Kids are already exposed to sex & violence. Stories help lessen confusion: Paro Anand
Winner of the Bal Sahitya Puruskar 2017, Paro Anand talks about her award-winning book, the power of storytelling to create social change, and why it is important that young adult literature addresses issues such as sex and violence.
Nitya’s father was killed in a terrorist attack. Filled with grief and prejudice, she blames all Muslims for it till she befriends Khalid at her new school. Raima’s father beats her mother and she feels helpless. Labelled a problem child at school, Bela is a victim of sexual abuse who has withdrawn into her shell. Zeenat wants to study but all schools in the Kashmir valley have been shut due to bandhs and sporadic outbreaks of violence. Gaurav is worried the new boy at school may displace him as the tennis champion.
The adolescents in Paro Anand’s Wild Child and Other Stories (2011), which won the Bal Sahitya Puruskar 2017, are all navigating the choppy waters of life. There are no dashing vampires or superheroes in these stories, which are a reflection of the world we live in. These kids grapple with loss, change, disappointment and love as they try to make sense of the world around them.
Storytelling for Delhi-based Anand, who has written 26 books for children and young adults in over three decades, is a tool of self expression and empowerment. “Kids take in whatever they hear every time there is a bomb blast or what they hear at the dinner table. For instance, all Muslims are terrorists, Dalits are dirty or sardars are stupid. Somewhere they internalise that prejudice. Through my stories, I am trying to get children to question that,” she says.
Anand, who is also a performance storyteller, gives an example of a story about domestic violence, Babloo’s Bhabhi, which often elicits strong responses from her young audience. “There’s a young boy who witnesses his bhabhi being beaten up by his elder brother every day. The same thing happened with his parents and he wonders is this what men are suppose to do?” says Anand.
At one storytelling session, a girl asked her if this story was true and said it happened in her house as well. “Many kids in the audience said they had been witness to domestic violence in their own homes or those of relatives or neighbours. Now if you ask a class directly: Is there domestic violence in your house, obviously nobody is going to come forward and say yes. But through the safety net of the story, so many of them connect with it.”
In the story, Babloo decides to help his bhabhi, and the discussion that followed her session saw similar resolutions from the young audience. “One child said when I get married and I get angry with my wife, I’ll fight with her. I won’t hit her. A girl said I’ll refuse to get beaten up. Whether this happens or not, I don’t know… but at least it is raising the question ‘Is this what manhood is?’ and making them think – perhaps not.”
A dramatics teacher in a school, Anand started writing in the 1980s to fill the void of good play scripts in Indian settings. “You either had plays for adults like The Bishop’s Candlesticks, which were very dated and far removed or stories from the Panchatantra and Mahabharata, which kids couldn’t connect to,” she says. Her books for children often address issues like disability, acceptance, inclusion and body image. “I hope my stories don’t moralise,” she says. “but I think any story worth its salt is saying something of value.”
In 2001, Anand started a programme Literature in Action through which she uses stories to talk about difficult issues with children. “The books weren’t reaching my readership. I felt there was so much more to be gained by talking about these issues – either through a performance or a reading,” she says. In collaboration with various NGOs and her own organisation, Anand has worked with over three lakh children in different parts of India (kids of convicts, those living in conflict zones, border towns, remote areas, those with disabilities) and not just its urban centres.
Kashmir and children from the state frequently appear in Anand’s fiction. Her stories are inspired by her experience of working with orphans of separatist violence in the state. “I was in Kashmir during the Kargil war working with children who are living in conflict and are so close to being sucked into that violence,” she says.
Anand’s bestselling novel No Guns At My Son’s Funeral (2005), the story of a Kashmiri teenager who gets drawn into militancy despite his mother’s best efforts, is being made into a film and has been on the reading lists of many schools in India and abroad.
Recently, however, two of her books, Like Smoke (2015) and No Guns At My Son’s Funeral, have been taken off the reading lists of some schools as parents, apparently, objected to their “improper” content. In a newspaper editorial earlier in June, Anand had written that she was being asked not to bring up these titles when invited to give talks in schools. “I’ve been appealing to schools to let me interact with parents and find out what they are objecting to. Often it is not the violence they have a problem with,” says Anand. “but the sexual angle.”
But it is important to have stories for young people that address issues of sex and violence, she believes. “Kids are already exposed to them. Do kids know what happened on December 16 to that young girl? Yes, they do. Are they horrified and confused by such stories or the khap panchayats? I am not giving them information that they are protected from. They aren’t protected,” Anand points out.
Her stories, she believes, presents these issues in a way that helps children make sense of such things. “It empowers children and makes them feel less helpless. They think maybe they can do something about it,” she says.
Anand, who is currently working on another collection of short stories for teenagers, says she makes it a point to end her stories on a note of hope. “Not a happy ending or even a conclusion but the hope that there is going to be a way out,” she says.
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