CHENNAI: At the Tulika Publishing House in Alwarpet, excited children surround author Nandana Sen as she reads her book Not Yet!, which is available in both English and Tamil. She quizzes the children on animals, and every correct response earns a round of applause and a chance to stick a picture of the animal on the wall. In a tete-a-tete with the author, we speak to her on her writings, work with UNICEF, and acting career.
Your book addresses adoption. What made you choose this topic?
We all know that adoption is a critical topic in India, where we have countless children whose lives could be transformed by loving homes. Yet adoption is rarely discussed in mainstream media or in Indian popular culture, because of which there is, I feel, a pervasive unspoken stigma (and a great deal of bullying) attached to adoption here, still.
In India, we don’t yet have enough books that adoptive families can directly relate to, and could then use as a tool to discuss their precious and unique family identities. But the good news is, there is increasing interest in adoption from prospective parents now. I know from my own experience that the adoption process has become more streamlined in India. I want to emphasise, however, that my book is not just about adoption, but about a more inclusive definition of family, as it focuses on a larger understanding of belonging based on love rather than only biology. It would speak equally, I hope, to all non-traditional families, including ones with gay parents, step-siblings, or a surrogate mother.
I consciously wrote this book for all kids with the goal that it would widen their understanding of and regard for how different kinds of families come together through love. After all, the dynamics of a non-traditional family situation has a great deal to do with the world accepting its “normalcy” and love with absolute respect and ease (and without bullying or persecution).
How do you think children’s literature affects their understanding of the world?
I may be biased, but I believe children’s books are the most influential (and deliciously infectious) literature in the world! (laughing) Not only do they encourage children to soar with their imagination, think critically and ask questions, and communicate their thoughts and feelings, kid-lit can also go a long way in fostering a lifetime of empathy in impressionable minds. Without being at all preachy, some super-fun kids books can promote a kinder, braver, more inclusive and sensitive view of our world. That’s the kind of books I’ve always been drawn to, as a child, a reader and as an author.
You have worked a lot with UNICEF and other global organisations targeting towards children’s welfare.
My first children’s book, Mambi and the Forest Fire, came out of a workshop I did at Sneha, a home for children and young girls rescued from human trafficking. These children were incredibly resilient and imaginative — they gave the characters all their superpowers as well as fatal flaws, and set the forest on fire so that Mambi, the shy but spunky monkey, could save her friends. This book is about confidence, equality and friendship, and the kids at Sneha gloriously exemplified all three! And when I was working with UNICEF in adolescent empowerment, I once gave a Navjyoti Award to a 14-year-old child bride, who threatened to call the police on her wedding day if her father insisted on marrying her off despite her continued objections. “By law, it’s a crime,” she had told her wedding party, softly but unwaveringly. “I don’t want my parents to go to jail.”
With more cases of sexual assault and harassment towards children, how important do you think it is for children to be informed about these issues? How does literature play a role in this?
Violence against children is a global crisis, and in our country, the figures for child abuse make it an epidemic. Yes, it’s more important than ever for children to be trained to be safe, and to not be silent if they are harmed. The biggest hurdle is that grown-ups don’t feel comfortable talking to kids about sex and vice versa. Literature can play a role, yes, but little kids don’t choose their own books — their parents do. So, equally important is how effectively families, caregivers and teachers can communicate the “rules” of safety to the kids — whom to trust, when to say no, and how critical it is to always speak up when something is not right. Even if you’re being hurt by someone you love, which is, heartbreakingly, most often the case with child sexual abuse.
In your acting career, you were lauded for your portrayal of a teenage girl in Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Black. What about this role spoke to you?
Yes, that was my very first film in Mumbai. I was so moved by the film’s focus on the rights of children with disabilities and loved that my character, who was practically a child, was so atypical in Bollywood: fragile, brittle and vulnerable, yet fiercely loving, guileless and loyal. It was a beautiful script, and a treat to play such an extraordinary and compelling character.