While the world of today is wobbling towards equality in all its forms, with some nations racing by and some slowly catching up, the one thing that is important in the societies of today is responsiveness to change.
But barely a few weeks before the monumental Section 377 verdict, Shals Mahajan, a writer, and a queer feminist fellow who lives in Bombay had to withdraw from a Children’s Writing Festival they were invited to because the organisers of the fest did not approve of the bio they submitted.
Shals is a popular children’s book writer and they have been part of LABIA – Queer Feminist LBT Collective for the past two decades. Some of their most popular work are Timmi in Tangles and Timmi and Rizu (Duckbill 2013, 2017), A Big Day for the Little Wheels (Pratham 2017).
As they write in this Scroll article, they were invited to be a part of the Neev Literature Festival, a literary event for children held at the Neev Academy, an international school in Bangalore. As is with most events, they were also asked to send in a photograph and a short bio for the event website.
Other than the essential information about their work, Shals mentioned the broad areas they have been working in- gender, sexuality, caste, and communalism while referring to themselves as ‘they’, their preferred pronoun as a genderqueer person.
Weeks after weeks of negotiations and three changed bios later, the organisers of the event were worried that Shals’ preferred pronoun is confusing to their readers, grammatically. Language, though, was made by us for us to communicate with each other with ease. This also means that something created by us for us has the ability to evolve over time to be more inclusive of the people using the language.
Shals was also told that their bio needed to be cut down to be relevant to the festival and not introduce topics too complex to understand by the children and to explain by their parents. As a society, we are extremely okay with discussing heterosexual relationships and heteronormative concepts in textbooks and daily conversations with children. Children are often encouraged to indulge in fictional characters and toys based on their sex. Not only are they taught about fictional relationships that their heroes have with female partners but also encouraged to play with figurines in a certain way- all of which adhere to very binary norms. If this is okay, then why must we keep our children away from the narrative of those outside a binary that has been created by society? Studies show that younger people are way more accepting and understanding when it comes to learning about non-conforming concepts, ideas, and people. They are often curious. The conditioning that follows them in their years with family, friends and every other institution on the way is what changes that curiosity to black and white rights wrongs. The society of today is in a struggle to unlearn the years and years of social conditioning we’ve been through, consciously unlearning the prejudice and bias against every second person on the road because of the ‘types’ of people there are. We already know this isn’t a mistake that should be repeating itself.
While the festival did go on to tell Shals that their aim was to introduce sexuality among other issues not usually included in children’s literature, we must reflect on the fact that some identities are more acceptable and okay than other identities, and therein lies the problem and the solution (knowing this).
We must realise that the system we have created readily invisibilises stories that are different from those that are seen and heard- anything that makes us uncomfortable is rather not dealt with. Here comes the tricky spot where corporations, festivals and those in power dabble in true inclusivity and mere tokenism.
In such a space, there is no gap left for self-identification- the brickwork of self-acceptance and love- something we teach children through their childhood- to be themselves. A few years into their teenage and the same kids are slowly taught to unlearn self-love and acceptance to appease the many things that run the world and the market on the insecurities of humankind.
A person’s gender identity is their own to discover and identify. There lies a sense of consent when we use pronouns that are comfortable for the opposite person. And in this world, today, where we must imbibe in our children values of self and individuality, blindsiding them to think of the ‘right kind’ of self causes more harm than good. When we talk about thinking outside the box, there exists an even bigger box outside the box we aren’t encouraged to think beyond. There are topics that are ‘too much’ and narratives that are ‘too complex’, and in this refusal, how must one learn of a narrative that is never placed in front of them? When there’s a large dosa in front of us, we break it bit by bit and consume it with relish- information must be consumed the same way. Bit by bit, and with relish.
A writer is a writer. And there is no ‘proper’ way to be a writer. This goes for any profession. The nature of events that box people into the general idea of what a professional looks like – a package of the way we speak, dress and the experiences we have has the devastating power to create a vacuum of recycled narratives.
There is no better day than today to throw a spanner into the running gears.