Shabnam Minwalla: Breaking Walls

Shabnam Minwalla’s hOle book When Jiya Met Urmila was published in October 2018.

Jiya and Urmila are both nine years old. They live three minutes away from each other. So it makes perfect sense that they should be friends. In life, as well as in fiction.

Except, of course, they’re not friends. They’re not even the most casual of acquaintances. The reason for this is obvious but sad – they live on different sides of a wall.

Jiya lives in a fancy new housing complex in Parel. This was once the industrial heart of Mumbai. But today the puffing chimneys and surging sea of workers have been replaced by glass-and-granite towers behind forbidding gates.

Urmila lives just outside the fancy housing complex. She belongs to a fragment of Parel that has not yet been taken over by swimming pools and landscaped lawns. Her tiny home is in a crowded, crumbling chawl that the well-heeled newcomers describe as “an eyesore”.

Of course, Jiya and Urmila are figments of the imagination.

Regrettably, the wall that divides them is not. It is high and getting more and more difficult to overcome. This is something I realised as I began working on `When Jiya Met Urmila’.

When Jiya Met Urmila is a book about two little girls from different worlds–the story of a brave friendship.

The book was conceived about a year ago in unusual circumstance. I’d already written two hOle Books for Duckbill. And while I usually wrote for older children, I enjoyed the process of writing for six-year-olds as well. So I asked if I could write a third hOle Book.

“Yes,” my editor replied. “But …” The word “but” fills me with panic. This time it was justified.

Anushka Ravishankar was looking for stories that went beyond “children living in middle-class urban circumstances, doing middle-class urban things”. She wanted to expand the scope – include different communities, different classes and to touch upon “various kinds of otherness”.

The journalist in me approved. The children’s writer in me baulked.

Squeezing an entire story into 5000 words was already a challenge — a bit like pushing Hulk into XXS jeans.  To cram a social message as well could lead to a messy wardrobe malfunction.

Then I thought about Sania and Aaliya.

My older daughter Aaliya was born fourteen years ago. She was a vocal infant. Her colicky protests tumbled onto the street below – from where another baby yelled back with equal gusto. Sania Baby’s father was a scooter mechanic who lived in a ridiculously tiny room down the road. So the quiet lane served as Sania’s bedroom and playroom.

Naturally, the two babies got to know each other. They gave each other toothless grins (and baleful glances). They ta-taed each other. They even played together a couple of times. Then they grew up.

Aaliya got busy with school, violin and playdates. Sania also got busy with school, neighbourhood festivities and tuitions. They never became friends.

Today they barely notice each other.

Somewhere in this was a story. I got cracking – and set it in a gated community with high walls, designed to keep out “those people”.

When Jiya Met Urmila.jpgIt was easy to create Jiya. She leads a life similar to my daughters. She attends an expensive, make-learning-fun school and spends her evenings at various classes. She’s coddled, over-protected and convinced that the adults in her life will take care of all wrinkles and obstacles.

It was also easy to conjure up Urmila. I felt I had encountered her often as a journalist. In the book she attends a drab municipal school and spends too much time watching TV. She is feisty, self-reliant and feels a mix of resentment and curiosity towards her prosperous new neighbours.

I had my characters in place. Now they needed to meet, overcome their prejudices, and eventually become friends.

Which is when I hit a roadblock.

Jiya and Urmila were the same age. They were neighbours. But any way I looked at it, they lead parallel lives. There was no realistic point of intersection. They didn’t share a school or a hobby. They didn’t share a playground.

Admittedly they shared a street. But while Urmila walked along the uneven pavements of Dr Dalvi Road, Jiya whizzed past in an air-conditioned car.

Which said something frightening about our world. For though we worry about growing ghettoisation along communal lines, we quietly accept the barrier between economic classes. We seem to think that the wall between “us” and “them” is inevitable. And even though we occasionally breach it, our children never do. There’s just no time, between kathak class and Hindi tuitions. Between birthday parties and tennis.

This is not a uniquely Indian predicament. A couple of years ago The New York Times carried an article that warned that difference in childrearing was leading to “widening inequality with far-reaching consequences”.

“The lives of children from rich and poor American families look more different than they have in decades.

Well-off families are ruled by calendars, with children enrolled in ballet, soccer and after-school programs, according to a new Pew Research Center survey. There are usually two parents, who spend a lot of time reading to children and worrying about their anxiety levels and hectic schedules.

In poor families, however, children tend to spend their time at home or with extended family, the survey found. They are more likely to grow up in neighborhoods that their parents say aren’t great for raising children, and their parents worry about them getting shot, beaten up or in trouble with the law.”

More and more, it seemed imperative that Jiya and Urmila meet. Even if it was only in the realm of fiction.

And so – against all odds – they met and became friends on the pages of a book. And I hope that a wall that is broken in fiction will lead to a tiny crack in reality.

A slightly shorter version of this article was earlier published in Indian Express.









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