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 being too light. This was a violent opening and one of the root causes of Arun’s anger. Injustice was always something that ignited me. So was prejudice based on skin color. Yes, it was a mature theme, but it had ignited the fire in Arun’s belly, just as getting tossed from a train, had ignited his grandfather’s. Racial prejudice and our reaction to it is important. It had been for me as well.
I had grown up outside Chicago and had moved to Augusta, Georgia when I was 13. I had seen racial prejudice first hand in the South and having grown up in the North, we weren’t immune to it there either. I remembered my father, who for a few years, around the time I was 7 to 10, used racial slurs against men who looked like Arun. Arun and his grandfather had both been called coolie, which in South Africa at the time, was paramount to being called the “n-word” here. That word wasn’t used in my family but I heard the disheartening phrase “sand-n-word” used on more than one occasion.
In 2001, I lived in Jersey City, which had a large East Asian population, for many years. I lived there before and after 9/11. I remember getting on the dollar bus at night with voices all around me. My blood pressure would rise only as Indian voices spoke. The African-American voices didn’t make my blood pressure rise. I sat and asked myself why this was? I remembered what my dad had said, what I had heard as a child. Prejudice and hatred is taught. I always thought that, but in that moment I knew it was true. It wasn’t true just in concept—it was true for me.
After 9/11, there was a growing sentiment of suspicion around people with brown skin, but in the days after 9/11, for me, my prejudice evaporated. I was too tired to hate. Too distraught to have my blood pressure raise. I saw what came of it, what came after years of listening to the internal hate and fanning it’s flames, it was evident in the death and destruction that had occurred that day. The Sunday after that fateful Tuesday, I traveled home to see my family in Georgia, by bus, which was the only way I could travel, at the time. Once arriving, I went for a walk with my mom and I asked her why my father said those hateful things about Indians. “He was passed over for a job,” my mother told me. “An Indian man got it.”
Back at Arun’s kitchen table in Rochester at our first face-to-face meeting, I bowed my head. I couldn’t sit across from him any longer without telling him my family background. Of what my father said. Of what I felt before I sat with it and asked myself where those prejudices were coming from. I was in tears as I admitted my shame and my family’s prejudice. I apologized. Arun looked at me and he said, “The beatings from the whites stay with me. I’ve endured more prejudice from their hands than from others. You are not them.”
That, I wish I could say, was the turning point in opening up what the manuscript needed. It wasn’t. Not yet. But it was a turning point within me. I had sat before the grandson of the world’s most legendary peacekeeper and I had admitted a source of shame and a deep sadness for myself and for my father, and I had been listened to. I had begun this project to help me heal. I had no idea how far the healing needed to go.