Peace initiatives in children’s stories


Thousands of years ago the Panchatantra stories projected men’s quest for self-realisation, to win friends and influence people in order to secure his own happiness and well-being – all focussed towards a stable, orderly society. Books always open the mind to other cultures and ways of life enabling children to overcome fear caused by ignorance, intolerance, conflict and war. Dr Ira Saxena, a child psychologist, writer, and critic of children’s books, talks more about peace initiatives in children’s stories.

A wide range of aesthetically pleasing picture books published in the West and translated in many languages generally deal with pre-conditions of peace – intolerance, xenophobia, prejudice against being different, misuse of power, oppression, and violence against people and property. The fury of war comes alive in their illustrations; the destruction of war bracing intense hatred for it in realistic grey shades of oppression as contrasted with vibrant colours of spring and flowers of hope.

Conflict is a certainty where there are differences – in colour of skin, rituals of worship, customs and norms of the society, ways of living and celebrations. This otherness provokes their urge for supremacy hindering the acceptance of people as they are. Always at variance with peace and harmony, intolerance subdues the appreciation and understanding of otherness.

Domination and tyranny fuelled by prejudice thwarts free expression of people, hence, frustrating the environment of peace. All along, children’s books have echoed the cry for peace and freedom subscribing to natural feelings for the good things in life – song of the dawn along the river, gentle rustle of leaves in the forests, red poppies in the meadows and children rushing joyously at the sound of school bus. Culture of peace cannot be equated with abstract pacifism and passive intolerance. It originates in the commitment of building a world that is acceptable to all.

Tolerance is closely linked to freedom, solidarity, and justice. The universally acknowledged twentieth century idol of peace, Mahatma Gandhi, carried the meaning of non-violence beyond mere cessation of war into the depth of an unflinching faith – the realm of ahimsa as a way of life and the law of civilised species. He articulated a vision of peace in which justice is inherent; peace requires not only absence of violence but also presence of justice: “There is no way to peace; peace is the way.” “Without Gandhi…there can be no world of tomorrow…” the words of Raja Rao (The Great Indian Way – A Life of Mahatma Gandhi) resound in the life of the great American voice of non-violence and justice, Martin Luther King Jr (Martin’s Big Words: The Life of Dr Martin Luther King), where Martin’s intense expressions and oft-repeated phrases are woven in the text to create a captivating yet completely accessible book for young readers.

Everywhere in Martin’s hometown he saw the signs Whites Only. His mother said that these signs were in all southern cities and towns in United States. Every time Martin read these words he felt bad, Until he remembered what his mother told him, “You are As good As anyone.”

In the footsteps of Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr reiterated the demand for justice to complement freedom in his dream for equality through non-violence. The directness and simplicity of King’s portrayal transcends the meaning poetically, complete with the spiritual strength and peaceful visage of the great fighter of human rights. The promise of peace presented in fiction registers convincingly as the role players come closer to reality.

Real people in fiction

The perception of peace makes a direct impact on the readers as the lives of real heroes, the struggle for liberation and devotion of martyrs on the altar of peace speak out from the pages. Non-violence impacts directly upon strengthening of will, purifying the inner self through the all-absorbing power of love (Mahatma Gandhi: A Biography) as Gandhi pledged his commitment to peace, fighting a unique battle for India’s Independence. (Our Gandhi: Child of Fear to Man of Freedom, The Story of Dandi March). Political freedom took a new shape and acquired a new content, but the essence of his teachings remains persistently peaceful (The Story of Gandhi).

For young adults, “Gandhi” by Louis Fischer presents a penetrating and comprehensive understanding of the subject by unravelling the deep layers of Gandhi’s thoughts with subtle sensitive nuances.

The modern approach to great stories of real people became a form of therapy for the readers. The conventional concept of national heroes and narratives of success melts in the psychological explorations of their personality. Fictional biographies, articulation of the story of life and idealist analysis of the individual achievements enhanced the popularity of biographies. The biographies brought real people in flesh and blood to shed a guiding light upon young readers.

In Indian publishing, biographies constitute a favourite genre in modern publishing. Nearly every publisher has a series of biographies of heroes of modern Indian history – the leaders of the freedom struggle ( Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India; Dr Rajendra Prasad, the first President of India; Bal Gangadhar Tilak; Jai Prakash Narain; Sarojini Naidu; Vijayluxmi Pundit; Rajkumari Amrit Kaur; Aurobindo; Raja Ram Mohan Roy etc.). The soldiers of the peaceful struggle for Indian Independence rose above their mundane existence into the exceptional, broadening the genre, to inspire the campaign for non-violence and peace.

Inspired fiction

The unique saga of Indian freedom movement, full of heroism and thrilling to the core, recounts the story of mobilisation of the inner strength and will of the masses driven by truth and ahimsa towards a common goal of freedom (Triumph of Non- Violence). The backdrop remains as powerful as the lives of individuals who emerged as great martyrs, endowing writers like me with inspiring material for fiction (Kamala’s Story – The Saga of Our Freedom, Together We Marched: fictionalising of history through the eyes of a little girl and relating the stories of unsung heroes of the Independence movement from different walks of life).

