I love books set in India. It seems like such a diverse, complex place, and the Indian authors I’ve read always do such a wonderful job of surrounding me with the sights and sounds and colors of their country. And the descriptions of the food are almost always enough to send me running to my favorite local Indian restaurant (fun fact: when I was pregnant with my daughter and suffering from hyperemesis gravidarum, which is basically ‘morning’ sickness that can kill you, I was reading a book set in India and the descriptions of food had me feeling like I could actually eat that food and not be sick. And it was true! It was only a small amount, really, but it was delicious and that made me so, so happy, because I could barely eat anything else at all). All that to say that in the Book Riot 2019 Read Harder Challenge, one of their suggestions for a children’s or middle grade book that has won a diversity award since 2009 was Ahimsa by Supriya Kelkar, and I was happy to discover that one of my local libraries had it waiting on the shelves for me.
It’s 1942 and India is still under British rule (and once I picked this book up, I realized I’d gone from one book about colonization to another…). Mahatma Gandhi has asked families to give one family member each to the fight for freedom, and ten-year-old Anjali is horrified to learn that it’s her mother who will be that one person. While the movement is centered around ahimsa, or non-violence, Anjali knows people who have died and can’t imagine losing her mother. Her becoming a freedom fighter means big changes for the family, starting with discarding all the clothing made from the Indian cotton that the British spun in England and sold back to Indians at a high price, in favor of wearing only homespun Indian garments. Anjali isn’t happy about this at all, nor is she thrilled when her mother begins working with the Untouchables, the people of the lowest caste. Because it’s not just the British who need to change; Indian society must make changes of their own, as Anjali and her family learn.
This is a story of one step forward, two steps back, as it seems every story about the struggle for freedom is. Anjali’s parents make mistakes and eventually correct themselves and grow; Anjali begins to question things she’s been taught her entire life to be true. While Anjali is Hindu, her best friend Irfaan is Muslim, and though their differences have never been an issue in the past, they become a source of strain as Hindu-Muslim tensions rise under the struggle for freedom from colonial rule.
This is a fascinating look at India in its final years of British rule, as seen through the eyes of a child and her family who are learning to question everything. It’s lovely and intense and frustrating and frightening all at the same time. Anjali is a typical headstrong ten-year-old who is forced to grow up a little too quickly thanks to the times, and her parents are inspiring, both for their dedication to the cause of a self-ruling India and for their growth and their ability to admit when they’re wrong. I don’t think I’ve ever read anything set in this particular time period in India, so Ahimsa opened my eyes to both the struggle for freedom and that gap in my knowledge (and I’m definitely interested in learning more). This would be a really great parent-child read-aloud for anyone interested in India (or for homeschoolers doing a unit study on the country). It’s a complex book, and while I think I would have enjoyed at when I was younger, I think a lot of it would have gone over my head.
If this review isn’t up to my usual standards, I apologize. I was all ready to write this up on Monday and then my daughter started throwing up…and then I started throwing up. It’s been pure misery around here, and even sitting up for too long is exhausting (and I’ve got two more reviews to write). I haven’t gotten any reading done because holding the book has been too difficult! Like I said, MISERY. I’m ready to feel better soon! Needless to say, I probably won’t be running off to my favorite Indian restaurant quite yet, mostly because even just walking across the room makes me dizzy and out of breath. Maybe when I get better. 🙂
Do you find that there’s a particular country you just really love reading about? I’d love to hear about it!
Visit Supriya Kelkar’s website here. (And she has a new book coming out in 2020 that looks AWESOME, so I’m looking forward that!!!)