In 1942 India, 10-year-old firebrand Anjali (a Hindu Brahmin) and her Muslim best friend, Irfaan, paint "Quit India" graffiti on Captain Brent's door; Anjali's mother, Shailaja, recently left the British officer's employ and Anjali is convinced the Englishman fired her. Actually, Shailaja, dedicated to Gandhi's ahimsa (nonviolence) movement, quit to become a "freedom fighter." Shailaja begins working to promote the making of khadi, hand-woven Indian cloth, to replace British manufactured cloth. She also involves Anjali in her passion to educate Dalits, known as "Untouchables."

But Mohan, Anjali's family's toilet cleaner (a traditional "Untouchable" job), turns the tables, educating Anjali and Shailaja and making them aware of Gandhi's faults. Gandhi renamed the "Untouchables" Harijans or "children of God," but the community finds the term insulting and prefers the more realistic word Dalit, which means "oppressed" in Sanskrit and "broken or scattered" in Hindi. Thirteen-year-old Mohan angrily says: "Everyone will still think of us as dirty and beneath them. Changing what you call someone doesn't fix the problems behind the name." Shailaja and Anjali, courageous, idealistic and sometimes naïve, must learn that the hero of some is not necessarily the hero of all.

Hollywood and Bollywood screenwriter Supriya Kelkar uses family history--her great-grandmother was an independence and women's rights activist--to create her outspoken feminist characters in this New Visions Award winner. Skillfully crafted, Ahimsa incorporates Indian history, culture, a less often seen view of Gandhi and harsh daily realities, including the mother's and daughter's attempts to clean their own outhouse, Mohan's beating by Anjali's neighbors, Shailaja's imprisonment (and hunger strike) and Hindu-Muslim riots. This is an absorbing story of a young girl concerned with important issues but also convincingly anxious about school, family, pets and being shunned by classmates after she befriends Dalit children. --Melinda Greenblatt, freelance book reviewer

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