Anaya can’t dream, Shreya can’t read and Lavanya can’t write. These children and teenagers are wrestling with the upheaval wreaked by the pandemic in narratives that fascinate and comfort. The writings are part of the anthology A Bend in Time, which features essays, stories, musings and poetry by 12 children between the ages nine and 19.
While the pandemic has spawned reams of reportage, analyses and ‘lockdown literature’, we could do with more insights and attempts to parse the tangled strands of life during the crisis. This anthology not only strives to make sense of these ‘unprecedented’ times, but also foregrounds the voices of children and teenagers, which rarely feature in most discourses. The pieces touch upon diverse subjects — from grave ones like death, loss and inequity to ruminations on travel and pandemics in history.
In A Prayer, 17-year-old Shivani Sharma writes about Sakina, whose labourer parents migrated to Delhi from a village. Haunted by the “ghost of Maths”, Sakina is happy at the cancellation of her exams after the lockdown, but its full implications dawn on her painfully over the next 21 days. The story, says Shivani, was inspired by tenants in her neighbourhood. Garima Singh’s Twists and Turns takes multiple morbid turns and sails on contrivances before culminating in a deus-ex-machina resolution. Sharvari Sonawani sets her story A Decade Later in the future and puts into keen focus the inequities in society that the pandemic has amplified.
The most compelling are the personal accounts of everyday life during the pandemic. In Virtual Libraries, Shreya Aiyer writes about coping with the sudden lack of physical books during the lockdown and eventually embracing the “torturous prospect” of digital reading. Lavanya Sinha’s Night Write describes her “Locked Down Desire” to write something she does not abhor. Her attempts to mould her writer’s block into words result in frolicking reflections on writing, travel and how life has changed during the pandemic. Tishya Tara Kumar’s quirky style makes her story about a girl, who couldn’t dream after the lockdown, more memorable.
“The collection shows different experiences of the pandemic beyond what we see in the news or people talk about every day,” says Lavanya, 16. “These experiences don’t necessarily have to be life-changing; they could be something as simple as not being able to dream, as in the tale Dreams in an Empty Pot of Tea. The anthology tells specific, unique stories and has a whole bunch of takes that one might not generally associate with the pandemic.”
The writing styles are as diverse as the themes. Some of the narratives are self-conscious, or even overwrought, while others seem more effortless. Not all of the authors may be deft with words and shaping narratives, but their flights of imagination and varied perspectives make for a refreshing read.
“While their writing needed work, they used many interesting turns of phrase,” says Sudeshna Shome Ghosh, the editor of the anthology. “But more than their craft of writing, I liked how they looked at the issue. Each one came up with a different and interesting angle. I don’t think any of them looked at the pandemic the way an adult would. The writing is unfiltered and the feelings direct — they are not hidden beneath a lot of layers.”
“I don’t think you can generalise children’s writing or adults’ writing,” says Lavanya. “But yes, the perspectives are different—they are literally from different heights. The other day, I had a conversation with my mother about beauty standards and it led to an argument. I realised we have many differences, which are not because of personality differences, but more owing to the difference in age. Also, children worry less about being good writers. They are more interested in telling stories, so their writing tends to be more forthright.”
Young folks could also have unusual insights into issues that some might consider as out of their ambit. A recent poetry project, We the Children of India, for instance, explores their notions of Indianness through everyday experiences. Their poems provide a refreshing counterpoint to the charged, antagonistic debates around citizenship and nationhood in India today.
There has lately been a glimmer of interest in writings by children, especially after Nadim Shamma-Sourgen, a four-year-old in the UK got a book deal for his “astonishing” poetry. While he might be the youngest author to be published, books by children and teens have been in print for centuries. A teenage Mary Shelley is considered to have invented the science fiction genre with Frankenstein. Arthur Rimbaud wrote all his poetry between the ages of 15 and 20. Anne Frank’s diary is perhaps the most-read book about the Holocaust.
Rather than considering them as anomalies, perhaps we should recalibrate the notion that the age of the author has a bearing on their literary capabilities. What children often lack in experience, they make up with imagination and a fresh pair of eyes. After all, in Hans Christian Andersen’s folktale, it was a child who pointed out that the emperor was naked.
Syed Saad Ahmed is a Delhi-based writer, photographer and filmmaker.