Arun Gandhi

Journey to the Picture Book

Posted by on Mar 3, 2014 in Arun Gandhi, Grandfather Gandhi | Comments Off on Journey to the Picture Book

Journey to the Picture Book

  In February of 2002, Arun and I began corresponding over email and telephone about the possibility of creating the book that would become Grandfather Gandhi. He sent me manuscript pages of what would become his book, Legacy of Love: My Education in the Path of Nonviolence and I read, attempting to find and translate Arun’s experience of his grandfather into stories that would work in the picture book form. There was much we wanted to include. I was struck by the autograph story, the pencil story, which Arun shares and is referenced in the final Grandfather Gandhi text. I was riveted about how on the ashram there was no waste, and how when Arun threw the nub of a pencil out into a field, that night he was asked by his grandfather to retrieve it. We began to work, me drafting and composing, and Arun fact-checking and helping me with precise facts about India and its culture and being sure the emotional truth being told was his own. We did this off and on, until we secured an agent for the project and for my other work, but time and time again, though publishing houses were interested in the concept, they had other ideas. We were told it should be a middle grade book, after all Arun was 12 when he began living at Sevagram. Picture books took place in one day, one week…Arun’s time with his grandfather took place over two years. Each time we had a no, I’d sit with it, not sharing it with Arun for a bit, as not to bother him with his busy schedule. I’d reach out again when there was more revision work to do, when I had found I had more questions that needed answering. Around 2005, Arun’s wife Sunanda, was becoming ill and they moved from Mississippi where they had began a non-violence institute to Rochester, New York to live closer to one of their children. I lived in New York City then and I proposed we meet, finally. Off I went to interview Arun in person, in his home, this small townhouse that was much like the one my parents were living in outside Atlanta. He welcomed me, and his lovely wife Sunanda who was ill stayed in her recliner, as Arun prepared the tea. He asked me if I took sugar, and Sunanda, said her husband always took two lumps, “It keeps him sweet,” she told me. Over his kitchen table, we rifled through his papers, I asked more questions, searching for details, for what the story was missing. It wasn’t to be a chapter book, a middle-grade non-fiction title or even a fictional story based on Arun’s experiences living with his grandfather in India. The night I heard Arun talk, when I had gone to hear him to help me release the sadness and pain of what I witnessed on 9/11, I had thought, “these would make beautiful picture books” and it was a picture book I wanted to tell, and I knew we were doing something different. In fact, Kirkus in its starred review  dubbed our final product, “a picture book memoir” which was far as I know, hasn’t been a term used before. For many years, the manuscript opened with the scene of Arun being beaten by whites in South Africa, where he was born and raised, for “whistling” in a white neighborhood—although as Arun walked it was a servant that whistled, and not him. Weeks after enduring the harsh beating of white adults, those college age and older, Arun was beaten by Zulu’s for...

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These Stories Should Be a Picture Book

Posted by on Mar 3, 2014 in Arun Gandhi, Grandfather Gandhi | Comments Off on These Stories Should Be a Picture Book

