In Talking of Muskaan, author Himanjali Sankar addresses homosexuality, a rarity among books in the YA genre. Three friends look back on their friendship with Muskaan, who tries to commit suicide, and each of them realize they are at fault in one way or another. The sensitive, brilliant book took us by storm, and we asked Himanjali to write on why YA and children’s books must tackle ‘more adult’ issues:
A middle-aged, fat shopkeeper called me Aunty-ji the other day – the only thing less than 50 about him were the hairs on his head. I was understandably depressed, but then my 13-year-old daughter told me depression is a medical condition and it was politically incorrect to use the word casually. ‘Casually?’ I cried. ‘I want to end my life.’ ‘You so don’t get it,’ she said witheringly.
I believe it is this inherent inability to not get it that works for a whole lot of us. Sometimes, uncertainty works better than a superior intellectual understanding. I am a timid, conventional woman leading a scripted life with my husband, children, dog and part-time help in suburban Gurugram. I work to supplement my husband’s income (because women don’t work for money) and if it sometimes strikes me that my salary isn’t quite what it should be, I squash the thought because it is an unbecoming one. The novels I write to pass the time (all convent girls have a certain felicity with the English language, and so do I) do not wish to open any can of worms or outrage any sensibilities.
And really, it isn’t bold to write about LGBT rights or socio-economic inequalities because, as everyone knows, equality is correct and the only way to be. Understanding the marginalized, standing up for the weak — these are the most commonplace of values. What a ‘good book’ does is remind children to be mindful, to respect people and give every creature its due. There’s nothing revolutionary or unconventional about that; it is boring and mundane, but it is the way to live and be.
Seriously. Who said the unconventional isn’t to be found in the everyday? That the mundane precludes boldness and standing up for what is right?
Sometimes it all sits between the lines, in the invisible spaces between words. Books can be hilarious, crazy, boring, exciting. But a good book is always honest. It is true, it horrifies to purge, it makes you laugh and be a better person. A good book makes the world a better and happier place. We don’t need slots and labeling. Good, bad, boring, exciting — whatever floats your boat and lifts you above the waves and helps you understand the world a little better.
The world can be a trifle perverse. When pellet guns used for blinding children makes sense to some, right and wrong get so messed up that it becomes difficult to tell one from the other. In some ways, it was good growing up with Enid Blyton, knowing the kidnapper would always return the child and theft would be followed by punishment. But it also shouldn’t matter if children’s literature is sometimes dark, sad, unhappy — because that is what life is, too. Children belong to the future; they are here to cleanse the present and make the world a better place. They have to know what is wrong with the world, how random it all is, before they undertake to improve the future.
Whatever genre we choose to write or read, whatever themes we pick – murder, divorce, gay rights, death, diseases, romance, dating – they will always deal with humanity and human troubles. Superheroes or serial killers might be there, or politicians who fall asleep in parliament, yet the problems of the human world remain the same. It’s all very boring and troublesome really. And while it is exciting to feel one is different and unusual, it is also lovely to know we all belong, that every experience is new and old at the same time. Good books and good writing reinforce the universality and the thread of commonality that makes the earth spin on its axis, sometimes merrily, sometimes not. So we must oil the hinges and heal the cracks, with words and actions that push the world to be a little more just and a little more wise.