Book Review by Nivedita Sen
Title: Nomad’s Land.
Author: Paro Anand.
Publisher: Talking Cub (an imprint of Speaking Tiger Books), 2020
We live in times when the business of children’s literature increasingly turns towards desanitising the world around child readers to expose them to real life accounts of hatred, violence, othering and numerous other ills that are perpetuated around them in a way that they can decide for themselves who or what they want to be amidst all this. In a universe torn by war and the hostile drawing of lines, Paro Anand’s writings are sentient, sensitive and sensible exemplars of portraying the child reader’s realm as one that can subsume the world within it if s/he wants it to. In her book of stories Like Smoke, or her novels No Guns at my Son’s Funeral and now Nomad’s Land, she has let her child protagonists tread on and explore many of the concerns in the lives of adults.
Anand has talked about two ethnic groups – the Kashmiri Pandit community that had fled the valley in the eighties due to terrorist violence that often targeted them, and the imagined Qhushvaha people in the higher plateaus who had got dislodged from their homeland due to the political upheaval in which they had been ostracized by their own kinsmen, a combination of many such marginalized groups of children that the author has been interacting with. The Qhushvahans have come and resettled in what can perhaps be recognised as Majnu ka Tila, the Tibetan resettlement colony of Delhi, although Delhi has been named in the entire novel only once in relation to the Kashmiri Pandit girl Shanna’s grandparents’ residence.
The refugees have made it their camp, their home away from home, by severing their link with their own ancestral territories, reinventing the colony’s open sewer lines as the river that flowed in the lap of Mother nature back home, and reinforcing their disconnect with their own land of not so long ago. Anand claims that this group is based on a combination of children from Tibet, the North East, the Rohingyas, the Syrian child who had been left to die between shifting sands, decriminalised tribes like the Pardhis, and finally the children of the migrant labour who had to flee the cities to walk back to their villages immediately after the declaration of the lockdown with no sense of belonging to any definite region. When Anand mentioned the last group in an interview, one could sense a goosebump-raising contemporaneity about the story. The Qhushvahans represent what Anand calls the ‘Everyman of Nomad’s land’.
Amidst all messages of acrimony that children receive from their parents, Anand, who works with children of various backgrounds, says that they do not necessarily internalise those abrasions, fissures and fractures. She uses a beautiful metaphor when she says in an interview that she wants to spread the message of love and peace by teaching children addition and multiplication rather than subtraction and division. Shanna the Kashmiri girl is one such child who overcomes her diffidence in the subtle manner in which she connects with the other children of her school when Pema her friend is away and suggests to them that we could all be trees. What she means is that even if we have lost our own roots, we could grow not only branches but new roots, a message of inclusiveness that makes them rethink their inherited prejudices about the Nagas. It suggests a review of inbuilt bad blood passed on by our parents.
Pema, the Qhushvaha girl in the refugee colony, is preoccupied with something else — liberating her old grandmother or mola from her racking cough and releasing her into death through an ancient practice of ‘breathtaking’ that is performed on those who are leading vegetable lives in the twilight of their lives. It has, of course, been banned by the government because it is a kind of mercy killing. Anand points out that when laws and policies are framed in a country with a multicultural canvas like that of India, we do not take into account that one size cannot fit all. Interestingly, Shanna is included in this project. She is entrusted with the task of enabling Pema’s mola cross the bridge to death because a kinsman is not supposed to do it.
The cough becomes a motif that unites the frail and elderly across the book — Debek Dan, the only man who can teach Shanna how to perform the breathtaking ritual, Shanna’s grandfather who significantly learnt indigenous medication from a Muslim hakim friend, and Pema’s grandmother. Shanna realises that the cough that links these three people has to do with the pollution in a big city, which is where they had had to resettle after having been natives of “forever skies and endless horizons”.
An ecological concern over the abuse of the environment comes through in the images of the open drain choked with plastic wrappers that acts as a surrogate for a river or the respiratory distress that affects the elderly across communities that were inhabitants of the mountains. That is when Shanna and Pema hit upon the idea of going back to Kashmir to procure some ingredients like roots and herbs for Nanaji’s medicines from the higher reaches of the Himalayas.
Both of them want to become doctors of indigenous medicine when they grow up, and Debek Dan’s daughter, Doyang, is willing to be an accomplice in their enterprise. The starting point of the fantasized venture would involve a reconnaissance trip to Kashmir themselves to stay with Huma and her family. And the novel ends with Shanna and Pema undertaking a mission that seamlessly and happily weaves together so many disparate strands in the novel — Shanna’s mother’s stops mourning to start a new life by accompanying the two girls, the reunion with Huma on whom Shanna had perpetrated communal hatred without any provocation, the understanding that Huma’s family has also been the victim of terrorist violence, the fusing together of Ayurvedic, Unani and Qhushvaha medicinal practices to solve a medical crisis in which the elderly in the novel suffer due to the hazardous air quality index in the urban pockets of the plains, and the children’s environment-friendly command over the ambience we live in. As Anand admitted herself, despite her effort to expose her child readers to sordid truths about the life around them, she ends her stories on a hopeful note so as not to leave them feeling stressed, anxious or depressed. Pema is a doer to begin with, and both the girls go up and about towards the end, therefore, to act positively on something that needs to be done to make the world a better place to live and breathe in.
Anand’s invention of the race of Qhushvahans involves not only creating a history and a geography about them, representing a protagonist, Pema as the ‘Everyman of Nomad’s Land’, but constructing a language that expresses itself in the quaint Qhushvaha deathbed rituals and chants, and making up nomenclatures (like Mola for grandmother) and facets of their culture like clothes. The English language is used by the possibly pre-teen protagonists in a way that shows real children imitate their peer group and improvise. Shanna, it is shown, feels progressively proud of being included in a group that uses adolescent colloquialisms like dude, swag, grandmom, wanna, whack, lezzies – what she calls “real TV language”.
The book deploys an anachronistic time scheme in which internet and cellphones exist in the early eighties in which the story is set. She says that this is to enable the children of the here and now to identify and feel more at home with its setting.
Paro Anand’s themes and portrayals have been such that a lot of censorship has been imposed on them by the adult gatekeepers of children’s morality. One of her books was banned from school curriculums because two adolescents of different communities share a fleeting kiss in it, and Anand justifiably calls such censorship the banning of books “for the love of hate.”
It is a work for children that is not only food for thought for children who are trying to find their feet around in a big, bad world but also makes adults pause and revisit the biases with which we inadvertently indoctrinate our children.
Nivedita Sen is an Associate Professor in English at Hansraj College, University of Delhi. She works on Bangla children’s literature, and has translated authors like Tagore, Sukumar Ray, Asha Purna Devi, Leela Majumdar and others for Harvard University Press, Vishwabharati Press, Sahitya Akademi, Katha, Tulika and more.
PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL