“The character of Jamlo came from an Aadhar picture and a picture of her on the road”

Says Samina Mishra, a filmmaker, children’s book author and teacher. She teaches film at the International Baccalaureate level, aiming to use the arts as a means of self-expression. Mishra is a Mass Communications graduate of Jamia Millia Islamia, and her interests lie in covering themes that revolve around childhood, growing up and identity. Her movie Happiness Class on Delhi schools’ happiness curriculum is doing the rounds of film festivals to great critical acclaim. Her goal has been to give primacy to kids’ voices in all that she does. She also has to her credit, many books including Nida Finds a Way, and The House on Gulmohar Avenue, a publicly available documentary film.

In this interview, Sangitha Krishnamurthi holds a conversation with Mishra, after having read Jamlo Walks – the hard-hitting picture book based on a true story of a 12-year-old girl who walked all the way from Telangana to Bastar in Chhattisgarh. Carrying her little bag of chillies, Jamlo covered a distance of 155 miles during the lockdown.

What drew you into writing for children?

I can’t deconstruct why I write for children. The closest I can get to is my visual training from film making and my mass communications background. I have been drawn to whimsy and the everyday experience of being a kid. How do we stay whimsical as we grow up is a question that intrigues me. So, a coalescing of these various strands of education and interests got me into writing for children.

The actual journey started with not being able to raise funds for a movie on Delhi. That is when I pitched Hina in the Old City to Tulika books. It is now available from Eklavya Books and is about a young girl and how life is in the streets of purani Dilli, featuring the neighbourhoods that I explored. Fiction came later.

What is different about writing for kids?

When I’m writing for children, I try to remember the child in me, what I was like as a child and children that I know and engage with. I write to convince myself, asking whether the child I remember being and the children I am now in touch with, would identify with the story. A lot has changed on the outside but the universality of feeling stays true. Is it an interesting story to tell? Is the book age appropriate in how it handles issues? Do the ideas talk to all children? These are some questions I ask myself and then, I take cues from kids.

Nida Finds a Way is a hole book with Duckbill – please talk about this one.

There isn’t enough representation in Indian children’s literature of Muslim kids doing regular everydayness, being playful and just being kids. There’s a texture to every neighbourhood and that’s true also of a largely Muslim neighbourhood. That is hard to find in English kid lit. The story of Nida and her super protective father and her wanting to learn to cycle on the roads was the initial idea. I sent it off to Duckbill and they asked me to write more to make it a whole (hole) book! The ending seemed logical, given the events of the time. It started as wanting the Muslim identity to be incidental but it became of consequence, and I wanted to show something beyond surface level diversity of topi, sewaiyan, food and festivals. There is a nuanced texture of language, just how we live our lives.

Jamlo Walks was the clincher for me. It is a deeply moving book and it moved me and continues to do so. Do talk a bit about how you found the story and what made you write this. How did you decide that a picture book would be the best representation of this story? Did you think of an audience for the book before you wrote it?

We were all locked away by the circumstances. I am a filmmaker; I need to be outside to see and speak to people. We saw these scenes shot at night, dark silhouettes, walking by the Yamuna, dragging footsteps. A young woman cycling a long distance, with her ailing father, men on railway tracks. The news and newspapers were full of these stories of survival and desperation.

Many people seemed to have missed Jamlo’s story; the PARI website was my main source and this idea of the contrast between the two kinds of children I saw. The book came in one go. I wrote it and then refined it. But because it was a short story, it took the form of a picture book. I don’t believe that picture books, are for younger children alone though that is how they are looked at, particularly in India. So, this was a question to consider – was the story appropriate for the readership? I think the book is good for say age group of nine plus though I know people who have read it with their younger children. This is a book that needs to be mediated by adults, answer any questions that are thrown up sensitively. So, we added a note to tackle these issues. Readers will digest the book and respond at different levels.

What was your brief to Tarique Aziz, the illustrator? Was there one?

This was a truly collaborative project, much like making a film. Smit, Devangana, Tarique and I talked about big ideas like representation as well as small details. We had a discussion on what kind of cloth the bag would be made of. The character of Jamlo came from an Aadhar picture and a picture of her on the road, one that showed determination and vulnerability. We talked a lot about the feel of the book, what should be in the foreground, there were many iterations of the text, paring it down to distill the story that came from this process of illustrating it. Using the milestone and the road to evoke the journey, for example, was something that evolved from the discussion.

