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July 27, 2020

Creative Control

Text by Reem Khokhar. Animations by Aishwaryashree

Children are interpreting their conflicting emotions through writing in an attempt to create a sense of safety as they remain confined in their homes.

The social constraints of the pandemic appear to have drawn more children to pen and paper (or keyboard and screen for that matter). For them, the act of writing can provide an escape, an attempt to control the narrative amid instability, as well as serve to document this dark, historic period. And their words, which detail gloom and confusion along with hopefulness, are unexpectedly insightful, displaying an emotional maturity that extends beyond their physical ages.

This need for children to express their sentiments about their new environment is even being recognised by the publishing industry. Talking Cub (an imprint of publishing house Speaking Tiger), commissioned a diverse collection of pieces short stories, poems, essays and diary excerpts by children and young adults, titled A Bend in Time: Writings by Children on the COVID-19 Pandemic, which released on July 20. “A lot of online activities are being planned to keep them engaged, but I feel a lot of it is one-way, with adults giving direction to the children,” says Sudeshna Shome Ghosh, publisher. “How many children were being asked to express their fears and insecurities in this situation?” she asks.

The pieces in A Bend in Time, which display their authors’ intensity and range of thought, include: a story of a girl who has not had a dream in several days; a writer who reveals, “All I am hankering after is to not feel completely, utterly hollow for an instant”; and a tale of a broken kingdom filled with lost hopes.

Five young authors (two of whom are published in the above-mentioned book) share their works with us…

Tarini Sathe, 16

And when the wind blows
Or the scent of flowers flows
You hold yourself straight

You won’t get blown away
You’re made of steel

Laced with resilience, these words were penned by Sathe during the current lockdown. Writing, her refuge and outlet, has been an organic process for the Mumbai-based youngster. Since late March, when the lockdown began, she has been busy with online lessons, an internship and chores around the house, but she consistently makes the time to write dabbling in poetry, investigative essays, short stories and more. Sathe’s verse above was inspired by the feminist poetry of popular contemporary poets, Nikita Gill and Rupi Kaur. “I was thinking about the inner strength possessed by a woman and how we are not broken down easily, much like a metal,” she explains. Her positive affirmation “you’re made of steel” is a reminder of our ability to survive the storms that disrupt our lives, and it resonates at a time when we could all do with some reassurance.

Feelings of anxiety, disappointment, loss or despair are not new to children; they grapple with issues around their identities, relationships and peer pressure more regularly than you’d think. One of Sathe’s poems viscerally reflects this darkness:

Piece by piece
Bit by bit
I’ll take you apart
To make you fit

Sathe describes the mood as “creepy, rhythmic and musical”, like someone manipulating you to reshape you. It is part of a collection of poetry she wrote recently for a school project, which details a personal journey. Through the collection, she explored relationships, loneliness, love, darkness and friendship. She mentions that most of the other poems were specifically inspired by certain relationships a friend with who she was going through a rough patch, for example. But the teenager explains that this particular poem “was not triggered by a specific incident,” and that perhaps residual anger and resentment fed her writing. Her words feel like a poetic interpretation of gaslighting, a psychological manipulation once again revealing children’s ability to grasp what we may perceive as exclusively adult experiences. Recognising and acknowledging these feelings, which could cause more stress if left unexpressed, helps her have more control over them. “I find writing cathartic,” adds Sathe.

Simona Ghosh, 8
She has been prolific during the lockdown, writing four poems and two short stories in the span of three-and-a-half months. “It has given me more time to read and ponder over things,” says the eight-year-old Delhi resident. “I love that I can escape to my imaginary world. It is exciting to be able to weave my thoughts into words,” she adds. An avid reader, she has had more time to spend with some of her favourite authors, which include Charles Dickens, Beatrix Potter and Sudha Murthy, as well as the poet Shel Silverstein.

