In her book for young adults, Paro Anand introduces the world of displaced communities and their search for boundless horizons and hope through the story of two schoolgirls
It is a sunny winter afternoon in Delhi and Paro Anand is lounging with her three dogs. “They are rescues — two Alsatians and a ‘raasta’” says the writer of books for children and young adults over phone as she shushes their barking.
Paro’s stories, however, are often set in worlds far away from that idyllic afternoon. She has written about hope and horror in equal measure, traversing more often than not the worlds of terrorism, sexual abuse, domestic violence and Indian childhoods with rare sensitivity.
Her telling of stories on a patchwork of lives has led to some of her books being barred in a few school libraries, but earned her the Sahitya Akademi’s Bal Sahitya Puraskar in 2017. She went on to head the National Centre for Children’s Literature, The National Book Trust, India, the apex body for children’s literature in the country.
Paro’s fearless telling of the world, as she sees it, comes from an eclectic childhood spent growing up across India and Southeast Asia. “My journalist father was posted in Delhi, Chandigarh, Calcutta, Malaysia and the Philippines. It helped me adapt, make friends in strange environments. It was also liberating as I could create a backstory wherever I went. That was the start of the writer of weird stories,” laughs Paro, adding that reading was not something she enjoyed at first.
“We spent the hour before dinner reading while listening to classical music. I hated it as I wanted to talk about my day. We had an open shelf policy at home and anyone could read anything. I discovered Joy Adamson’s Born Free which pushed me to become a writer.”
Paro began reading plays by Bertolt Brecht and Tennessee Williams much before her peers did, and it led her to become a teacher of drama. “There were not many Indian plays that the kids or I wanted to do. Most were western scripts. If Indian, they were drawn from the Mahabharata or Panchatantra with stories that often did not connect. So I started writing plays. Most literature for children is escapist, which is fun but there is also a need for truth, a need to represent young people who are not represented or under-represented. It empowers children to find a commonality. So I wrote consciously on hard topics always ending on an upswing; young people have the ability to be instruments of change,” says Paro, speaking of No Guns At My Son’s Funeral, Like Smoke and The Other. “The responses shake me up. Have I scratched a wound or put a balm?”
And still, Paro perseveres to tell it as it is; like she has in Nomad’s Land (published by Talking Cub, the children’s imprint of Speaking Tiger).
The novel is about Shanna, a Kashmiri Pandit, and Pema, a Qhushavan and the tragic circumstances that bring them together. In tight, energetic prose, between the lost paradise of Kashmir where Shanna’s father is killed in a grenade attack and Pema’s reimagining of a homeland she has never seen, Paro weaves a tapestry of falling walls, blurred borders and identity in a time of cultural assimilation. “In an age of Rohingyas, Syrians and Tibetans, Nomad’s Land could belong anywhere. We need to connect our children to these realities. I feel we haven’t done that with stories of Partition; because we follow the culture of aage chalo [look forward].”
Paro writes two hours every day, sometimes in a traffic jam, sometimes two books at a time. She is also a grandmother who has managed to keep a ear to the ground when it comes to what kids think and speak these days. “I’m a great eavesdropper,” she laughs.
“Children should be left to choose the reading of their choice but parents and schools tend to monitor. There is no control over what they read on the Internet but more on what they read in a book. I’ve had children come up to me during my Literature In Action sessions and tell what they’d like to hear more about — whether it is domestic violence or masturbation. I may write it and it may be published, but it will never make it to a school library.”
Paro believes that ‘forever skies’ — a term she uses in Nomad’s Land — is what should be bequeathed to our children. “When you tend to unsee the wholeness you cut up their sky. Children do not demand assimilation. And because of that the world and our country is in good hands.”