When Siya Vatsa Rajoria started school, she was introduced to the idea that girls wear pinafores and boys wear t-shirts and shorts. Growing up in a home where her parents encourage her to wear whatever she is comfortable in, she felt upset by the sudden imposition. “It was jarring for Siya because we never force her to wear something she dislikes,” her mother, Reshma Vatsa, a senior manager with a private bank in Mumbai, told me. “She is a child. She should have the freedom to discover what gives her joy, and express herself.”
I was talking to Reshma and her husband Kshitij Rajoria in their fifth-floor apartment in Wadala, a suburb of Mumbai. It is a quiet and green neighbourhood. The walls of their home have turned into canvases for Siya, who is nearly three years old, and are covered with squiggles and scribbles made with crayons of different colours. Siya was dressed that day in a white frock with green cactus plants and a bright red waistband.
Excited to have a visitor, Siya brought her stuffed animals – a bear and an elephant – into the living room where we sat. “Look at this, uncle, look at this!” she said, utterly delighted, holding up every object for my inspection and appreciation. It was a privilege to be trusted and shown such warmth by a child, so I did not ruin the moment by saying that I was not particularly invested in a male or masculine identity and that she could drop the “uncle”.
The conversation quickly shifted to books. “When we share books with Siya, I am not sure how much she understands, and what exactly she absorbs at this age,” Reshma said. “But we are stunned by some of the things she recalls, and the connections that she makes. Children engage with books in a unique way, and we must let them.”
One of the titles that Kshitij, who is a senior strategist with an advertising and marketing agency, pulled out from the shelf in their house was the picture book The Unboy Boy. The plot revolves around a boy named Gagan who likes painting, collecting stamps, and saying “Good morning” to the sun, birds and flowers. His classmates bully him for not showing interest in fighting and breaking things. They call him “baby girl” and “sissy”. Disappointed with Gagan’s lack of enthusiasm for playing with toy guns and listening to stories about wars, his grandfather calls him a chooha, meaning mouse. When these people desperately try to make Gagan “more boy-like”, his mother loves and supports him unconditionally.
Reshma and Kshitij are among a slowly growing number of parents who are raising their children to be queer-affirmative and using children’s books with queer themes to approach the subject. These parents want their children to understand their own relationship to gender and sexuality over time and to respect varied identities among friends, relatives and acquaintances. They are aided by a number of books for children of different age groups that address queer themes overtly or subtly. Some books even help parents who grew up without having conversations on these themes appreciate the lives of people who challenge heteronormativity and the gender binary.
Beyond the binary
Reshma and Kshitij met, became friends and fell in love while studying at MICA, an institute for mass communication in Ahmedabad. This was also the place where they began to critically examine their conditioning through discussions fuelled by books, films, essays and popular culture. “I was averse to people outside the male-female binary until I went to MICA,” Kshitij told me. “Being there seeded the idea that I was going against the law of nature by shutting out diversity. I had quite a few friends from the LGBTQ community. They were brilliant at what they were doing academically, and they were so in touch with their natural way of being. It opened my eyes.”
Reshma began reading about how to parent in a conscious manner soon after she and Kshitij learnt about their pregnancy. Kshitij wants his daughter to grow up as someone proud of who she is. He is waiting to introduce Siya to The Boy in the Cupboard, published by Gaysi Family, a queer-led initiative that promotes creative expression and community building. The book’s protagonist is Karan, who enjoys trying on his mother’s sari and wearing flowers in his hair. Other boys tease him because he has a pink cricket bat and a kitchen set. Fed up with the insults, he prefers to spend his time locked up in a cupboard – a metaphor for the closet. His mother is concerned about him, and promises to be there for him come what may.
Embodying this parenting philosophy – being available for whatever your child might need – can be challenging in real life, but Zahra Gabuji is attempting to do just that. She works as a storytelling project co-lead with Point of View, a Mumbai-based non-profit engaged in projects at the intersection of gender, sexuality and technology.
I met Zahra along with her five-year-old daughter Zoya at their apartment in Mumbai’s Versova neighbourhood. They had moved into the apartment recently and still had some construction underway. We sat in Zoya’s room, which had bookshelves, her bed, toys, a foldable tent and a gorgeous view of the Arabian Sea. She drew and coloured while her mother spoke with me.
“Zoya loves these two books,” Zahra said. The first one she showed me was The Many Colours of Anshu, written and illustrated by Anshumaan Sathe. The second was Ritu Weds Chandni, written and illustrated by Ameya Narvankar.
Parents who use these books to normalise conversations around diverse gender identities with children do so in the hope of ensuring their children turn out to be sensitive, kind and inclusive.