A cheekily titled piece Babysitter, Rabisitter, Jalebisitter – was inspired by Simona Ghosh’s two-year-old cousin, with whom she has spent a considerable amount of time since March. The story revolves around Analie, who babysits her rambunctious brother, Smilth, through an evening of mishaps. The opening paragraph reads:

Once there was a smart toddler of three called Smilth. One evening, on a full moon, his parents were invited to a friend’s party. They asked Smilth’s sister Analie to take care of him. Analie was dumbfounded! Smilth was obedient with his parents but not with her. How would she babysit him? When things finally settle down, Analie has to concoct a new bedtime story as the original was torn up earlier. The conclusion reveals an insightful lesson in acceptance, adaptability and resourcefulness.

Omkar Mantri, 14
In one of the pieces in A Bend in Time, The New Normal, Mantri expresses the pandemic panic in verse:

People constrained in their own four walls
Souls trapped in their own head,
As our thoughts run uncharted and scared
Like choppy waters in the night-time sea.

“Poems induce more emotion in much fewer words than prose,” says Mantri, as an explanation for choosing poetry over prose to express himself. But he enjoys reading verse as well, along with classics like Anne of Green Gables and Shakespeare. His description of thoughts swimming unanchored was inspired by a metaphor he heard on the show The Good Place. It likened the ebb and flow of the waves in the ocean to the journey of life with a beginning and end. “The waves are like the pandemic, we are living in a different world now. Soon, it’ll be gone, like a wave in the ocean,” he says.

We sit and stare…
And look outward for hope and love,
While the utopia we dream of
Has been inside of us all along.

“Good times and bad times is just how things work,” says the Bengaluru-based Mantri while explaining his poem, which ends on a positive note. “It’s meant to reflect the ups and downs of moods. My poem talks about staying positive over everything else…. We need to understand that things can come and go.”

Anikait Chakraborty, 14
The simultaneous occurrence of natural disasters during the lockdown intensified feelings of instability for Chakraborty, who is from Kolkata. In one of his posts on his new blog, Quarantimes, he describes divine retribution in the form of Cyclone Amphan in Kolkata:

The elders proclaimed that it was Mother Nature who had had enough of the preposterous human acts and had decided to end it…. I could imagine the bloodthirsty dance of Kali, the Goddess of Death; her rage blinding her vision, her brazen, disheveled hair unfurled like a cascade of black mass, dancing like threatening serpents…. I felt deep inside me that Kolkata would have a glimpse of her that night.

Chakraborty enjoys reading books rooted in Indian myths and fables. His favourites include Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s The Forest of Enchantments and Lanka’s Princess by Kavita Kane. The blend of fantasy and reality in their writing has influenced his own.

Sharvari Sonawani, 13
In A Decade Later, a short story also in A Bend in Time, Sonawani imagines the plight of those less privileged. Set in 2030, it centres around a family living in a slum. The virus is better controlled, but social distancing and inequality in experiences still exist. The vaccine is not accessible to all, and the poor are struggling with economic hardships caused by the pandemic. The sharp divide is encapsulated in a few lines spoken by the mother, Jaya, who is looking out at a high-rise apartment complex:

“See that balcony on the tenth floor? That family, they look so happy…even during such times. They are not wrong in being happy. It just looks wrong when you see them from a tiny slum house like ours.”

By writing about a reality different from her own, Sonawani attempts to see the pandemic through the eyes of those less privileged. Compared to some of her pre-lockdown writing, which is lighter and playful in tone, this story shows a maturity in theme and expression, the suspenseful ending influenced by her love of crime and mystery stories.

It is encouraging to see children the future caretakers of our world articulating their thoughts through words, and particularly now.

As Sudeshna emphasises, “Art is what keeps us alive and sane in difficult times…these are the things that remind us of beauty even in the worst of times.” Their works reflect strength and learning through a stressful situation, equipping them to be organised, coherent and compassionate thinkers and doers. It offers the rest of us hope to see them thoughtfully scripting the next chapter for a world that is in desperate need of a rewrite.

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