CHENNAI: They sneer at my pink bat, they laugh at my kitchen set,’ mumbles and cries Karan, as he locks himself up inside the cupboard after coming home from school. Draping his mother’s sari like a gown and wearing a marigold tiara, the chunky, curly-haired boy seeks solace in the darkness, behind closed doors. These lines from The Boy In The Cupboard reminds us that this is not just the story of Karan. There are many like him in our neighbourhood, among friends and family, who are bullied for being different. And that’s where the children’s book penned by Harshala Gutpe and illustrated by Priya Dali comes in as a guide for kids who feel ‘different’.
Sowing the seed of acceptance within the tender worldview of children, The Boy In The Cupboard succinctly narrates the heartfelt tale of a boy, who struggles to understand himself and his place in the world. Brought out by Gaysi and Letorri Press, the book is for age seven and up. With rhythmic texts and charming illustrations, the book promises to open up a conversation and give kids a positive familial bond, connected by love.
Speaking on inclusivity
The premise for author Harshala’s debut children’s book stemmed out of her helplessness to sensitise children about inclusivity. “I’ve witnessed a boy getting teased for playing with a pink bat and a girl teased for her hairy armpits. It deeply disturbed me and I wondered what kind of narratives these kids might be internalising. Kids need stories to subvert heteronormative assumptions and, in the process, create recognisable representations of queerness. I wanted to deliver a simple yet powerful message on gender inclusivity with a queer affirmative world using a story familiar to real life,” explains Harshala.
While Karan, the protagonist, feels safe by keeping to himself in his comfort zone, he misses his friends and everyday playtime. Until one day, when Ma and Pa, offering him that boost of reassurance and confidence, knock on the door, saying ‘Will you come out if I tell you that boys too can be queens and anyone who says otherwise is plain mean’. Karan knew he was loved and that’s all that mattered to him. From then on, there was no stopping him.
The core of the book is based on the author’s living principle that adults need to let children know that people can be different and that despite those differences, they should all be treated equally. Complementing this, there’s a sketch of Karan’s father’s hand extending to reach out through the peephole, to the other side of darkness, urging him to come out of the closet. “In terms of Karan’s parents, it was important to show that acceptance is more than hugs and holding hands, it extends to adapting as a family and nurturing your child’s interests and sharing his love for teatime and saris, and find the larger theme of the book in the littlest moments in life,” points out Priya.
Keeping the age of readers in mind, Harshala wanted a topic of smoothness and sensitivity to be handled without much resistance from the family. It reflects in the friendly exchange of dialogues between Karan and his folks. “As adults, we need to develop a language of inclusivity. Before sexual orientation, kids have to be sensitised about gender roles and intersectional inclusivity. These are concepts where even adults falter, so we need to actively start building a language around it. Even the book title is an attempt to develop that language. It takes from the metaphor of ‘being in a closet’ but a ‘closet’ is not a part of colloquial English in India,” suggests Harshala.
Throughout the book, there’s a joy that Karan feels in embracing his femininity. “Although he is very little, I wanted to show the maturity that would come with having gone through the experiences that he has. In terms of his movements, I wanted it to show that he feels comfortable and at home in feminine clothes, that his body moves naturally in them and they don’t feel alien to him,” says Priya.
With a book like this, Harshala and Priya are trying to put out images into the world that would validate and normalise the experiences of happiness and fears of kids like Karan. While Harshala wants to contribute to progressive Indian stories for children, Priya hopes to sketch many such powerful topics. Here’s hoping we have more queer chapters in children’s literature.