June 27, 2018

Of Diversity and Dreams: Aisha Saeed's Amal Unbound makes for great reading for kids

Malala Yousafzai, a globally-recognised Pakistani activist for female education and the youngest Nobel Prize laureate, has inspired countless discussions, panels and articles. She now inspires Aisha Saeed’s latest novel, Amal Unbound.

However, while Yousafzai has spoken at international forums and been interviewed by multiple famous personalities, Saeed’s protagonist achieves none of that level of fame. That, explains Saeed, is precisely why she wrote about Amal, the eponymous heroine of our novel, because other than Yousafzai, millions of young girls fight every day for their right to have an education, but their efforts are neither documented nor praised and it is imperative that we celebrate all our heroes, named and unnamed.

In Amal Unbound, 12-year-old Amal lives an ordinary life in Nabay Chak, a Pakistani village which, thankfully, doesn’t portray the stereotype of dirt poor and bathroom-less existence that most books featuring subcontinental villages do. Amal pursues dreams of a bright future with diligence at her school; she is one of the star pupils and is excited about the ability to progress as she studies. Real life, however, appears in the form of a mother suffering from post-partum depression — although the word is never explicitly mentioned in the story, in a smart move on Saeed’s part, for that level of awareness is rarely present in Pakistani metropolitan cities, much less in small villages. With three younger sisters, it becomes Amal’s responsibility to look after the household and the family as their mother recuperates, forcing Amal to keep missing more and more days of school. The drudgery of cleaning and cooking and her frustration with a mother who refuses to leave a dark room pushes Amal to take a few moments of breathing space, so she heads to the market for an impromptu shopping trip. An accident with a car belonging to her village’s ruling family serves as the catalyst that takes the story forward.

Taking inspiration from real life, Saeed has drawn our villain as a manipulative, cruel landlord whose all-seeing eye and heavy taxes on the villagers control many of the families in Amal’s neighbourhood. In Pakistan, the word of the landlords is often taken as law and their dictates rule the lives under their thumb. Amal’s accident with Jawad Sahib, the tyrannical son of her village’s landlord, culminates in her showing defiance in public, refusing to hand over a pomegranate that Jawad Sahib wants. As punishment for her disobedience, Jawad Sahib shows up at Amal’s house the next day, displacing her from the warmth of her home to his wealthy estate where she is fated for a life of indentured servitude. Faced with no choice, Amal becomes the handmaid of the mistress of the house, a woman who was once part of the village, just like Amal. As Amal struggles to learn how to fulfil her duties in a household where she is essentially a servant, she clashes with a young girl Nabila, who feels replaced by Amal’s presence. She also finds a secret library from where she can borrow books and begins giving alphabet lessons to one of the younger servant girls, Fatima. It is in these intricacies that Saeed’s book comes to life, drawing Amal for us as a three-dimensional figure with fears and apprehensions as well as desires and dreams.

Saeed does a great job of showing both the gravity of the situation while keeping the readability intact and the flow smooth. As a novel for middle-grade readers, the language is simple and clean, even when the topics handled are heavy and the subject matter full of depth. In portraying complicated relationships, such as that between Amal and the woman she serves, Saeed proves a deft hand at balancing the nuances of such connections.

Education, and the need for educating oneself, is a constant refrain in the story. Young Fatima latches onto Amal as a teacher, eager and willing to learn the alphabet with Amal’s patient help. This in turn ignites a desire and awareness in Amal about being able to teach herself. This dream is further encouraged by a young teacher at the Adult Literacy Centre set up in Amal’s village. Although ostensibly under the aegis of the ministry of education, the building and start-up costs were provided by Jawad Sahib’s father. Because of this the villagers, afraid of their landlord and his corruption, stay away. With elections approaching and the centre lying empty and desolate, Jawad Sahib sends Amal there, hoping that when media personnel come snooping they won’t raise a hue and cry about the empty chairs. This leads to Amal’s encounter with a young male teacher who dreams of educating the masses, but has no one to teach.

The Literacy Centre and the young professor help Amal when she discovers her master’s depth of corruption. When rumours of a crime Jawad Sahib committed reach her ears, she can either keep her mouth shut and pretend she knows nothing, or step out of her comfort zone and, with remarkable bravery, do something about it. It is through this decision that Saeed’s heroine becomes worthy of her narrative: she is not only kind and empathic to those around her, but also willing to speak out against wrongdoing.

As lessons go, Amal Unbound teaches children all the right ones: through her slowly developing friendship with Nabila it shows that patience and kindness can win over the hardest hearts. Through her persistence to keep reading, by borrowing books from Jawad Sahab’s library, it shows that having a dream and working hard for it is rewarding. And through her bravery in reporting a crime, it shows that even though one might be scared, it is important to speak out against injustice.

With the author’s background as one of the founding members of the ‘We Need Diverse Books’ campaign that was widely discussed on social media, it’s great to see more desi protagonists populating our shelves. The campaign was launched in 2014 by a group of authors, Saeed included, to draw attention to the appalling lack of diversity in children’s literature and advocated “essential changes in the publishing industry to produce and promote literature that reflects and honours the lives of all young people.” With books such as Amal Unbound, it seems possible that readers from South Asian countries, as well as children of immigrant parents, have a greater chance of seeing their own cultures and habits represented in the literature they read.

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This review was originally published in Books and Authors on 24 June, 2018.