The Many Colours of Anshu revolves around a seven-year-old named Anshu who is read as a boy but says, “I don’t have to be like the other boys and girls. I don’t even have to be just a boy or just a girl! I can be anything I feel like.” Anshu likes flowers, flamingoes, floral socks and ice golas in various colours and flavours.
This book draws inspiration from Sathe’s childhood and has a separate section introducing ideas of “gender play” and “safe space” to parents and caregivers. “Gender play lets a child try on different clothes, experiment with their hair, participate in games and activities across gendered categories,” Anshumaan writes in this section for adults. “It is a crucial part of their developmental process, and Anshu, like most young children, has imagined several ways of being while trying to arrive at who he feels like and what he wants to be today.”
Anshumaan encourages parents and caregivers to avoid shaming or labelling their child’s gender expression, and to create safe spaces through conversations, acknowledging and working on their own discomfort and also educating the other adults in their child’s life.
“Zoya does not use the words ‘queer’ and ‘trans’ but she has met my non-binary colleague. She knows their pronouns,” Zahra told me. “The world is diverse. It is important to communicate that to her. At this age, she cannot articulate everything but she can feel and absorb.” The fact that her husband, Jalal, has a cousin who is a lesbian woman and has been living with her partner for close to two decades, makes it easier for Zahra to have these conversations at home.
Ritu Weds Chandni, the second book Zahra showed me, celebrates the love of two women who get married in a traditional ceremony with the blessings of their families and friends. While the people who are close to them joyfully participate in their celebrations, some relatives who are offended by this unconventional marriage try to disrupt their wedding procession by throwing water at it. The day is saved by a girl called Ayesha, who comes up with a simple but brilliant idea – to start dancing instead of being frozen with fear.
Zahra told me that Zoya was “really upset” when she first saw images of people throwing water at the wedding procession. Zoya, who was sitting close to us, turned the pages of Ritu Weds Chandni, pointed at an image, looked at me and said, “Their hair is soaking here.” Zahra turned to another page and said, “They are happy again.” Zoya replied, “Mumma, see here. There is a little teardrop, no?” I asked, “Zoya, can they be tears of happiness?” She nodded. Her mother said, “Sometimes, we cry when we are happy.” Zoya shook her head. Her attention had drifted away from the story, and she began telling us about her friend who was crying at school. Leaving her mother and me to continue talking, she jumped into bed and covered herself with a rainbow bedsheet.
Finding safe spaces
Zahra said she feels unsure about gifting such queer-affirmative books to other children since many parents might not be open to discussing these topics at home. “People ask me why I am introducing these books to a five-year-old,” Zahra told me. “I have to tell them that reading a book does not make you queer. It does not work like that. If my child discovers that she is queer, she will always know that her family and her home are safe spaces. And if she does not identify as queer, she would have learnt how to treat queer people with respect.”
One aspect of Ritu Weds Chandni does make Zahra feel a bit uncomfortable. “It is so deeply set in Hindu culture; all the marriage markers, the mangal sutra and the patriarchy are there in the book. I feel more comfortable reading Julián at the Wedding to Zoya because I am not a religious person.” Zahra said she grew up in a Bohri Muslim family and absolutely hated it. “I found so many of the customs and traditions quite patriarchal,” she explained.
Some parents do not know how to engage with ideas and expressions of queerness themselves. “There are parents who genuinely need support as they are parenting in a world that is different from the one in which they grew up,” Archana Atri pointed out.
Also among Zoya’s books is a rare one with a queer Muslim character – Sadiq Wants to Stitch, written by Mamta Nainy and illustrated by Niloufer Wadia. Sadiq, the protagonist, is not identified as queer in the book, but many queer readers have read Sadiq as queer. He is a Bakarwal, a member of a nomadic and marginalised community. Sadiq loves needlework but his mother would rather have him do tasks such as taking animals to graze, milking them and gathering firewood – jobs that are traditionally done by males in the Bakarwal community.
Zoya’s father, Jalal Mortezai, works as the business manager for the Bollywood actor Anil Kapoor. In the 2019 film Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga, Kapoor plays the father of a lesbian woman. The character struggles to accept his daughter’s sexuality but eventually comes around when he picks love over patriarchy and heteronormativity. Jalal was busy when I visited Zoya and Zahra but later spoke with me on the phone. I asked him, “Did the film push you to think about the kind of father you want to be?” He replied, “Every day of my life, I ask myself: Am I being a good father? As a parent, you can never be sure if you are doing your best. You just hope you are.”
