Friday, November 23, 2018

Supriya Kelkar's debut novel Ahimsa: the Indian independence movement through young eyes

It’s impressive how much cultural and historical detail Supriya Kelkar has worked into her debut novel without sacrificing pacing. Ahimsa moves along quickly, its title referring to the principle of non-violent resistance promoted by Gandhi during India’s struggle for independence from Britain.

In 1942, Shailaja Joshi, a young wife and mother, heeds Gandhi’s request that a member of each Indian family should take part in their country’s freedom movement. She has the support of her husband, and quits her job working for a British officer, although the elderly uncle who lives with the family feels her efforts will ultimately be futile. However, the action is seen not from Shailaja’s viewpoint but that of her ten-year-old daughter, Anjali.

While Ahimsa is geared toward middle-grade readers, it can be appreciated by older readers as well, adults included. I didn’t feel like any of the language or concepts were oversimplified. The novel covers a dramatic and traumatic time in India’s history, with tensions rising between India and Britain, between Hindus and Muslims, within India’s rigid caste system, and between the courageous people who seek change and those who resist it just as strongly. It’s remarkable how well these serious conflicts are articulated within a book for young readers.

The story follows Anjali as she adjusts her perceptions while her world and family transform in front of her. She doesn’t understand when her mother burns their gorgeously colored, British-made saris, instead making them wear plainer, homespun cotton khadis because they’re locally woven. Through her mother, Anjali also has her eyes opened to the living situation of her family’s toilet-cleaner, Mohan, a boy who was forced into that role simply for being born into the lowest caste.

Both Anjali and Shailaja make mistakes in their approach to change. In keeping with reality, Kelkar doesn’t present the adults as having all the answers. This new era in India is a learning experience for the entire family, and there are universal lessons worth absorbing, too, like the need to respect and use the name that a group prefers to call themselves (for example: Dalits for Mohan’s caste, rather than the insulting term Untouchables or Gandhi’s term for them, Harijan). Anjali’s best friend is a Muslim boy, Irfaan, and the plot also demonstrates how their close relationship is affected when Hindu-Muslim riots break out in their town.

The two-page glossary at the end could easily have been expanded, but overall this is an engaging novel based on the experiences of the author’s great-grandmother (Shailaja in the story). For historical fiction readers and librarians interested in experiencing India's history through young eyes, or adding an #ownvoices story to their collection, Ahimsa would be a good choice.

Ahimsa was published by Tu Books, an imprint of Lee & Low, in 2017; I received a copy through LibraryThing's FirstReads program earlier this year.

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