum in which children find ways to play and have fun in I Am a Cat or the struggles of the Adivasis fighting to protect forest land in Year of the Weeds. Beauty, wonder, play, friendship and community are woven into these stories, bringing the reader representations from marginalised contexts that create space for feeling. This is the challenge for practitioners – to not reproduce the marginalised as simply the marginalised but instead create layered representations that allow for a recognition of similarities across diverse contexts and encourage the forming of connections.
One of the most critical things for writers and artists who create work for children is to think about how we do that. Whose stories do we tell and from what position? Lata Mani, feminist historian, cultural critic and filmmaker, talks of how “The stories we tell locate us” pointing to the interplay between the storyteller and the circumstances, and how that can be a shifting relationship. As practitioners, it is incumbent on us to examine that relationship, to interrogate ourselves as we reproduce the world and its stories.
Books like Beauty is Missing with the lush texture of small-town Kerala or Nani’s Walk to the Park with its unravelling of the myriad ways of creating community and experiencing wonder in an urban everyday emerge from a gaze that is reflective and a process that has questioned mainstream depictions of the world.
All stories are about world-making and representation is embedded in all art we create. The Vietnamese American writer and poet Ocean Vuong, has spoken about using a photo for the cover of his poetry book, Night Sky with Exit Wounds, a happy picture of Ocean as a little boy with two women, one probably his mother. They are smiling in the picture, the women holding little Ocean in a circle of love, similar to family photos in countless drawing rooms.
In fact, the photo was taken in a refugee camp in exchange for 3 cups of rice from the family’s daily ration. Talking about why he chose that photo for the book cover, Vuong speaks of how his research about the Vietnam War meant looking at hundreds of dead, mangled bodies – “ Bodies that look like me… So when you are most recognizable in your research as a corpse, it does something to you,” he says. “…And so I wanted for my first book to have Vietnamese bodies on the cover that were living… That photo was a moment of salvaging and preserving bodies in transit. What was it about these women, I thought, that would surrender their very sustenance, in order to preserve their image?”
That is world-making, an interplay between the real and the imagined that contains possibility. For Vuong’s mother, it was worth giving up her daily ration to create an image that made them more than refugees, more than victims. I like to think that it was also a moment that contained the possibility of the little boy growing up to tell his own stories because he experienced himself as more than just marginalised. This is why children’s books must have a generous, expansive vision, offering new and layered ways of being and belonging. Children’s books are about hope, even in a fraught world that seems broken. Perhaps, they can be the windows that make the wish of the teenage girl in Govandi come true:
I wish – for a world that was equal in which no one was shamed
Samina Mishra is a filmmaker, writer, and teacher based in New Delhi, with an interest in media for and about children. Her work uses the lens of childhood, identity and education to reflect the experiences of growing up in India.
Her recent work includes Jamlo Walks that tells a story of the migrants walking back home during the 2020 COVID-19 lockdown, Nida Finds a Way that follows a young girl as she explores the world around her including the anti-CAA/NRC public protest at Shaheen Bagh, and Happiness Class (2021), a documentary that explores the idea of happiness seen through the Happiness Curriculum in the Delhi government schools.
Samina also runs The Magic Key Centre for the Arts and Childhood, a virtual resource centre for children as well as adults working with and for children.
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.