Paro Anand has been honoured with the Sahitya Akademi Bal Sahitya Puraskar Award, 2017 for her book Wild Child, now published as Like Smoke with additional content. Her book, No Guns at My Son’s Funeral was on the IBBY Honor List and has been translated into German and Spanish. Her latest book The Other, is a collection of short stories about young people who are “different” from the mainstream . Ayushi Astha reports on one of Paro Anand’s sessions at the Apeejay Kolkata Literary Festival (AKLF).
“The circle turns and tightens, and we all stand. Watching.
Our blood turns cold, freezing. It boils, thumping in our ears. And we all stand. Watching.
Our hands clench into fists. But our feet grow solid roots. And we stand here. Watching.
The screams go on, the cries for help. But we just stand here. Watching.
Rooted to the spot, frozen into impotence. But I just stand there. Watching.
I want someone to make a move. If someone else moves forward to save her, I will too. But no one moves forward. No one stretches out their helping hand.
I hear the screaming.
‘Bachaaao!’ a moan. Or is it a whisper? A cry for help or a whisper for help.
It’s coming from her as her yellow sari turns to brown as the sari is lifted to expose her legs. Bare. Naked.
Help. Help. Me.
Is it her?
Is it me?
Have I cried out?
I move. I must move. I must. Someone must. And if no one else does, then it has to be me. As I move forward I hope that someone else is going to join me. I am scared witless, but my feet know where to go. I think I am screaming. I know I am flailing my arms. Hoping that there are others who will see me move and know that if everyone gets together, we can beat the living daylights out of these thugs. Or at the very least, get them to run away. And save the girl. That’s all I want to do. Save the girl.
Alone, I can’t do anything, but together we can. We must.”
Author Paro Anand captivated the audience as she read out the above lines from the short story “Inner Circle, Outer Circle” from her book, The Other (published by Speaking Tiger Books).
The audience – mostly teenagers from various Kolkata schools – were immediately drawn into the discussion that followed. The author certainly knew how to spell magic on the audience. Who are “the Others”? Anand asked. The answers from the young adults who were attending the session, were sharp and unambiguous – the differently-abled, minorities, LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer), to name just a few.
At a session of Apeejay Kolkata Literary Festival – held recently – Paro Anand discussed “the others” – those who have been pushed aside because they were different: a boy who has to carry a urine bag, a teenager who is raped by her uncle, a youngster who becomes the sole voice of protest when everyone around her choose to remain silent.
In “Inner Circle, Outer Circle”, Anand writes the story of a teenager who is the sole voice of protest when she finds a woman being violated against. It is about apathy and inaction among people around us, Anand explained, adding that India has earned the dubious distinction of being the world’s most apathetic nation according to a recent study. This in turn, led to a deliberation of what “apathy” meant.
Anand said that “without helping others when they are facing violence, we actually otherize ourselves. By thinking that ‘the other’ doesn’t belong to me, we are, in reality, otherizing ourselves.” All the while that we are trying to be protective about people close to us and being inert in the process, we are in reality, distancing ourselves from those around us. The young adults – who were part of the discussion with the author – felt, and agreed with her that social media can help in raising awareness, and can be a powerful tool, the way the #MeToo movement had done.
The author read out from another short story, “Those Yellow Flowers of August” from her book Like Smoke, which begins with the line: “I hate Muslims”. Does Paro Anand hate Muslims? No, she doesn’t, the author raised the question and replied just in case someone in the audience had even a grain of doubt. But the author revealed that this is the exact line she had heard a girl telling her friends in a school she had visited.
How do children learn to hate a particular community? Where do they hear these conversations? In school? At the dinner table?
In this story that left listeners spellbound, a young girl’s father dies in a terrorist bombing, and she is left with a deep-seated hatred for Muslims. Her new friend – who is a Muslim – is eventually able to draw out the reason behind her disdain for him and he is able to make her understand that the act of terrorism has no religion and that she cannot paint all the members of his faith with the same brush.
A politically charged issue in a delicate and deftly woven narrative moved the audience to tears.
So what is the right time to discuss these “so-called adult subjects” with young adults in the classroom and at the dinner table?
Anand stated that it was important to have conversations about homosexuality and gender before children begin to have prejudices, so that we can live in a world that is free and equal for everyone.
It was also very heartening to see the wholehearted support of the young adults in the audience who hung on to every word that Anand said and consolidated them with their own sharp observations. In fact, the essence of the entire discussion was perhaps best articulated in a listener’s response who said that “love has no gender”.