Dhaka, Bangladesh
When war changes the world

When war changes the world

How old must you be before a war can change your life? Is there an age limit for riot victims? Can you be exempt from the fear of conflict if you are still a teenager? Absurd questions, really, considering that the answers are splashed across newspapers and blared on television sets daily. We know by now that violence doesn't discriminate; that our reality is indiscriminately violent; that life doesn't protect children from either the experience or the knowledge of violence. Their world is the same as ours and, try as we might, we cannot stop information of death and destruction, war and riots from reaching them and, in many cases, from affecting them directly. There are aspects of their lives, though, that we can control. We can stand guard as they pick their reading material so that, while the world around them erupts with violence, they meet only the most peaceful stories in their books. Increasingly, more and more parents are opting for this method, taking consolation in the fact that they can at least protect their children this way. At Delhi's Crossword, I watch Kavita Singh carefully read the blurbs of the books her 11-year-old son has picked. "He is watching fights and violence everywhere already. All the video games are violent. News is also disturbing. He doesn't need to read about violence in his storybooks too." Other adults, however, feel like it might be a good idea to allow their children access to these very books. Tanu Shree Singh, a blogger, mother to two boys and a bibliophile herself, believes that it is 'extremely important' for children's literature to deal with war and conflict. "Newspapers, TV reports do not create the same connect as a book. I see literature as a tool to prepare us for life. Protecting them doesn't take them too far. A better strategy is to let them read and then discuss, if needed." Sayoni Basu and Anushka Ravishankar, editors at Duckbill Books, agree. "Children live in a world where newspaper headlines, TV news programmes and living room conversations are filled with stories of death and disaster, war and violence. These conversations are at an adult level. Children's books that deal with issues of war and conflict are usually calibrated to a child's level, and often suggest that, though terrible things happen in the world, individual effort and determination can bring about resolutions that are in some way redemptive." It is this subtle understanding of violence, its cause and its solution that fiction can offer a child. Paro Anand - author of No Guns at my Son's Funeral and Weed, which tackle conflict in Kashmir - attempts to look at and deconstruct this violence from a teenager's point of view. The first book was a result of her experiences with children in Kashmir. "I had gone there to help the children produce the world's longest paper. The Kargil war erupted and, suddenly, we were caught in the crossfire. I saw how these children dealt with the war; how not one of them thought it was good. I remember a girl who said, 'I don't care how this stops, I just want it to stop'." In her books, Anand highlights this aspect of war and its effect on children. "My books are intended for children and young adults because I write emotionally, not intellectually. I use more direct language, but I never preach at them. I also don't delve deep into the politics of the violence, because that's not what matters to kids." Anand says that it is important to understand how children feel about violence; that for them, it just is, and its cause and political agenda does not matter. Similarly, American author Carolyn Marsden too tries to "keep the story of the children in the foreground". Like Anand, she says that "big historical or political issues can weigh a story down so that it doesn't appeal to the child reader." Marsden's books deal with the emotional response to war that children living in conflict zones exhibit. "Most of my books that are set outside the U.S. deal with war and conflict in some manner. These include novels set in Mexico, Vietnam, Italy, Rhodesia, and Czechoslovakia." She adds that while she didn't intend to focus on war and conflict, neither did she seek out the subject matter. The sad fact that most of the world has been impacted by war has led her to believe that it's important there be literature to help them make sense of what's going on. This need for children's literature on war and conflict prompted both Basu and Ravishankar to start the Not My War series. Marsden's book, The White Zone, was released in India as part of the series. "We started precisely because we feel that there is a need for literature which deals with war from the point of view of children stuck in a violent situation which they have had no hand in creating. Children, after all, are always the most tragic victims of wars," says Basu. Today, the definition and scope of violence is mutating before our very eyes, and its most tragic victims are also the most vulnerable and easily influenced. Can there be a wrong way of approaching this violence, one that can further harm a child's understanding of it? Marsden feels that "anything that sensationalises war and conflict, or which minimises their seriousness, can do harm", while Basu and Ravishankar believe that any book that portrays one group of people as evil can do much harm. "Usually in children's books (as in any other book, for that matter), it is a satisfying experience for the reader if the book ends with some kind of redemption or understanding," they add. Singh, though, says that she's yet to come across a children's book that she thought was too disturbing or inappropriate for the boys. "The only right way to do it is to let them be." How much control then, should parents have over a child's reading material? Basu, a mother herself, feels that if there are children who wish to read about war, it is important that they have options available. "I don't think adults have the right to say children should only read books that project a worldview which is cosy and pink. That is so much at odds with the world that the children live in." Singh says that, she used to help her boys choose books when they were younger because some concepts in the narrative were alien to them due to limited experiences. "I do not anymore, however. They read whatever they want to. And surprisingly, because of the freedom given, they give up on the ones I cringe at without me spewing venom. It is mandatory to let the children choose books. There have been times when they have held my hand while reading a book because it was too scary to read alone. So, as a parent, all we need to do is be there, let them read, and occasionally let them hold our hand."

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