These Stories Should Be a Picture Book

A month after 9/11, I sat in the wooden chairs of Town Hall on West 43rd street, and listened to Arun Gandhi, grandson of Mohandas K. Gandhi tell stories of living with his grandfather at the Sevagram ashram as a boy. Arun had been invited by Paul Tenglia of Unity New York, to speak to the city. To help us heal. Arun spoke that night about many things but the thing that stuck with me most was his story of his grandfather relating to him that anger was like electricity. I turned to my friends, Maggie and Dawn Marie, and whispered “these stories should be a picture book.” They nodded and by the end of the talk, I felt more alive than I had since turning on my office computer that Tuesday morning. I was coming back to myself. I took the postcard advertising Arun Gandhi’s talk home with me. The company I worked for had relocated to the Grand Central area, first occupying the hallways of other branches of CIBC Oppenheimer, and then later moving into our own space a few blocks away. I hung the postcard on my bulletin board and often I’d stare up at the Mahatma’s face while I worked. I had moved to NYC to become an actor, but instead discovered I was a writer. The day job as a receptionist allowed me to work on my fiction when I wasn’t answering the phones or greeting clients. I continued to stare at the Mahatma’s face, close my eyes and hear Arun’s words, all the while telling myself though Arun’s story should be a book for children, that I was not the one to help write it. Why would he work with me? I wasn’t published. I’d only been writing a year or two. I’d never been to India. I wasn’t a Gandhi scholar. I had no ties or connection to Mr. Gandhi but still the thought didn’t leave me, “his story would be a beautiful picture book.” At the time, I was working on what would become my first novel, Between Us Baxters, which is set in the civil rights era. I had long been a student of this time period, and came to know Gandhi’s work because of his influence on Dr. Martin Luther King. The thought of a Gandhi book wouldn’t leave me as I worked on my novel, and one day, I had the thought: The Mahatma believed we are all one. Perhaps his grandson, despite my lack of credits, won’t see me as unworthy either. I searched the web, checked with the minister who’d invited Gandhi to Town Hall to see if I had the correct email address and finally after months of trying to talk myself out of it, I sent Mr. Gandhi an email, asking him to work with me. I mentioned hearing his talk, being a 9/11 fire searcher at One WFC, and my love of children’s literature and the novel I was working on. I did everything I could to say yes to myself as I made the biggest ask I had ever made, hoping he would feel my passion and know I was the right person to tell this story. On January 29, 2002, Arun sent back his reply. It was a yes. Many nos were to come, but we had both said yes: to each other, and to the importance of the story....

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On Visting Aga Kahn Palace

Posted by on Mar 3, 2014 in Arun Gandhi, Grandfather Gandhi, India | Comments Off on On Visting Aga Kahn Palace

On Visting Aga Kahn Palace

Our family trip to India took us to Pune; where my husband’s family now lived, Agra; home of the Taj Mahal, and Lucknow; where the family wedding would take place and where my husband was raised. I desperately wanted to go to Wardha, to the Sevagram ashram where Arun lived with his grandfather is, but our schedule wouldn’t allow for it. But in Pune, there was the Aga Kahn Palace, and on a bright sunny day, we headed there. Arun’s grandmother Katurba had died at the Aga Kahn Palace, both she and her husband and many of his aides were interned—imprisoned there from 1942-1944. As the ports were closed to Arun’s family in South Africa, during WWII, Arun was not able to see his grandmother again before she passed. I went to the Aga Kahn Palace with that knowledge heavy in my heart. We walked—my husband, his childhood friend Gopal, and our nephew Anand— through the rooms that now held statues and paintings of Mohandas K. Gandhi and paperwork from the Quit India Movement. We stood outside the glass partition that separated visitors from the room where the Mahatma and his wife were kept interned and outside that room, there under glass were Gandhiji’s sandals, his spectacles and a few other belongings. I took pictures and touched the glass, wishing I could touch the sandals, that walked alongside Arun, that almost out walked him, with his grandfather’s hurried strides, as is depicted so brilliantly by Evan Turk in the Grandfather Gandhi illustrations. At the back of the palace in the gardens, Gandhi’s ashes are on display. I stood there thinking about how Arun had just travelled back to South Africa from Sevagram, a few weeks before Gandhi was shot and killed. Like with his grandmother, Arun was not able to return for the funeral pyre. It was a very personal pilgrimage to me. Every moment I was in India, participating in a traditional Hindu wedding, meeting my husband’s family, seeing where my husband lived as a boy—all of it was personal but going to the Aga Kahn Palace was the closest connection I had to the work I had done with Arun on Grandfather Gandhi. I stayed in the gardens for a bit, and as we left, a bus with some school children pulled in. Then another bus. And another. I had my camera and I began taking pictures of the hundreds of kids who were there for a school trip. I became less and less shy as more and more buses pulled in. I began to talk to the kids, “What are you here to see?” “Gandhi’s ashes,” they answered. Eventually the kids began to pose for me, giving me high fives, and peace signs as they passed. My husband, nephew and family friend waited for me. In fact, Anand had to move the car we were driving so the buses wouldn’t pack us in, but none of them rushed me as I stood there in that sea of kids, in various different school uniforms, and smiled. Their past and my past, in that moment, were...

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