How much darkness can a child take? For children who are scarred by the trauma of living in abusive homes, a book should ideally offer a laugh, an adventure, a few moments of respite from the fear and insecurity in their lives.
How would such children react to confronting the horror present in their lives in their books as well? Would they not (as some adults do when forced to confront their demons) just want to close the book mid-sentence on the first page? Could a story make them feel less alone, less powerless?
And then, what about children lucky enough to live with caring parents — would they ever want a peek into what goes on in homes different from theirs? To gain an insight into how it must be for children living in abusive homes?
These were the thoughts that whirled through my mind when I decided to write a story for children on domestic violence.
I had suspected that the problem of domestic violence was widespread in India, but the official estimate of ‘one in three women’ shocked me. Even more disturbing were reports from those working with women and children that the actual incidence of abuse was closer to one in two women because the crime was hugely unreported. Just do the math and the ramifications are unbearable. There are millions of children in India who live in abusive homes.
When Pratham Books’ Editor Yamini Vijayan and I started a discussion on the issues I could write about — with her brief being that I keep a focus on building emotional intelligence and creating empathy — I sifted through many ideas before suggesting I could do a story on domestic violence. The path my story would take was as yet uncharted but instinct told me two things. Many children desperately required coping strategies. These skills could also be used in other abusive situations like bullying. I wanted the story to offer hope by suggesting a better coping mechanism. To instil a belief that it was possible to change from a passive acceptance or a denial of the problem to a more proactive approach instead.
Once Yamini gave me the green light, the first stage was to decide on which aspect of domestic violence I would focus on. What would be the most important take-away for the child reading the story? I finally decided to focus on the need for victims of violence to share their problem with a trusted adult. And for the women to stop perpetuating the lie that all was well in their repressed, abusive homes.
I also wanted to show that the community has a responsibility to support women and children living with abuse. That it was a community problem and required a response from the community.
Deciding on the treatment was extremely confusing for me. As a crafter of stories, I believe in providing a resolution to the conflicts in my plot. I usually labour long and hard to provide a solution — preferably one which is fun, a little unexpected and quirky but which allows the reader to close the book with satisfaction, feeling a warm glow. Now here I was, looking at a prospect where I knew I couldn’t provide a tidy resolution. I couldn’t glibly provide a happily-ever-after to any credible-sounding story on domestic violence.
I toyed briefly with and quickly discarded the idea of providing a parallel story where the child protagonists want something badly and which they get as symbolic of the resolution. No, I couldn’t trivialise the issue in this manner.
Finally, I submitted the first draft of the story to Pratham. They liked the story but they were not sure whether it should be set in the sort of household I had chosen. I had made the abuser, in this case the father in the story, a daily wage labourer. There was already a misconception that domestic violence usually occurs in very poor homes, they pointed out. We needed to show that the problem is widespread and not associated with poverty.
That was a forehead-smiting moment for me! Now, why hadn’t I thought of that? Anyway, I reworked the story till the Editors and I were both happy with the way it read.
After this, both Yamini and I, independently, ran the story past many professionals who worked with women and children. I fine-tuned a few details of the story based on their feedback. There are many who took time to chat or to read the story and respond, and for this I am truly grateful to Gopika Bakshi, Brinda Adige and Father Edward Thomas.
As the editorial team and I kept refining the drafts, we went back and forth on several issues. This was a particularly interesting phase for me as it led to my having what I smugly considered was my authorial wisdom – quite unceremoniously upended. To give an example — I usually worked on the premise that in a short story (say 1300 words) the author should name only the main characters in order to avoid confusing the reader. Because how many names can you differentiate in the short time required for reading? I usually gave the supporting characters generic names. The Royal Cook, the Policeman, and so on.
The editors at Pratham wanted me to humanise every character and after a little hesitation, I bowed to their experience in this format. I realised how important it was for the supporting characters have strong individual identities – especially in a story like this one. We know that all neighbours are not helpful, nor all policewomen willing to get personally involved. This story works more credibly because the characters are individuals rather than symbolic figures.
On to the last pages. Here too, Yamini and I spent a lot of time discussing the key ideas we wanted to leave the readers with. I tried a couple of approaches before we decided to go with simple text that conveyed the main issues.
Then came the part that I was eagerly waiting for. Illustrating the story!
Pratham Books have already gained a reputation for pushing the boundaries with the visual content of their books. Pratham Books’ Storyweaver site showcases the work of illustrators who experiment with styles and treatment with the kind of joyful exuberance that is leaving us writers huffing and puffing not to fall too far behind.
The Art Director (Kaveri Gopalakrishnan) and Editorial team chose an extremely talented and versatile illustrator, one who was personally interested in the issue of domestic violence. Aindri Chakraborty.
When I saw Aindri’s first roughs, I was blown away. I knew her work would add several layers to the story. Visuals have the power to create empathy when words fail and Aindri’s illustrations capture so many nuances that the text could not convey.
So much of what I wanted to convey in words — the despair, the sweetness of the sibling bond, the strong grandmother, the vulnerability, the frustration and anger — all that came through vividly in Aindri’s illustrations. One particularly poignant image of the grandmother dotingly feeding the granddaughter, brought a lump to my throat.
Aindri has also managed to make the violence omnipresent in the visuals without actually showing the abuse. The belt draped casually, the hint of furniture damaged in a rage — all speak volumes and make a powerful impact.
Do go to Behind the Lie, the digital book and admire Aindri’s work for yourself.
It was also personally exciting for me to see the power of the Creative Commons platform in widening the reach of stories. This was demonstrated when these translations in Tamil by Krithika Ramakrishnan of the Storyweaver Community and in Kannada by Sudha Sankar, appeared on the Pratham Books’ website.
And here’s the translation in Telegu by LekhaK of the Storyweaver Community.
If you know of anyone who works with or teaches children, please share this story with them. If you have ideas on how the story can be used in the classroom, please do share your thoughts in the comments section.
© Blogpost: Asha Nehemiah
Illustrations courtesy Aindri Chakraborty for Pratham Books