Paro Anand has been writing thoughtful and moving books for kids and young adults, and has worked intensively with children. She won the Sahitya Akademi Award in 2017.
You have been writing on what are euphemistically called ‘difficult topics’ (as well as a range of others). How important do you think it is for children to read about such topics?
I get asked this question a lot but I think Manjula Padmanabhan answered it much better. Children read our myths, legends and epics and that is never questioned. There is so much violence, gender inequality, cross-dressings and everything in these stories, yet we object if there is any such in a contemporary story. Isn’t this hypocrisy>? Just to take one example, Arjun, in the Mahabharata, spends a year as a woman. If we were to talk about a young man being a cross dresser in a modern story, there would be objections.
The so-called difficult topics and situations are all around us. i am not pulling young people out of cotton wool and exposing them to horrors they know nothing about. they are already dealing with difficult things, I am only doing two things in any of my stories. One, presenting those subjects and asking my readers to raise questions, think about things and secondly, giving them hope that there is the possibility for them to be agents of change and not be helpless beings.
We live in a violent world. What role do you feel books play in helping children negotiate it?
Children are exposed to violence, whether it is in the big bad world out there, or in their very homes and schools. I want my readers to not accept this, but rather, think about it and ask why and discover the possibility of changing what’s wrong in the world. Take, for example, my story Bhabloo’s Bhabi, where a young man questions whether ‘mardangi’ or manhood necessarily requires him to be a wife-beater as he has seen his father and brother do. He decides that he will never try to exert his manhood in this way and decides to take matters into his own hands and stops his brother when he goes to beat his bhabi. Every single time I have told this story, I have had open discussions with young people, some of whom have faced the horror in their own homes. It empowers young people to take action.
Also, very importantly, it creates an understanding and empathy–something that seems to be in shorter and shorter supply
Some of your books were recently banned in some schools. What do you feel is the solution to the blinkered approach of schools to Indian books?
I have always stood behind the content I create and continue to bash on regardless. I offered to some of the schools that I would like to meet the parents and teachers who had raised the objections. I was not allowed to do that, but I would really like to engage with those who feel these are not appropriate books. I believe I could change some minds, as I have over all the years I have worked.
And it’s quite ironic that the very same book that gets banned is also given the Sahitya Akademi award!
You interact and work with schools and kids a lot. Tell us a bit about this. Does this help you as a writer?
Almost half my professional time is spent in engaging with young people and the other half, writing for them through my programme Literature in Action. I started the programme because I felt that stories were such a great door through which we could enter a safe space and talk about things that young people were already talking about, or that they should be. There is something I call ‘heard prejudice’ where young people start hating those who others are hating, without real understanding. I want them to think and make up their own minds. If, at the end of it, they still decide that they want to continue that hate, then so be it, but at least, let them ask and think and make up their own minds. I think that the interactions have achieved this with a large percent of the over 3 lakh young people I have interacted with.
How has children’s publishing in India changed in the years that you have been writing?
I can no longer really confidently talk about other languages as I once could, but by and large, English language publishing for children has been brave and bold and made huge leaps. Some years ago, a book with a title like No Guns at my Son’s Funeral, would not have been published. Not with that title, not with that content. But it was. It hasn’t been taken into any other Indian language, though i have tried quite often (it is translated into Spanish and German).
The kind of books that are coming out in the YA space, especially, are vaulting previously held taboos and restrictions. and people are buying them. Take Wanting Mor or Unbroken, or Slightly Burnt and Talking of Muskaan which have broached subjects for the very first time. My book 2 is an edgy, weird and wonderful collaborative graphic novel that my Swedish co-writer has not found a publisher for in Sweden, but Scholastic in India was brave enough to give it a shot.
I really want to congratulate the Indian publishers that have taken this leap of faith.
A little-known part of your career was when you headed the children’s publishing at NBT. Tell us a bit about that.
Heading the National Centre for Children’s LIterature, NBT, was most useful in showing me the other part of India. Until then, I was quite happy sitting in my ivory tower, writing my books and feeling very pleased that they were getting published.
However, setting up libraries in villages for children who had never held a book in their own hands, seeing the kind of challenges that these children faced, the kind of situation where no one was asking them what they wanted, really matured me as a person and therefore as a writer. I knew that I would have to write their stories as well as get more books to reach the unreached.
One incident really did do it for me. One girl in a remote village in Rajasthan, who had immediately sat down to read some of the books we had carried to create a village library, said, “We were living in darkness and ignorance, we had never seen books and we were quite happy, because we didn’t know they existed. But now that you’ve brought us out of that darkness, now that you’ve shown us a new world, you cannot expect that we will be happy to go back to that ignorance. we cannot be happy there any more. so what are you going to do to get more books to us because we are going to have finished reading these quite soon.”
I couldn’t sleep that night, wondering how i could right this wrong. That’s when my team and i came up with the idea of creating a wall newspaper. after all, the children themselves were the biggest resource. By simply putting up an old sari on a village wall, we could designate this as a space where young people could create their own reading material, their own stories, recipes, poems etc. all the while, getting a platform to express themselves. This was a hugely successful venture that went on to become a world record as the World’s Longest Newspaper (825 mts) involving over 3000 children in eleven states in India, in thirteen Indian languages.
I think the NCCL actually could have achieved much more, though. We need to develop contemporary literature from lesser known parts of India. Take the Northeast. What we see coming out of there for young people is largely folk stories and tribal stories. but we know nothing about what’s happening with young people’s lives today. I think such stories would greatly help in breaking down stereotypes and prejudice.