BookReview | In Heroes the Color of Dust, Amit Majmudar weaves fictional plot around India’s civil disobedience

Read his book to learn about a fictional group of fearless sparrows who are ready to sacrifice their own lives because they have made a resolution “to protect Gandhi from any foebird, mutt, or Britisher.”

The Dandi March, one of the most well-documented examples of satyagraha during India’s freedom struggle, began on 12 March when MK Gandhi and his followers set out to protest the salt tax imposed by the British.

On the anniversary of this important moment from 1930, we bring you an interview with Amit Majmudar, whose new book Heroes the Color of Dust, engages with the march as a form of nonviolent resistance that continues to inspire people to this day. Published by Puffin, this novel is for children above the age of 10.

Majmudar, who is a poet, novelist, translator, essayist, and diagnostic nuclear radiologist, writes, “The British were always making laws that helped them make money off Indians. The law said Indians weren’t allowed to make their own salt. Mahatma Gandhi and his followers decided enough was enough. They all got together and decided to disobey that particular law.”

Majmudar weaves his fictional plot around their memorable act of civil disobedience. Read his book by him to learn about a fictional group of fearless sparrows who are ready to sacrifice their own lives because they have made a resolution “to protect Gandhi from any foebird, mutt, or Britisher.”

Excerpts from the interview:

Question: Your book opens with a quote by MK Gandhi: “I do not believe myself to be a helpless creature…Strength does not come from physical capacity. It comes from an indomitable will.” How did these words speak to you as you were working on the book?

Answer: The epigraph proposed itself a little after I was done with the book, actually—but it was almost certainly in the back of my mind, as I had been researching Gandhi (and the Independence struggle generally, especially Jinnah) for years before sitting down to write this book. So the quote seemed right. It comes from Gandhi’s The Doctrine of the Sword, which sounds like it should advocate violent and bloody revolution.

Question: Could you take us through the process of how this book took flight in your imagination? Did the sparrows come first, or was it Gandhi, or was it the Dandi March that excited you?

Answer: The book came to me in a flash when I was spending some time at the home where I grew up, in a suburb of Cleveland, Ohio. We were going to put up the house for sale then, so I was thinking about my childhood, I guess, and how quickly it all passes. Somehow this story—my first children’s book—popped into my head.

Question: When you began to think of Gandhi as a character in a novel rather than a hero of the freedom struggle, what creative liberties did you allow yourself easily and which ones were you reluctant to take? Were you afraid or skeptical while using humor in historical fiction?

Answer: Gandhi is only a minor character in Heroes the Color of Dust. He has a cameo appearance; the story focuses on the sparrows. He plays a major role in The Map and The Scissors, the other novel of mine that will come out in India this year—a novel for adult readers from HarperCollins India. As for humor in historical fiction, it’s always a risk, particularly on a subject that means so much to so many people. But I think with sparrows, it comes naturally.

Question: What kind of research did you immerse yourself in as you wrote this novel? Do tell us about all the books, movies, conversations, archival work, etc. that fed your creativity.

Answer: My first published novel was Partitions in 2011. I am publishing about this subject again, as you can see, all these years later. So I have read a fair amount of historical work about it. I particularly enjoyed Indian Summer by Alex von Tunzelmann and Midnight’s Furies by Nisid Hajari, though I have read a fair number of Gandhi biographies, too, most recently the one by Joseph Lelyveld.

Question: Would you like to introduce Blatherquill, Muttsbane, Amli, Lychee, Thunderfluff, Red Millet, Jalebi, Poundthwattle, and the Hatcher of Winged Words, briefly for people who haven’t read your book yet? Why did you choose to create anthropomorphic characters?

Answer: Ah, I would much rather the reader encountered these characters for the first time in the book itself! I have introduced them much more effectively there—the bombastic poet Blatherquill, haunted Muttsbane, heroic Amli, featherbrained Lychee, burly Thunderfluff, hot-tempered Red Millet, the vengeful mutt Jalebi, the self-aggrandizing Britisher Mr. Poundthwattle, and many more— and the reader is advised to meet them there.

Question: You refer to Gandhi’s prayer meetings, and his ability to unite people across divides. How does it feel to write about all this at a time when many see him as irrelevant, even whiskered?

Answer: I don’t agree that he is mustachioed based on my readings about him, though I do feel that he was a creature of his time, negotiating his society within the limits of his historical period. As to whether he is irrelevant, I do think that Indian politics have taken turns over the decades that are not Gandhian—but this was the case even during Gandhi’s lifetime, so there is no revelation there. Was Partition Gandhian? Were the Indo-Pak wars Gandhian? He had a major role in raising awareness globally about the Indian struggle, and he saved countless lives by making the birth of two modern nations less violent than it could have been.

Question: Muttsbane says, “I should have known that a fellow Gandhian could be relied upon to overcome any violence in him, natural though it might be.” Later in the book, we read, “He preferred to get a beating rather than give one, no matter what his enemies did to him.” How do you look back at these words when you read about what is currently unfolding in Ukraine?

Answer: Gandhian tactics are culturally specific—they have to take place under the attention of the world media, and the opponent must be open to shaming, if not into doing one’s will then at least into pulling punches, limiting retaliation. This is why Gandhian tactics worked decades later in the American Civil Rights struggle but sounded absurd when offered as advice to Jews in Hitler’s Germany. The effectiveness or ineffectiveness of Gandhian methods says a lot about the enemy in question. I do not think they would work or would have worked against Putin, Aurungzeb, ISIS, or China.

Question: Instead of showing Gandhi as a saint, you depict him as a leader who strategically used radio broadcasts, photographs and video footage in the fight for justice and independence. Is this how you grew up learning about Gandhi? How has your relationship with him evolved?

Answer: No, I don’t recall this “influencer” angle to how Gandhi was taught. So that is why I included that in the Historical Note I appended to the end of the book, explaining some of the historical backgrounds. I thought it might help kids today contextualize what Gandhi was doing and how he was doing it.

Question: Tell us more about “the three sparrow chicks, Shiv, Savya, and Aishani” who helped you imagine your target audience. Which parts did they react strongly to? Which parts did they want you to review? Do you imagine your book being used by history teachers in schools?

Answer: I only showed my three children the final book, but Smit Zaveri, my editor at Puffin, gave me excellent advice along the way, particularly when it came to emphasizing Amli’s heroism. I think my children reacted best to the humorous elements of the story. I would be surprised if history teachers decided to teach a book full of jokes and derring-do and adventure, starring a bunch of sparrows—but I certainly think their students would appreciate it if they did!

Question: Before we conclude, would you mind sharing the story behind the title of this book, and also your conception of what it means to be a hero? Who are your heroes other than Gandhi?

Answer: I think of “dust” as signaling something common, underfoot, unnoticed—so these brown sparrows are the color of that commonplace dust, but they are heroes, “shining” with glory. I think that heroism can take such humble forms. It doesn’t have to be some musclebound macho man—a hero can be someone quite frail-looking, like Gandhi. I think my heroes include people who fought against oppression at mortal risk to themselves, like Shivaji and Martin Luther King, Jr., and creative people who overcame great suffering to create great art, like Beethoven overcoming his deafness, or Milton overcoming his blindness. In general, I don’t go in for hero-worship all that easily—definitely not the heroics of mere athletes or even Napoleon-like conquerors. I prefer to find heroism in the small and brave and sometimes unsung heroes of the past—like the daring sparrows of Heroes the Color of Dust.

The author is a writer, journalist, commentator, and book reviewer.

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