Supriya Kelkar is an author and screenwriter who has worked on the writing teams for several commercial Hindi films. Her debut middle-grade historical fiction novel, “Ahimsa,” won the 2015 New Visions Award, which honors a middle grade or young adult novel by an author of color who has not previously published in that genre.
“Ahimsa” takes place in colonial India in the 1940s, during the fight for independence from British rule, and 10-year-old Anjali’s mother announces that she has quit her job to become a Freedom Fighter. The story was inspired by Kelkar’s great-grandmother, who joined the freedom movement against the British.
In the 1990s, Kelkar grew up in a town in the Midwest that was not very diverse and faced discrimination from peers and adults. Someone threw a brick through her family’s window. By middle school, Kelkar was so embarrassed by the Hindi music she loved privately that she would beg her parents to roll the car windows up so people wouldn’t stare. Because the texture of her hair was different from most of the other children in town, a high school classmate wrote on her locker in permanent marker, “Put a comb in that rat’s nest.” Children once screamed at her parents and her as they left a Diwali celebration: “Go back to your country, Osama!”
“A lot of people don’t understand what erasure, microaggressions and racism can do to a child,” Kelkar said. “The effect can be subtle but it can also be long-lasting and deep, affecting how a child feels about their self-worth, their culture and their background.”
“I’d love for the next generation of Indian-American kids to not feel shamed into turning their music down, or rolling their windows up,” she said. “And I would love for all kids to get to see themselves in a book, because every child is important, and having your story out there just reinforces that.”
I recently chatted with Kelkar, via Google Hangouts and email, about her debut novel, social justice, and parenting and activism. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: How did the idea for this book come together?
A: In 2003, I began to think a lot about my great-grandmother’s story. Her name was Anasuyabai Kale and she was born in 1896. She lost her mother and two of her siblings at a young age. But I was so fascinated by this strong female who was able to lead and inspire so many.
When Mahatma Gandhi asked each family to give a member to the freedom movement, her husband was the breadwinner. If he joined, they would lose their income. So she did. She was headstrong, intelligent, brave and determined. She was imprisoned once because she was going to give a fiery speech at a protest. She stayed in prison until Gandhi negotiated with the British to release all political prisoners who had not been violent offenders.
In 1942, after Gandhi and much of Congress was imprisoned, there were several riots where my great-grandmother lived. She would always go and meet with the victims of the violence and rape and offer her help, advocating for their rights. And after independence, her devotion to her country continued, as she went on to become a two-term congresswoman.
The story was bursting with girl-power and womanpower and resistance and persistence and I could not get it out of my head.
Q: Anjali is a reluctant activist; it is her mother who pulls her into her circle of Freedom Fighters. How does her experience of and commitment to activism change? How does her relationship with her mother evolve?
A: Anjali is a child of privilege. It takes her awhile to understand that even if a problem doesn’t directly affect her, it doesn’t mean the problem doesn’t exist. Once she has this awakening, she becomes fully committed to activism, and then has a hard time understanding why others who share her privilege aren’t at all interested in joining. Anjali is used to getting her way with her mother, who is quite liberal for the time. Although she has always respected her mother and was in awe of her intelligence, over the course of the book, she sees her mother in a new light, as a hero.
Q: In one of the most powerful scenes in the book, Anjali, who is Brahman, is told to “stay in her lane” by Mohan, who is Dalit. She has to face her caste privilege and is made uncomfortable by what he says to her. How does their friendship challenge her assumptions, and vice versa?
A: Like most children, and people, at that time, Anjali never thought anything of a boy just a few years older than her working to clean the sewage out of their “dry latrines,” as they are called when the toilets do not flush into a sewer system. When the injustice of it all is brought to her attention and she finally has that awakening, she is ashamed and immediately wants to change things. Her friendship with Mohan helps her see that while the status quo worked for her, it hurt others. Why shouldn’t everyone be allowed into her school? Why are some people not allowed in their small town’s temple? Why is it okay for people to treat their fellow human beings as beneath them? At the same time, she can be blinded by her privilege, thinking change can happen easily if she just wants it to happen, and over the course of the book realizes that actual change sometimes takes time.
Mohan is too grounded in reality to believe in everything Anjali says, but for a period, their friendship makes him think his status quo may actually change, or it may change for others in his community. And for Mohan, who is always deeply aware of how unusual their friendship is, just talking back to Anjali and challenging her when she needs to stay in her lane, is a change to his status.
Q: Anjali comes to realize that Gandhi is deeply flawed — he is a racist, for one, and can be patronizing — and she learns more about B.R. Ambedkar, who campaigned against social discrimination against Dalits and is a figure rarely mentioned in texts for young people in the United States. What about these two men is so fascinating to Anjali?
A: Anjali has to grapple with the fact that she could admire much about Gandhi’s ideas and also totally disagree with other things he preached. It is a bit of a shock for her to find out that Gandhi, whom her parents so adored, could be wrong on things. And I think she, like me, really admired all that Ambedkar was doing, the more she learned about him.
Q: While the book ends “happily for now” for Anjali and her family, you acknowledge in your author’s note that communal violence and caste violence are still a part of India, and that efforts are still being made to rectify these injustices. Why was it important to you to include this?
A: Although this book takes place almost a century ago, we are still seeing the issues of privilege and resistance today, both in India and in America. I wanted readers, especially young readers, to know that the injustice still exists, that strife still exists, that deep-seated issues still exist, so that they are aware of it, can check their own privilege in the matter, and can stand up for what is right, now and always.
Pooja Makhijani writes children’s books, essays and articles, and also develops educational media and curriculums. She can be found online at poojamakhijani.com.