Inspired by her great grandmother’s experience of working with Mahatma Gandhi, Supriya Kelkar debut novel is about the freedom struggle through the eyes of a 10-year-old girl. An Excerpt:

As a thunder rumbled outside, Mahatma Gandhi’s shaky yet oddly strong voice quavered loudly from the static-filled radio inside the hall. “I know the British government will not be able to withhold freedom from us when we have made enough self-sacrifice.” Sheets of rain tapped outside the house as he continued. “We must therefore purge ourselves of hatred. Speaking for myself, I can say that I have never felt any hatred.”

Anjali badly wanted to go to the cow shed and be with Nandini after what had happened with Captain Brent. But her mother had spotted her in the yard and insisted she join Baba, Chachaji, and their maid Jamuna inside their bungalow to listen to Gandhiji’s “Quit India” speech from a few weeks earlier.

“As a matter of fact, I feel myself to be a greater friend of the British now than ever before. One reason is that they are today in distress. My very friendship therefore demands that I should try to save them from their mistakes …”

Anjali sat next to Jamuna, who was peeling soaked almonds into a bowl and sifting small stones and dirt out of some lentils by hand.

As Gandhi’s speech ended, the radio announcer’s voice spoke up amidst a burst of static. “Once again, that was Gandhiji’s speech from earlier this month, eight August, 1942. Now Gandhiji is in prison, but we must not give up, my friends. As Gandhiji asked years ago, each family must give one member to help the cause. Together, we can do this.”

Ahimsa
Supriya Kelkar

Anjali stared at her parents, who were listening intently from their spots on the floor. Chachaji, on the other hand, was more interested in splitting apart the slices of a slimy orange.

“The British are growing weak,” the radio announcer continued. “They cannot fight Germany and keep us under their rule at the same time. Now is the time to strike—but nonviolently, friends. Ahimsa always. So please send at least one person from your family to join the freedom movement.”

Anjali had heard this plea before. In fact, the father of Anasuya, one of the girls in her class, had joined the movement when they were six. Nirmala, another classmate, lost her uncle to the movement when British police officers had fired into a crowd of protestors. Anjali scooted closer to Baba. Thank goodness he hadn’t joined.

The radio announcer continued. “The more of us there are, the louder our collective voice will be. Jai Hind.”

“Jai Hind,” replied Anjali’s father, repeating the salute to India. Anjali’s mother did the same.

“What Jai Hind?” asked Chachaji gruffly as he dipped small pieces of his orange into a mix of salt and pepper, filling the room with the sour scent of citrus. “The Indian National Congress passed that resolution demanding immediate independence a month ago, and nothing has happened.”

“That’s why Gandhiji asked us to join the Quit India movement, Chachaji,” answered Anjali’s father.

“Together we can make a difference. Massive civil disobedience can have results.”

“Your Gandhi was arrested the day after he made this speech. Do you see any results?” Chachaji spat a slimy orange seed into his coarse, lined palm. “If you ask me, we’re better off with the Brits here. Look outside. Good roads, nice railways, a postal system …”

“That is all good and well, Chachaji, but what about unfair taxes on salt?” retorted Anjali’s mother. “So many people couldn’t afford the salt they fell ill from the lack of nutrients. Or what they have done to our cotton industry? We are a land rich in cotton, but instead of villagers spinning it, it’s being processed overseas and the cloth sold back to us at unfair rates. I was blindly following orders when I worked for Captain Brent. Helping all these injustices continue. Not stopping to wonder if what I was doing was fair or even nice. But I was wrong. No group of people should be forced to live under the imposed will of another.”

Anjali beamed. Her mother was so eloquent that nobody could win a verbal match against her, especially not a wrinkly relic like Chachaji.

“Hmph,” snorted Chachaji. “In my day, women never dared to be so disrespectful. It’s a good thing you finally got some sense and quit that job.”

A pit grew in Anjali’s belly as she thought of Captain Brent smirking at her. Quit? Ma quit her job?