Do you think children should have books that talk of ‘difficult’ topics? Why?

The lockdown was hard for everyone, especially children. So I wanted the book to work at creating possible connections – our own experience of difficulty can open us out to another’s difficulty –  self-awareness  versus making it a ‘scolding’, a moralising to create  empathy for the ‘other’. I didn’t want  the book to become the ‘wagging finger’. But I did want it to talk of the difficult experiences of the pandemic for all children.

We should be talking about all kinds of topics, without it being a fashionable or trendy thing to do. The point is not to ‘do a story about poverty’ but having a story to tell. There are many difficult topics – families and what happens in them, death, social issues. The pandemic exacerbated some of them. Many adults feel that children should not read sad stories, but sadness is also a part of life, it isn’t a negative thing, but what acclaimed author David Almond calls, sadness with a reaching for the light. There is a rich inner world of children and there’s got to be room for sharing that experience, if only for other children to know and relate to.

Even in Jamlo Walks, she looks at the birds in her sadness, reaching out. Ursula Le Guin, the renowned American author once said that the role of the writer is to be a witness and remind us of that which we have forgotten. For those of us who come from positions of privilege, this act of witnessing must be accompanied with self- interrogation, so things that are on the margins are not forgotten but are also presented, and not simply to display our sensitivity.

At a time when no one has been untouched, a true and very real story had to be immortalised for everyone to read and hopefully discuss.

Mishra recommends

Neil Gaiman – The Ocean at the End of the Lane    

Jean-Pierre Simeon (Author), Olivier Tallec (Illustrator) – This is a Poem that Heals Fish

Anushka Ravishankar – Moin and the Monster

Siddharth Sarma – The Year of the Weeds

Angie Thomas – The Hate U Give

David Almond – My Dad’s a Birdman

Frank Cottrell Boyce – Framed

Jason Reynolds – When I was the Greatest

Arjun Talwar – Bim and the Town of Falling Fruit    

Uma Krishnaswami – Book Uncle and Me

Other favourite international authors:

Jacqueline Woodson, Sharon Creech, Maurice Sendak, Shel Silverstein,  Frances Hardinge

About the interviewer: Bangalore-based Sangitha Krishnamurthi is the co-founder of The Teachers Collective that works with schools, teachers and children inclusively. She is a wife and mother, who mostly tries to find a balance between being of use socially and making a livelihood at the same time. Reading is a long time passion which is now actively used as a way to motivate children to read. She uses kid lit and ‘story books’ in her reading classes to lure them into the amazing world of reading.

When these children living in Adivasi hamlets in Aarey, Mumbai, got smartphones, they danced with joy!

Just two months back, these children were staring at an uncertain future because they didn’t have a smartphone and were moving one step away from education with each passing day. After Mumbai-based journalist Sohit Mishra did a story on them, help poured in from India and abroad and he personally went back to Aarey and distributed around 85 smartphones. In this first-person account, Mishra talks about how because of the positive response that the story received, the journalist in him could sleep better at night and why there is a need to tell many such stories and do quality journalism during a pandemic

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Children living in some of the 27 Adivasi hamlets located inside Mumbai’s Aarey Milk Colony, the sprawling 1,300 hectares of forest land in the heart of the city, received a special gift in September.

In March, following the government’s order of keeping the educational institutes closed to prevent the spread of coronavirus, schools and colleges across India began conducting online classes with the use of smartphones and computers. However, for children living in rural India, urban slums, and Adivasi pockets such as Aarey, this meant a long gap in their education. Many of these families didn’t have a basic phone or had just one smartphone in the family. Factors like poor network and connectivity added to their problems. While many citizens, NGOs, and voluntary organizations have stepped in to help such children either by giving them smartphones or finding alternative means to educate them, there are still many who haven’t attended a single class or touched their textbooks since the beginning of the pandemic.

Sohit Mishra, a Mumbai-based journalist, shares with ‘The Good Story Project’ this heart-warming first-person account of how people from across the globe stepped in to help children living in Adivasi hamlets at Aarey by providing them with smartphones after the story he did on them had the desired impact. He also writes about the importance of doing quality and responsible journalism, especially during a pandemic when there is pain, suffering, and anxiety all around. It’s noteworthy that airing of the story coincided with most of the primetime slots being dedicated to the coverage of the aftermath of the death of a Bollywood actor, and a section of society openly expressing its disgust over the over-the-top, TRP-driven coverage. Mishra’s story led to these children receiving the best Children’s Day gift, that too two months in advance. This is his first-person account. 

