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Supriya Kelkar on the lessons from history

Supriya Kelkar

Supriya Kelkar is a screenwriter and author of the middle grade novel award-winning novel Ahimsa. She spoke to us about the connections between her book on India's independence movement and current political climate in the US.

You’ve talked about how the book was inspired by your great-grandmother Anasuyabai Kale. Can you recall an incident from her life that compelled you to pen her story?

There actually wasn't one incident that inspired me. It was more about the experiences throughout her life. She was a strong, stubborn woman who never gave up. She fought for independence, served time in jail for her dedication to her cause, and later went on to become a congresswoman after independence. I thought it was such an interesting story featuring a strong female protagonist from a time and place in history where we don't hear these kinds of stories in America. I felt it just had to be told, and that's what inspired me to write the story. It actually started off as a biopic screenplay. But when that wasn't working, I realized I had to tell a fictionalized version of this story from the point of view of a child who is the freedom fighter's daughter.

Ahimsa deals a lot with issues of social injustices from both an external and internal lens. Externally with the British ruling India and internally with the complex caste and religious factions, what made you want to focus on both these aspects?

Because social justice can be such a complicated issue, with many factors to consider to make sure justice is actually done, I wanted to portray these story lines in a responsible way that would hopefully make young readers think of their own experiences with social justice, and make them challenge their own privileges. So, that's why I chose to focus on both external and internal injustices.

Anjali’s character as well as a lot of the other main characters are essentially flawed, but they learn to reflect and question not only their behaviour but that of others as well. How hard was it for you to constantly keep pushing Anjali out of her comfort zone?

It actually wasn't that hard! Anjali is a complicated character and a stubborn one, so many situations did push her out of her comfort zone and make her challenge her privilege and make her question the status quo. And I wanted to show her and the other characters in the book as flawed because we are all constantly growing and learning, and that's something I wanted young readers to see. I wanted them to know that it's okay to make mistakes as long as you learn and grow from them and make amends if you have caused someone pain in the process.

You’ve gently questioned a fairly simplistic idea of the Indian freedom movement and its leaders by introducing the complexity of caste and its continued influence on Indian life and politics - did you start out trying to show a mirror and did these present themselves as you started writing?

I actually wrote the first draft of Ahimsa in 2003. At that point, I wasn't trying to show a mirror to the social justice issues in America today. But I wanted to show readers that sometimes things are glossed over in history. Sometimes everyone doesn't get the representation they should get, and equality isn't there. And sometimes historical figures are overgeneralized in their portrayals as saints, when in fact, they were human and made mistakes and sometimes said racist, sexist or misogynistic things we wouldn't condone today. It actually wasn't until 2016 in my edits that it dawned on me just how many parallels there were to our situation in America and that a historical book could be a very realistic and accurate mirror in the present day.

What parallels and lessons do you hope readers can draw from this historical novel for the present day?

I am always so touched when readers in America tell me that reading Ahimsa has made them question their own privileges and prejudices, and has made them really want to fight for true equality and justice here. I recently Skyped with children at a library in Delhi and they told me they came from privileged backgrounds and never noticed all the inequality all around them but since reading Ahimsa, they see it everywhere and want to change the world and know they can.
To me, those are the most important parallels and lessons readers can draw from this historical novel. This story may have taken place in the past, but any reader should be able to find something in their lives and in their community and in their country, be it America, India, or somewhere else, where there is injustice and where we can raise our voices to speak up for what is right and speak out against what is wrong.
Also see more books on the Partition

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