During and immediately after the Second World War, India fought its own war for independence against Great Britain. Led by Mahatma Gandhi, this independence movement embraced civil disobedience and other forms of nonviolent resistance according to the principle of ahimsa. Supriya Kelkar’s great-grandmother was a follower of Gandhi and a participant in the independence struggle, and Ahimsa, Kelkar’s debut novel for middle grade readers, published by Tu Books and the winner of the Lee & Low New Visions Award, was inspired by this family story.
In 1942, ten-year-old Anjali, who is Hindu, and her best friend Irfaan, who is Muslim, run into trouble when they paint independence graffiti on the British compound. Upon her return home, Anjali discovers that her family’s involvement in the struggle is greater than she’d believed, as her mother has left her job with the British administrator Captain Brent and committed to a life of activism. As part of that, she burns her and Anjali’s clothing, replacing them with simple homespun clothing, and cleans her own toilets rather than hiring those of the lowest caste to do the work.
But the efforts of Anjali’s mother come off as naïve. The impoverished people known as Untouchables—who reject Gandhi’s condescending name Harijan (“Children of God”) in favor of Dalit (“Oppressed”)—could have worn the burned clothing. Unaware that the British are fomenting tension between Hindus and Muslims, Anjali and her family turn against their Muslim friends after a series of riots. When Anjali’s mother is arrested and begins a hunger strike, Anjali has to act quickly to save her mother’s life.
Kelkar’s novel explores the complexity of the independence struggle, deftly incorporating a nuanced history into the fictional story. Anjali, her family, and her friends embody the different conflicts that rose to the surface during this time—Indians and British (including very conservative Indians like Anjali’s great-uncle and her schoolmates); Hindus and Muslims; Brahmin, Dalit, and other castes. Kelkar shows how well-meaning initiatives like the burning of clothing and the move to educate Dalit children had unintended results even though they may have been the right thing to do. And she shows how hard it is for a people facing oppression, injustice, and violence to keep to the path of peaceful struggle, of ahimsa.