Books for all
As a journalist writing about children’s books for over a decade now, and as a former school teacher and teacher trainer, I have learnt that reading aloud to children and buying books that children can read for pleasure are practices restricted to a small segment of Indian families. Parents from socioeconomically marginalised communities often do not have the resources to buy not just queer-themed books but any books for their children. They prefer to spend their money on what’s most essential – school textbooks. Sometimes, their children get to access children’s books through school libraries, non-profit organisations or the growing number of community libraries in India.
One such initiative is The Community Library Project, or TCLP, in the National Capital Region, which includes Delhi and its surrounding urban areas. It runs three library branches – at Khirkee, Sikanderpur and South Extension Kotla Mubarakpur, all largely lower- and middle-income neighbourhoods. TCLP is a part of the Free Libraries Network – a growing collective of over 150 community, school, college, hospital and prison libraries across India and other parts of Southasia.
Mridula Koshy, a free-library movement activist and trustee with TCLP, told me, “Our libraries are open to people of all ages. We have over 8000 members, and two-thirds of them are under the age of 18. Ninety percent of the children who are library members go to government schools. At TCLP, they get to read what they otherwise cannot read and discuss whatever interests them.”
When I visited TCLP’s Khirkee location on a June afternoon, it was bustling with activity. Children were helping themselves to peaches kept in a bowl at the librarian’s desk. I saw some of them drawing and colouring in a corner, others poring over books, some doing read-alouds with the support of a librarian, others accessing digital resources on laptops, and some using the free WiFi to work on projects. Information about seeking support for sexual harassment, self-harm and suicidal ideation was prominently displayed.
Parents from socioeconomically marginalised communities often do not have the resources to buy not just queer-themed books but any books for their children. They prefer to spend their money on what’s most essential – school textbooks.
I saw shelves dedicated to books engaging with gender, anti-caste books, and books against Islamophobia. There were books in Hindi, English, Urdu, Bengali, Dari, Pashto and Arabic. A bulletin board featured an op-ed on the marriage equality hearings in the Supreme Court, to help library members keep themselves acquainted with contemporary issues. TCLP has people from the LGBTQIA+ community on their board and also as library members.
Nunihar, a member leader at the Khirkee library, who gave me a tour, is passionate about holding space for discussions on the subject of gender. Among the books that Nunihar has shared with children is Kali Naachna Chahta Hai (Kali Wants to Dance). It revolves around a Dalit boy from a fishing village in Tamil Nadu who loves to dance but is forbidden from doing so because of his gender. The author, Aparna Karthikeyan, tells the story of how Kali fulfils his dream.
Nunihar said, “Members are curious about books that explore the body but there is also some discomfort around these issues. Read-alouds and discussions make space for children to discover books together, ask questions and express their confusions.”
TCLP has been working with children’s book publishers and advocating for their titles to be priced differently for community libraries. At present, they get discounts of anywhere between 20 to 60 percent from various publishers. “There is a great push for digital books but they do not help working-class folks who want community and not just books,” Mridula told me. “Physical libraries, and free ones in particular, make that possible. Most of our children are first-generation school-goers. A substantial number are children of migrants and refugees.”
Question and answer
Archana Atri, who lives in Delhi, has been running a children’s book club called AA’s Book Nerds for 12 years. Children going to different schools sign up. They read books from a list curated by Archana, discuss them and participate in activities related to the books, such as creative writing exercises or interactions with authors. Archana informs parents about the books she reads with the children, especially when she feels that they might be seen as “contentious or controversial” by some. She does not force children to read books that their parents might disapprove of, but she also engages in dialogue with the parents.
“A parent once told me that she didn’t want her child to read Ritu Weds Chandni because she did not know how she would answer if the child came home and asked: Mumma, can two girls marry?” Archana told me. This mother wanted to avoid discomfort, so she thought it best to keep the book out of her child’s reach. Archana told the mother that the question might come up sooner or later anyway, when other children talk about the book. The mother gave it some thought, and decided that it was better to let Archana answer any questions in the book club so that she would not have to bother engaging with them at home.
Parents have also voiced their discomfort to Archana with children’s books that address sexuality, human anatomy, caste discrimination, bereavement and domestic violence. Some parents have allowed their children to read books with supposedly objectionable content but blocked out certain words using black markers. This has not helped much because a child can easily borrow someone else’s copy of a book and read it. Archana has noticed that when something is forbidden, children are all the more curious to learn about it.
“These children are creating a new world,” Archana said. “They are inquisitive, they are open-hearted, but adults cannot help imposing their fears.” When some parents told her that they could not understand some queer-affirmative books, Archana told them, “You may not understand but let the children read and get back to you with their response.” Understandably, parents are concerned about what is age-appropriate for their children, but sometimes they also use this as justification for queerphobia.