“Your place is in the home,” Chachaji continued. “Not anymore. Times are changing, Chachaji. Perhaps you should too,” Anjali’s mother replied.

Chachaji’s lip quivered as he turned to Baba. “Are you going to let her speak to me that way?”

Ma looked at Baba. “Are you going to let him speak to me that way? I have enough on my mind, with Captain Brent accusing Anjali of vandalism—”

Anjali couldn’t take it anymore. “Everybody, stop!” she shouted. “Please. I have to tell you something.”

“What is it, Anju?” Her mother using her nickname made Anjali feel even guiltier.

Anjali took a breath. “I painted the Q,” she said softly. Her mother’s face dropped. “You what?” “I did it. I painted the Q on Brent Sahib’s compound.” “I knew she was up to no good,” grumbled Chachaji. “Why?” Ma’s voice was stern.

Anjali shrugged. “Because I thought Captain Brent wasn’t treating you well. If he hurt you, I wanted to hurt him back. Irfaan had some paint, and I just thought—I thought we should tell Captain Brent to quit India. I thought that’s what you and Baba wanted. And now you’re not working, and I don’t know why. And Baba is mad. And you and Chachaji are fighting. And we won’t have extra money, and I won’t get any new ghagra-cholis.” Anjali fought back her tears. “Can you ever forgive me?”

Ma’s face softened as she knelt next to Anjali and stroked her hair. “Anjali, do you know what ‘Quit India’ means?”

Anjali nodded. “The Brits are not Brahmins, but they think they’re better than all of us. It’s time to remind them of their place.”

“No. It has nothing to do with some people being better than others. Irfaan isn’t a Brahmin. But you think of him as your brother.”

“That’s different,” replied Anjali. “Muslims don’t have castes.”

“Neither do the British. Gandhiji thinks of them as our brothers. Our equals. Quit India is a movement of civil disobedience,” said her father.

“Like Henry David Thoreau’s essay,” Anjali said, remembering the piece her mother had told her about earlier that year.

“Yes, Gandhiji was influenced by Thoreau, but Gandhiji’s practice of civil disobedience is peaceful,” explained her mother. “It’s based on ahimsa.”

“That’s right,” said Anjali’s father. “Nonviolence. It means it’s time to put all our efforts into the highest of gears. But we must never hurt someone in the process. Lying, destroying someone else’s property, those are things that can hurt others.”

“Gandhiji says the British can stay in our country, but as brothers, not rulers, understand?” asked Anjali’s mother.

“You want Brent Sahib to stay? He is mean to everyone. He treats us like we’re all Untouchables. He thinks he’s better than all of us.”

“I think it’s time to tell her,” Baba said.

Anjali frowned. “Tell me what?” “Here, eat your almonds,” Ma said, handing her the small steel bowl with five nuts Jamuna had just peeled. “It’s good for the brain.”

“My brain is fine.” Anjali pushed the almonds away. “Tell me what?”

Chachaji chomped loudly on the discarded almonds. “We didn’t help out with the freedom fight as we should have earlier. We were busy, raising you, working, earning a living … but now, well, with Gandhiji and so many of our leaders imprisoned by the British, we decided we must give one family member to the freedom fight.”

Anjali’s face flushed. They must have decided this because her mother was no longer working. She could be at home to watch Anjali, and her father could go march and protest and get arrested—and possibly be hanged. Now she would be just like her classmate Anasuya, always wondering where her father was and if he was all right.

She couldn’t imagine life without Baba. Who would help her fly her mango-colored kite on the terrace and cut Irfaan’s pink one in the kite battles? Who would catch the flying cockroaches that entered the house during the rains and gently put them outside without hurting a wing on them? Who would play carom with her on Sunday afternoons for hours, despite the eventual swollen, painful fingers the game brought? A hundred thoughts and memories flooded Anjali’s face. “You can’t go, Baba.”

“He’s not going,” said Ma.

Anjali breathed easier. Ma cleared her throat. “I am.”

Excerpted With Permission From Scholastic India

Ahimsa By Supriya Kelkar has been published by Scholastic India; Price Rs 395

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