Journalist Sohit Mishra’s story (The video is sourced from Mishra’s Facebook post.)

In August end, when I decided to do this story, most of the schools across the country had resorted to online classes. I thought about children living in rural India and the urban poor who were getting impacted because they didn’t have smartphones. That’s when I decided to visit Aarey as I knew the financial condition of people living over there wasn’t good. Through my story, I wanted to raise an important point that if people living in heart of the financial capital of India were not able to afford a smartphone, then imagine the plight of children in the rest of the country. When I reached Aarey, I noticed that children were playing and because they didn’t have a smartphone, they were not studying at all. One of the girls I met, who was around seven-year-old, said her friends were able to study but since she was poor, she couldn’t. That made me very sad that a girl at her age was experiencing discrimination based on her financial status and she knew that she was denied education or wasn’t able to study as her family was not in a position to buy a smartphone. That’s when I decided to go ahead with the story.

I always knew it would be a good story, but I didn’t know it would go viral and so many people will come out to help. Initially, one of our viewers contacted me on Twitter and offered to help Shiksha, a class three student who featured in the story. Her mother had never been to school, but she named her daughter Shiksha. Things were going smoothly until the pandemic hit them and Shiksha’s educational journey suffered a roadblock because of the absence of a smartphone. Soon, help started pouring in from India and abroad and many people started sending smartphones for these children. Several senior journalists who wished to remain anonymous pitched in too. Bollywood actor Sonu Sood, who has been doing some incredible work since the lockdown, also sent some smartphones. It was incredible to receive courier packages every day and opening them at night after returning from work helped me sleep better.

Sohit Mishra (left) with the smartphone parcels. Children at one of the Adivasi hamlets showing their smartphones

I personally went back to Aarey to distribute these smartphones. In all, we have distributed around 85 smartphones. Our initial plan was a cover one Adivasis hamlet inside Aarey, but we ended up covering 12. The children were extremely happy after receiving the smartphones and were dancing with joy. Some of the parents had tears in their eyes and they assured that they would make sure that the children made the most of this opportunity. They said they never expected that anyone would help them. They could never have imagined that people would actually bother to send smartphones for their children. They said that this gesture has given them hope that the world can still be a place where their sons and daughters will be able to grow and prosper.

Personally, as a journalist, this story and the response to it, made me very happy. During the lockdown, I had covered that entire migration crisis. It was heartbreaking to see people on the streets, starving and not having a single penny on them to buy food. I was fulfilling my duties as a journalist by covering these stories, but I couldn’t do much to help them personally. But after the Aarey story, when people started sending smartphones and when I handed them over to the children, that was extremely satisfying for me. It motivated me to do my job with more responsibility and I was happy that as a journalist I could impact a few people and do my bit for society. 

The video is sourced from Mishra’s Facebook post.

The only positive emerging out of the ongoing pandemic, which is an unusual and unprecedented situation in itself, is the fact that people have gone out of their way to help others in need. Since the lockdown, there have been many stories of pain, suffering, loss, despair, hopelessness, and heartbreak. This has affected our society but has also made people more ‘giving’. I think the reason why people came out in large numbers to donate smartphones, even though the pandemic has affected all of us financially in some way or the other, was because somewhere down the line they could feel the pain of these parents. When there are so many crisis-ridden stories, people feel compelled to help those in need in whichever way they can.    

While we need more such people, we also need people who can question the government. After all, after announcing the closure of schools, it was the government’s responsibility to ensure that no student was left out.

Many journalists have done a fabulous job of covering the pandemic and the lockdown with maturity, empathy, and sensitivity. However, around the time the story came out, a section of media was busy covering the aftermath of the death of a Bollywood actor and that coverage dominated all the other news stories. As a journalist, that broke my heart a little. There were so many people who were staring at an uncertain future because of the pandemic, and their stories needed to be told. But it seemed as if no one cared. I think that’s why people liked my story and responded very positively to it. As journalists, it’s our responsibility to tell stories, but we must also do stories that can help people come out of dire circumstances. I am convinced that many such stories would be done in the future and the day is not far when people themselves would support journalism that serves them the news that matters and not garbage.

Sohit Mishra is a senior correspondent and anchor at NDTV India. The views expressed above are his own.