Meanwhile, some parents do not know how to engage with ideas and expressions of queerness themselves. “There are parents who genuinely need support as they are parenting in a world that is different from the one in which they grew up,” Archana pointed out. A mother whose child comes to the book club told her, “Hum apne bachchon se kitna seekh rahe hain.” (We are learning a lot from our children.)
When the book club was discussing Ritu Weds Chandni, one child said, “You can stop a baraat. But you cannot stop what is in their hearts. They love each other so much.” When Archana was discussing Shals Mahajan’s book Reva and Prisha, about a Hindu–Muslim lesbian couple who raise twin daughters, she was struck by how differently children responded to books as compared to adults. Archana thought the children would talk about the couple’s sexual orientation; instead, they spoke animatedly about how much fun the family in the book had, and the ease with which the parents and children in the book spoke to each other at the dinner table. That the family had two mothers and no father was a non-issue for the children until Archana brought it to their attention. They acknowledged it, and moved on.
Soda and Bonda
Some parents actively look out for books that resist heteronormative narratives. Monisha Raman, a writer who lives in Chennai, learnt about Kanak Shashi’s book Guthli Has Wings through a book review in a newspaper. Guthli, the book’s child protagonist, finds joy in wearing her sister’s clothes but is told to wear clothes meant for boys. Guthli tells her mother, “I want to be a fairy! Why do you keep saying I’m a boy when I’m a girl?” The constant misgendering by her natal family harms Guthli’s mental health. She withdraws from interactions with them, and instead prefers the company of trees and chickens, who do not tell her how to be. Guthli’s mother cannot bear to see her suffer. She brings Guthli a frock, and says, “Wear it and be what you want.” Guthli jumps with joy; she is happy to be accepted on her own terms. “My 10-year-old daughter responded with a lot of empathy,” Monisha said. “She asked me, ‘Why are they making Guthli so sad?’”
Kanak wrote the story of Guthli in 2010, in Hindi. It was translated into English in 2016 for the Being Boys anthology, published by Tulika Books, and later made into a picture book. In 2018, a Bhopal-based non-profit organisation called Muskaan, which works for the education of children of denotified tribes and the urban poor, asked Kanak if they could use the story as part of their English graded reading series. The story then took on a new avatar as another picture book, called Guthli Can Fly. Eklavya Publications brought the story out as a Hindi picture book called Guthli Toh Pari Hai. It will soon also be made into a picture book in Telugu by Manchi Pustakam. Different price points and language editions have helped the story reach a wider audience.
“These children are creating a new world,” Archana Atri said. “They are inquisitive, they are open-hearted, but adults cannot help imposing their fears.
Raviraj Shetty, an occupational therapist, author and library educator who works with children in India and Nepal, told me that “when parents figure out that children in the age group of four to six are struggling with their gender identity, and their relationship with their body, they come to me, and giving them a book to read is one of the ways to help.” Raviraj uses the Hindi and English versions of the Guthli books with children from lower- and middle-income families of diverse caste backgrounds. He avoids using words such as “queer” or “transgender” to describe Guthli. “These parents do not speak that language that upper-class folks use,” he explained. “Their language is closer to their lived experience.”
Even publishers of the Guthli books do not package them as queer-affirmative, and Raviraj believes that this approach works in their favour. Parents engage with them as picture books. “In their cultural context, using labels and categories that are unfamiliar to them could be tricky,” he said. “After all, the point is to reach out and communicate, not to alienate.”
Raviraj loves introducing children to a book called Soda and Bonda. Soda is a dog who feels like a dog whereas Bonda is a cat who feels like a dog. The idea of promoting self-determination and rejecting biological essentialism is at the heart of this book, just like with Guthli Has Wings.
Parents who use these books to normalise conversations around diverse gender identities with children do so in the hope of ensuring their children turn out to be sensitive, kind and inclusive.
“We didn’t want to be prescriptive parents like our own parents were,” Kshitij said, while arranging Siya’s books into neat little piles. “Instead of deciding the direction Siya should take, we want her to explore diverse interests and themes to figure out what she likes.”
Kshitij and Reshma introduce her to books, toys and games without imposing conventional ideas of what is considered suitable for a particular gender. It seems this parenting style is helping build Siya’s sense of self. I was curious about her conceptual understanding of gender at such a young age, so Kshitij asked her, “Are you a boy or a girl?”
Siya replied, “Papa, I am Siya.”
This story has been reported and produced by queerbeat, a collaborative journalism project focused on covering the LGBTQIA+ community in India.