I am a writer. I am a reader. I am a Mom. I am an Indian. I am passionate about these roles and everything I experience in this world is coloured through the spectrum of these perspectives.
My son is 18 years old and I spent years reading hundreds of children's books out loud to him. Even when he could read by himself, I would still read out to him at bedtime. It was our ritual.
I don't buy children's books anymore but I still look at them when I am at bookstores and libraries.
One day, I found Moha Mehta's book Whose War Is It Anyway? An Indian author wrote a children 's book on war? I was intrigued.
I was mesmerised by the cover: sombre shades of grey and the outline of a little kid in a dark hoodie running. My heart sank as I opened it to the dedication that simply said this book was for "Children all over the world who have been displaced by the horrors of war."
I read the entire picture book sitting on a stair and travelled with the protagonist of the story, a little boy named Salim, as he "leaped with catlike agility," even as his "heart raced with fear" as he "dashed across the town." He was dismissed early from school because his "once peaceful town" was "quickly turning into a war zone."
The account of the kid's cosy home, his loving family as they huddle together and realise that they have to be evacuated by bus to another town is hauntingly beautiful.
In painting a vivid portrait of the security of the child's home against the juxtaposition of the chaos of the uncertain world, Mehta challenges us to think of the children and how much conflict has the capacity to traumatise and damage them.
I reached out to the author for an interview.
What inspired you to write this book?
"My father, an extremely compassionate human being, always encouraged us to stay in tune with the happenings in and around the world. That is where the story begins," said Mehta, a soft-spoken gentle woman in her 50s.
She grew up in Mumbai and now lives in Irvine, California, with her husband Sushrut and has two children Rohan and Priyanka, both in college. The book is also dedicated to them.
"It became necessary to understand human stories around the world, which inevitably led me to the horrors of war erupting in every other country. That's when the focus shifted to the children who are the innocent victims of these battles of ego, religion and land. The victims of hate and power. When I looked at their stories up-close, it was pretty clear what I wanted to write about."
Wasn't it difficult to write a children's book about war?
"To be able to tell this story without scaring off children who can never imagine such a plight was a challenge. At the same time, I wished to create awareness. It won't be long before a refugee escaping the clutches of war could be seated next to one of our own. The world in which our children are growing up is volatile," said Mehta, who works at the same school her children graduated from.
"Why not break it to them gently? Why not prepare them to be vigilant? Why not encourage them to be more compassionate?"
What did you want to accomplish?
"Through my writing I want to be able to help us understand each other a little better. I would like to share my pride in family and good values," Mehta said.
Mehta's close knit, loving family has always been a source of pride and inspiration to her. Her father Parry Dholakia was a well-respected marketing and advertising executive who passed away last year after after an illness. He was 85.
Her mother Raksha is the glue that holds the family together and has an indomitable spirit and her younger brother is Rahul Dholakia, a critically acclaimed Bollywood director, who won a National Award for his thought provoking film Parzania.
What is the worst thing about these conflicts?
"What saddens me is the hatred. The root of evil lies deep inside these people who are propelled by hate. When that is wrenched out, we will be better off as people. This is what I fear for my children, and the future generations to come. A world with more weapons of hate and less compassion. The hope that good will overcome evil is naive, yet alive. I still wish for that and that is the reason those of us who believe in the good need to keep trying. I will do the same... through my writing."
Are you working on something currently?
"I have just finished writing a picture book about a little girl who is not willing to accept that her grandfather is in 'a better place' and happens to follow her heart into a secret garden... of discovery! Now, I am looking forward to the torturous process of rejections before a publisher decides to publish it. Next on my wish list is writing a play about diversity in our world today. I would love to write it and take it to our schools and have the children participate in its production."