Thursday, August 27, 2009

Words and their associations in Sorry, Best Friend!

In the last week of March, I held a 5-day creative writing workshop for 8 to10-year-olds in Juhu, Mumbai.

On the 4th day, I focused on the use of adjectives, or descriptive words and phrases. The session began with each child coming forward, dipping his or her
hand into a brown paper bag, feeling the object within and describing it to the rest of the class in evocative words or phrases. The class would try to identify the object through that child’s perception of it.

After this I tossed the kids a few adjectives and asked them to tell me what came to mind when they heard these: ‘fat’, ‘summer’, ‘black’, ‘slum’, ‘servant’, ‘ogre’, ‘god’ and ‘fair’. The children came up with plenty of associations – a mix of the innovative and stereotypical. ‘Slum’ and ‘servant’ evoked responses like ‘poor’, ‘unhygienic’, ‘stinky’, etc. While ‘god’ evoked ‘invisible’, ‘loving’, ‘hope’, ‘peace’ and ‘colourful’ and many more. After this, I told the 21 children how innovative associations can spark stories. I talked about Michael Heyman‘s It’s Hot (Puffin Book of Bedtime Stories), where Meena tries to beat the summer power cuts by going to a nearby park and pretending to be a dog, an ant, a deer, a lizard and even an elephant flapping its ears. She finally settles for lime juice and a happy soak in the bathtub.

For the innovative use of ‘black’ I told them the story, The Tunnel from Sorry, Best Friend!. ‘Black’ here, is the black burqa that Saeeda aunty wears. She emerges from under it, like magic, when Ankush, a little boy travelling without his parents on the long-distance train, is frightened by the darkness of a tunnel. Ankush and Saeeda aunty become great friends when he teases her about seeming like a mound of luggage when she slept on the berth draped in her black burqa. Black, here, is a symbol of initial misconception, later fun and shared laughs, and its silky fabric finally is, to the terrified boy, about mother-comfort. The children listened, laughed along and enjoyed the story.

Then I told them about Sorry, Best Friend!, to illustrate how the word ‘servant’ can mean many things aside of ‘poor’ and ‘unhygenic’, the associations they’d come up with. The story is about how the boy Sonu makes best-friends with Rahiman, his servant’s daughter. He understands, by the end that she lives in very different circumstances than him… and yet that they can be great friends, indeed, best friends.
The children later wrote original, truly wonderful and sensitive stories based on the adjectives we had discussed.

On the fifth and last day of my workshop, I talked about points of view. How where you stand or the angle from which you look at things, determines your worldview.
I read out Poile Sengupta’s The Lights Changed, again from the collection Sorry, Best Friend!.

To begin with, the children did not really understand what happened in the story. I explained: There are two children who meet everyday at a busy traffic signal. Both their names are Samir. One is a schoolboy on his way to school, who makes friends with the boy vending newspapers at the signal. They call themselves Samir Ek and Samir Do. Samir Do is a Muslim boy from Meerut, the younger of the two, poor and unschooled, but proud to be an earning member of his family since he was ‘just so high’. His family is in Meerut, he tells Samir Ek. Then a couple of days later, Samir Do is worried that there are communal riots taking place in Meerut. And then the next day, Samir Ek cannot find his friend at the signal. Not the next day, nor ever again. He is left wondering what happened to his friend, Samir Do.

The class comprised 15 Hindu children and five Muslim children. I asked them, what do you think happened to Samir Do? A couple of children said that he might have gone to Meerut and died in the riots there. I suggested that he went to help his family. Maybe he helped many people. The class cheered up at that.

Then I asked each of them to pretend he was Samir Ek and make a card for his missing friend, Samir Do. Write a short letter, message, poem, story or song… anything that is a message of love and friendship to their missing friend. I suggested beginning the card with “Salaam-walekum”. About four children wrote that down as a greeting. A few wished Samir Do “Id Mubarak” and several children wrote, “Happy Birthday! Let’s celebrate your birthday together.” But all, overwhelmingly all, wrote, “Why did you go away without telling me? When will you come back? Come back soon. I miss you…”
They made beautiful sketches of the two friends at the traffic signal, the friends celebrating Samir Do’s birthday and Id, and flowers, balloons and hearts.

I left the session with a full heart, not knowing if touching the kids’ lives with this story was the right thing to do, or the wrong one. It certainly called attention to the Muslim children in the class. Only one seemed perfectly comfortable with the discussion that followed the story. The cards they made were heartening. These spoke the language of love. Will exploring this story with children make them more sensitive and accepting of differences, or make the Muslim kids in the group uncomfortable and fearful? I really have no way to tell.

- Chatura Rao,

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