As a co-author of these books I experienced a strong sense of fulfilment, due in part to my upbringing influenced by my mother, Kamala Chaudhri – a Gandhian, freedom fighter developing phase of the nonviolent struggle for independence (the novel is the recipient of the Shankar’s Medal for Writing). I dwelt upon compelling images of real people motivated by the sheer force of will, overwhelming inner strength, courage and patriotism, capturing the spirit of the non-violent movement.

The jumbo pearl, a sacred heirloom – left in the custody of the little heroine by her grandfather as he is led away by the soldiers to the prison – slips away from her possession. In the search she experiences a trail of adventure, an encounter with enemy soldiers, violent revolutionaries active in the struggle for freedom and the peaceful brigade of non-violent marchers. As the drama unfolds the impact of Gandhian movement and nonviolence gradually grows upon the little heroine, juxtaposed against the prevailing violence of repression by foreign rule. I have lived my mother’s childhood, her developing conviction in non-violence as expressed in the heroine’s letters to her grandfather in jail and learning the practice of hand spinning cotton. The energy of actions climaxing to a happy solution asserts the final supremacy of non-violence.

The spirit of freedom and non-violence underline many an adventure fiction (Adventure before Midnight), which records real episodes and real people, such as the brave act of a bunch of school children who resolutely attempt to hoist the Indian flag on their school building but end up sacrificing their lives on the altar of freedom. Even fictionalised history in A Pinch of Salt Rocks an Empire – the story of Gandhi’s famous Salt March – rings with the profound message of nonviolence and the unyielding faith in peace.

The absorbing autobiography of a tiger – Tiger for Malgudi – is an engrossing novel for young adults in which the narrative imbibes the philosophy of peace in the tiger’s search for a way out through the storm. Through the depths of the natural and spiritual worlds, the Master empowers him with virtues of non-violence for transformation.

The tiger begins to enjoy the vision of the rising sun, sparkle of sunrays on leaves and in the last scene the laughter of children coming to see him at the zoo. These books carry the message of tolerance – a requirement for peaceful coexistence among people and races of the world.

Among the other iconic legends of peace is Sadako, a Japanese holocaust victim who emerges as life-like, in the pages of fiction, with her thousand paper cranes. She folds coloured papers into cranes, believing that an offering of 1,000 such birds would cause the gods to grant her wish and make her well again. Unfortunately, Sadako dies; but her classmates finish making the paper cranes as a memorial to be buried with their young friend. It has become a custom for people to place paper cranes at the memorial each year on August 6, Peace Day. The story of Sadako rewritten by writers in many countries remains a literary experience of raw emotion, a reflection on life and war and peace.

The Apartheid in Africa was the consequence of a racist law. With a root in colonisation, apartheid was a system of institutionalised racial segregation and white domination, which stripped people of their civil rights, sparked a widespread movement for liberation and human rights in modern times. The story of Nelson Mandela’s struggle against apartheid as narrated in Nelson Mandela echoes the spirit of Gandhi and King in its proclaimation of the culture of peace (Peaceful Protests: The Life of Nelson Mandela and Tree Shaker: The Story of Nelson Mandela).

The meaning of peace spreads beyond the limits of war, freedom, philosophy, and spiritualism to peace in day to day conflicts in family, school, and social exchanges where sometimes the images grow out of proportion into racial attitudes and terrorism (The Road to Peace). One World narrates tales of peace and pressure encountered by children. Paralysing all attempts for peace, terrorism has unfortunately seeped into the society like cancer, striking fear among people irrespective of nationalities and race, forever increasing and intensifying, only to destroy. As morning begins with Sun rays sparkling over snow-tipped Himalayas, securely enclosing saffron fields’ persistent insecurity and fear of suicide attacks, gunfire surround the young. It has been observed that the young had lost the skill to be happy; their imagination had been frozen under the burden of their grief. The harsh truth prompted a stressful tale (No Guns on My Son’s Funeral and Weed) of bleak reality of a suicide bomber shrieking for peace throughout the rough-ride into terrorism. In stories that handle the theme of terror, the plot remains as stark as the gruesome reality loaded with a cry for peace.

More recently, a Korean publication compiled the works of children writers from 22 countries (Peace Stories) in its effort to proclaim a wider sense of peace. Another mosaic of stories by eminent Indian writers, There’s Another Way, The Road to Peace, describes the daunting way through a thorny terrain where the goal remains the same – peace and friendship. The stories weave a logical explanation to conflicts and chaos to illustrate complex truths of life that ordinarily defy analysis.

On the printed page, the truth assaults fiercely, ravaging the hurt, arousing a painful fury from the innermost recesses of human sensibility, simply pleading for a solitary assertion – let me live in Peace. A belief in the innate goodness of human beings endures in the darkness, a force for hope and peace. The stories show the readers a way to cope with harsh realities of life and to prevail in spite of them.

“There comes the morning with the golden basket in her right hand bearing the wreath of beauty, silently to crown the earth. And there comes the evening over the lonely meadows deserted by herds, through trackless paths, carrying cool draughts of peace in her golden pitcher from the western ocean of rest. But there, where spreads the infinite sky for the soul to take her flight in, reigns the stainless white radiance. There is no day nor night, nor form nor colour, and never, never a word.”

–Rabindranath Tagore

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