01 Oct 2018 13:15 IST

Reading empowers, but the assault on freedom continues

Why do we end up feeling helpless and vulnerable?

The winners of the recently announced Neev Book Awards are an unequivocal testament to the slow but sure steps that children’s literature in India is taking to become more diverse, inclusive and creative. Indeed, the overarching discourse at the recently concluded NEEV literary festival conducted by the Neev Academy, a school in Bengaluru, rarely strayed far from the theme of not only creating and nurturing a culture of reading, but emphasising the need to tackle supposedly sticky issues head on in books, both for small children and young adults.

And what were some of these issues? Rape, domestic violence, homophobia, gender inclusion, disability, revisiting history, inclusion, exclusion, oppression, dispossession, the environment, child sexual abuse… Simultaneously, the organisers ensured that a huge and wonderfully wide and eclectic selection of books were available for perusal and purchase; there were books to satisfy every tastebud and every wallet.

Different voices

The winner of the award for best picture book went to Rinchin’s I Will Save My Land, illustrated by Sagar Kolwankar and published by Tulika. It tells the story of little Mati who lives in a tribal village in Chhattisgarh whose land is under threat of being taken over by a powerful company to mine the coal that lies beneath. The story unflinchingly yet quietly raises questions of possession/dispossession and provokes a discussion around the idea of development.

In the second category of picture books for slightly older children, the award went to Tiger Boy by Mitali Perkins. Published by Duckbill, the story tells of a tiger cub missing from the Sunderban biodiverse reserve, and the efforts of a boy and his sister to save it from evil, human predators. This book, which has already won honours and recognition, shows how sometimes we have to take risks to preserve what we love and give up some things for a greater good.

Queen of Ice by Devika Rangachari won the award in the YA category. This is a fictionalised account of Didda who, following her marriage as a child to the dissolute ruler of Kashmira, finds herself heading the kingdom and having to manage a court ridden with factions and conspiracies. She is no wilting violet, however. She is ambitious and completely capable of tackling the challenges facing the kingdom. Devika Rangachari skillfully marries fact and fiction in this novel published by Duckbill about a turbulent phase in tenth century Kashmir’s history.

Mature content

The founder of the festival and the school, Kavita Sabharwal, firmly believes in the power of reading and in giving all those associated with children’s books their rightful place in India’s literary landscape. Hence, the scale of the festival and the generosity of the purse. This was the second edition of the litfest, and was held over three days (September 27-29) at the school, and featured over 60 writers and illustrators.

The many interactions and conversations certainly injected a sense of hope all around. For instance, writer and one of the founders of the Madras Crocodile Bank, Zai Whitaker, shared her amazement at what had happened at her workshop around Kali and the Rat Snake published several years ago by Tulika. It is about a little Irula boy who is perceived as being ‘different’ by classmates at school. This child pointed out how Kali never tried to change, or be anything other than himself just to make himself liked by the others. He remained true to his culture, he said, he ate his tiffin of fried termites, and was proud that his father was a snake-catcher. All this from the lips of an urban 12-year-old. Zai couldn’t get over it.

At the same time, some of the conversations threw up troubling concerns at other levels, one of them being the inability to understand the importance and necessity of understanding changing perceptions regarding gender. In the lead-up to the festival, and unconnected with it, I had already been presented closely with instances of child sexual abuse that had left me feeling shaken and disturbed. Shefalee Jain, who teaches art at Ambedkar University, and has written and illustrated for children, circulated a sheet of paper chronicling the harassment meted out to a fellow-artist, and spoke about how helpless she and her friends felt about all that had been happening.

Hindered voices

It’s a curious story. About 11 years ago, Chandramohan mounted an exhibition as part of his course work and examination at MS University, Vadodara. Taking umbrage at the pictures, a group of people barged into the gallery, destroyed his work and had the police arrest him. No amount of protest and pressure from the student and sympathetic community made a difference, and he was refused bail. To quote from the pamphlet written/illustrated by Lokesh Khodke and published by Blue Jackal, “According to some folk songs of this city, Chandramohan had a luxurious life between year one and year 11. As part of this luxury he was denied his degree for 11 years, and because the university denied his degree certificate to him he could not apply for any jobs. After a point nobody offered him any exhibitions and he could not sell any of his art works for a living. He forced to not leave the beautiful city of Vadodara, he was not allowed to visit his village. The society around him was so tolerant that he couldn’t believe it!” He was required to report to the police station every week.

Out of sheer frustration, he one day walked to the VC’s office and set fire to it. To quote: “As you can see, he was so overwhelmed by the love of the police, the university and the society that he needed some change, some twist in the story…and in the 11th year he put fire in the VC’s office.”

Chandramohan’s story was quite clearly fading from people’s memories. The fire may have reignited discussion around his plight. His story is also the story of thousands of others in similar situations, people simply languishing, harassed unfairly and lying forgotten somewhere, who knows where.