Supriya Kelkar on Research and Family History in Ahimsa

new-visions-award-winner.pngWinner of the New Winner Award from Tu Books/Lee and Low, Supriya Kelkar‘s debut middle grade novel, Ahimsa, takes place in 1940s India, against the backdrop of a nation struggling to unite even as its people fight for independence from British rule. Ten-year-old Anjali is the protagonist, thrown into the reality of a swiftly changing world when her mother announces that she has quit her job to follow Mahatma Gandhi and become a freedom fighter. I corresponded with Supriya in anticipation of her novel’s release on October 2, which is, appropriately enough, Gandhi’s birth anniversary. 
[Uma] What came first for you with this story–the history, the character, an idea, an era, or something else? Talk about what led you to think about writing this book. 
 
IMG_6435 (2).JPG[Supriya] It started with the thought of my great-grandmother, Anasuyabai Kale, a Gandhian freedom fighter in India who was jailed for her role in the movement. I was fascinated by the idea of a strong, sometimes flawed female leader in the early 1900s. As a screenwriter, I thought the story would make a great biopic. But no matter what I did, I couldn’t figure out how to write it as an interesting screenplay. I then thought about making it a fictional story, where the character based on my great-grandmother was not the protagonist, but rather, the mother of the protagonist. But again, I struggled to make it work. Then I had the brilliant idea to write it as a novel to work out the story beats, and then go back and write a screenplay with the solutions I had discovered in the process. Clearly, I had no clue what I was doing because it turned out writing a novel was not a quick and easy task!
 
[Uma] What sources, personal and research, did you tap while you were writing Ahimsa? 
 

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Letter from Mahatma Gandhi to the writer’s great-grandmother. Used by permission of Supriya Kelkar

[Supriya] My great-grandfather had written a biography of my great-grandmother. That book was a great resource. It showed me how life was at the time. The freedom movement could be very small-scale at times, with individuals doing their part to make a difference for a few other people in their area through protests and letter writing campaigns. It also showed how those changes could inspire greater changes in the country. I also used Mahatma Gandhi’s autobiography, an academic website on Dr. Ambedkar, and old newspapers for research. For personal sources, I spoke to several family members and friends to make sure I was representing the time accurately, including my parents. Since my great-grandmother and grandparents had all passed away, I relied a lot on my great-aunt. She was able to fill in a lot of details about her mother’s story and the time period for me.

 
Ahimsa-cover-revised3 FINAL.jpg[Uma] I find as a writer that every book teaches me something. What did writing this book teach you? 
 
This book taught me the importance of patience and not giving up. I wrote the first draft of Ahimsa in 2003. There were many times over the years that I wanted to give up on the manuscript because it felt hopeless and things weren’t happening fast enough on it. I’m so glad I stuck with it!
  
[Uma] What tripped you up along the way, even after you’d begun to feel more in command of the work? 
 
[Supriya] Despite all the research through the years of writing Ahimsa, it wasn’t until I was working on the copyedit and double-checking my work that I realized a couple of the famous Gandhi quotes I had used in the book were probably things he had never said. It took a while but in the end, I was able to find words that were actually from one of his publications.
 
[Uma] Ahimsa is a concept that’s desperately needed in today’s contentious world. What do you want young readers—and their adult allies, too—to take away from this story?
 
The main thing I want readers of all ages to take away is the importance of empathy. Just because an issue doesn’t personally affect you, it does
not mean the problem does not exist. I hope young readers will be inspired by Anjali’s journey from a child of privilege to someone who is very aware of the wrongs in her world and is willing to do what she can to right them.
[Uma] Congratulations, Supriya Kelkar. Much luck with this book and others yet to come.

Swale: A Word for and of the Land

Years ago, an uncle of mine, D.V. Sridharan, started the crazy, impossible, madcap project of restoring a wasteland in a rural area near the city of Chennai in India, and turning it into a sustainable farm. The reason this has anything to do with my own crazy, impossible, madcap occupation, writing books for children, is that his endeavor too had to do with words.

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Oxford, England

Words like “swale”: Roll it on your tongue. How round and beautiful it is. How it creates a resonance in the air. Swale. A low tract of land contiguous with higher ground, a swale follows the contour line, so it catches water when it rains. Holding the blessing of spring rains or the rush of a monsoon shower, the swale in turn recharges underground water sources. Streams flow. The slope grows green.

 

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Mesa, AZ

In the tropics or desert, during the dry season, aquifers and wells can remain refreshed from the renewal made possible by the shape of the land.

Swale. The thing is as magical as its name.

The name of that restoration project was “point Return.” The capitals were intentionally placed, intentionally withheld. The point, Sridharan said, was to return. To come back again and again to the places and the ideas that give us sustenance and hope, that are generative and regenerative in nature, that keep us going, that lead to a larger sense of who “we” are.

The project went through its own cycles of success and experimentation, setbacks and failure. Today there is a school on the land and the original hope has been handed off to others. This is the way with story as well. Consider this narrative report my uncle posted about the effect of Gandhi’s teachings on one man’s life.

Thinking of story as cyclical in nature rather than linear, with a beginning, middle and end, changes everything. The swale may run from Point A to Point B, but the way the water follows it anything but linear. The possibility of returning reminds me to stop rushing after answers, grabbing the first one that comes along. It allows me instead to live with questions.

I am happy to say that I have managed to make a modest career out of living with questions.

Grandfather Gandhi by Arun Gandhi and Bethany Hegedus

ImageIllustrated by Evan Turk, here is a powerful book narrated by the grandson of the man who turned peace into possibility for India and for the world, and equated personal truth with moral imperative. His words and actions ring into the world against all odds, even today.

Beautifully created and deftly written, this is a stunning picture book portrait, part biography, part family memoir, told from a simple stance of memory, love, and healing.

In this remarkable narrative in words and pictures, Arun Gandhi worked with writer and VCFA alumna Bethany Hegedus to weave a stunning portrait of the man who taught him to “live his life as light.” Evan Turk’s collage paintings use a glowing palette. He employs the power of light and shadow, space and perspective, to bring the text to life. At every level, this is a breathtaking book.