Harsh Mander is a well-known writer and activist. We are proud to be publishing his first book for teen readers: Invisible People.
He is interviewed by Samina Mishra, film-maker and writer.
SM: Non-fiction writing for children in India is mostly restricted to textbook-like books, based on school curriculum, unlike your book that is full of learning even though it is far from a textbook approach. What made you think of writing this for children?
HM: We live in a country where there is enormous inequality in childhood and youth. The lives of children who are privileged are so different from those born in poverty and stigma. And the distance between these has grown in my lifetime. We were always an unequal society but in the last 20-25 years, the middle class has become even more uncaring. There is no rage, not even an acknowledgement of this stark inequality. It is only about having a good life–there are hardly any conversations with young people about this. Children in the middle classes are taught to not care and to look away. I feel the problem is not with young people but the generation above them. So I’ve always been interested in talking to young people about issues that we are silent about but I want to do it in a way that talks to the heart and is not moralistic. I thought about telling stories, because stories can create empathy. Stories told just like fiction except that they would be true.
SM: Children lead increasingly sanitized lives with the world of adults and the world of children seen as separate compartments. But your book does not subscribe to that vision. Can you share your thoughts on this?
HM: Arundhati Roy once said that the one successful secession in India has been the secession of the middle class from the rest of the country. The middle class today has gated colonies, fancy schools, fancy hospitals … If the electricity system does not deliver, you generate your own. If there is pollution, you clean up the air in your home, for yourself. So the middle class has opted out of all publicly-generated provisions into a privately-catered world.
It was different when I was growing up. Our worlds intersected – in public transport, cinema, while travelling or shopping. Now as someone in the middle class, the only poor people you encounter are those who serve you. So you don’t see them as human beings like yourself. I felt compelled to tell the stories of the people I met from these contexts because I was left with admiration and awe for the way they dealt with their difficulties, especially the young people. I wondered if I would have had the same spirit as them in the same circumstances.
SM: While the stories in the book are of tremendous hardships and injustice, they always end with possibility. How important is hope in books for children and how do you link that to your own work?
HM: Even when I write books for adults, I almost instinctively look for hope. My chosen work is with people who have survived hate, violence, hunger, homelessness. These are extremely bleak stories but within them, I also observe courage and kindness–the lived realities of people struggling against the greatest odds. It is important to capture that as well. So it is not an artificial creation of hope. We just need to be alert to how hope is imbued in these stories. As chroniclers and storytellers, we should not only observe the darkness but also the humanity.
SM: Do any of the characters in the stories know that you are sharing their stories with children and what has been their response?
HM: I have not yet been able to share this news with the characters in the stories but I am waiting to do so eagerly. I am glad that the book is coming out in Hindi as well. I had not originally thought of the target audience when I wrote the stories. I’ve been writing for years and then I began to think about stories of young people that would resonate with young people.
SM: Tell us a little about your work and what took you away from the government to the non-governmental space?
HM: I see a continuity in my life before I joined the IAS, while I was there and afterwards. My concerns, preoccupations and politics have remained unchanged. I loved the years I spent in the IAS because I worked mostly with deprived populations and so could implement my beliefs to a large extent. It was really Gujarat 2002 that made me feel that I had to work from outside the system. I felt that justice, compassion and democracy–key values of our constitution–were under grave threat.
SM: What is the ideal response that you would like the book to evoke in its readers?
HM: I think the response I would like is what I call egalitarian compassion. There is one kind of compassion where you feel you are the giver and the power relationship is unequal. That is not the response I would look for. I would like that a young person of privilege who has read the book recognises the next time there is a knock at the car window, or sees a disabled person that, first of all, that person is a human being, a person. But also that the person is equal in human dignity as the young person of privilege. I hope s/he would understand that s/he hasjust been protected from the difficulties that the other person has had. So egalitarian compassion would mean sharing that person’s pain as an equal.
I would also hope for reason. Normally when we see a poor person, we assume that’s the way the person is but what needs to be recognised is the structural inequality and public policy that have impoverished that person and not because the person is a certain way.