(This piece was first published by the Red Elephant Foundation’s Ahimsa Project.)
Educators often have a tough time figuring out how to have conversations with children about a subject as sensitive as war. Avoiding such conversations is not an option because armed conflict is all pervasive. Even children who do not live in communities or countries devastated by war read about it, and engage with images circulating online. Their parents or grandparents may have fought in wars, or fled from them to save their lives.
Author-illustrator Sagar Kolwankar’s book Red (2018) is a beautiful resource to use if you plan to facilitate a discussion about war, which will hopefully venture into reflections on peace. He says, “I always like to look at history to know what we shouldn’t do in the future.” Published by the Chennai-based Tulika Books, Red opens up ways to think about violence not only in terms of physical harm but also its emotional and psychological dimensions. Children may not only lose their limbs, parents, friends and homes in contexts of war but also access to nutritious food and clean water, safe spaces to play, and schools to go.
Here is an interview with Kolwankar, which will give you some insights into his thought process and also enhance your appreciation of the book.
Question: On the blurb of the book, you have described Red as your “attempt at imagining the feelings of children in war-torn parts of the world.” What did this imaginative exercise do to you in terms of your perception of the world, and the place children inhabit within it? As a child, what did war mean to you?
Answer: I came from the same childhood upbringing as any average Indian. While watching the news or hearing people say that Pakistan did this, and China is closing in on our land, I had a pretty normal reaction agreeing that we should fight back. As a child, I thought that we too should drop bombs. War was not affecting me directly, so my response to it was impulsive. I was not thinking about the aftermath in affected areas. As maturity took over, and I had an opportunity to explore art as a career, my thinking flowered. I started questioning myself.
Now I think that countries are so big, or at least they think themselves so big, that they do not have the time to think about the children of the world. This is especially true of war zones. So much political ego is at stake that, when we think of dropping bombs on a nation, we forget to think about the people or kids living there. Red was my attempt to imagine the feelings of a small boy in a war zone, and deliver the same feelings to the reader of the book.
Question: Which war-torn parts of the world were your reference points while working on this book? What kind of research process did you go through?
Answer: The story does not mention the name of any place or nation. Even the boy in the book does not have a name. This was deliberate on my part. I did not want to label any country or a child. Wars are happening everywhere for different reasons. The main idea behind the story is to evoke empathy for children, and for all the people who are suffering. It came from the empathy I felt while going through news coverage about war.
Question: The red kite, which is so central to the book, spoke to me as a metaphor for the human spirit — soaring in the sky, lying dirty and torn on the ground, and going up up up once again. What does the kite represent to you as the creator of this book?
Answer: That is the fun part about storytelling. It opens up a world of imagination in the reader’s mind. You had a really nice portrayal of the kite in your mind. If that is what you took, it is quite good. The main point is that you started thinking about empathy. For me, the kite was innocence flying with the wind, and enjoying the moment like a child, not knowing that the wind can change its course.
Question: The text draws the reader’s attention to flashes of light in the sky, sounds of warplanes, and bombs falling on houses, roads and people. However, the visuals in the book are completely different from the violent imagery in video games and news reportage. In fact, your use of colour makes the pages aesthetically appealing. What choices did you make as an artist, and what were you hoping to evoke in the reader?
Answer: We have to understand that, in the case of this book, the primary reader would be a child. Although the subject is barbaric, I cannot show that directly in the visual form. Visuals can have a deep impact. But again, we cannot keep children away from these topics. They will be part of the same world we have created today. I feel that it is our responsibility to introduce children to these serious subjects so that they do not make the mistakes we did, or at least take a conscious stand. I wanted to keep the visuals minimalistic but convey the mood using colours. I used kite paper because it went well with the story.
Question: The protagonist in Red is a boy. Do you think that the book might have turned out differently if the protagonist was a girl, or unidentified by gender? Would you say that the experience of war is different for people with different gender identities.
Answer: No. I don’t believe war treats any gender differently. When a bomb falls, it does not discriminate. It is your life that is on the line every hour. You have less time to worry about what’s your gender. The primary instinct is to live. For example, when you are running from an angry dog, you don’t think about gender while running. The only thought you have at that time is to save yourself from it. I would say humanity is at stake in war rather than genders.
Question: How have various readers — children and adults — responded to Red? What kind of conversations has it led to?
Answer: Many people have reached out to me after reading the book. This includes children and their parents, and other adults who have read it. I am glad that people are feeling moved, and questioning their own perception of war. That is the goal we should we aim to, where we all question these atrocities against humanity.
(Source for all images: Sagar Kolwankar)