52 pages 1 hour read

Supriya Kelkar


Fiction | Novel | Middle Grade | Published in 2017

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Summary and Study Guide


Ahimsa is Supriya Kelkar’s debut novel. It was published in 2017 and follows 10-year-old Anjali as her mother joins the freedom movement in 1942 India. Throughout the novel, she learns about the caste system, religious differences, and advocacy for nonviolence. This historical fiction novel won the New Visions Award, which is given to a middle grade or young adult novel by an author of color. In addition, the novel received a starred review from the ALA Booklist and the School Library Journal. Kelkar’s other works include The Many Colors of Harpreet Singh (2019), American as Paneer Pie (2020), Bindu’s Bindis (2021), That Thing about Bollywood (2021), Strong as Fire, Fierce as Flame (2021), and The Cobra’s Song (2023). Her children’s books include The Many Colors of Harpreet Singh (2019), Brown Is Beautiful (2022), and My Name (2023). Kelkar is also an illustrator whose artwork appears in American Desi (2022) by Jyoti Raan Gopal and My Diwali Light by Raakhee Mirchandani (2022).

This study guide refers to the 2017 version of Ahimsa published by Tu Books, an imprint of Lee and Low Books.

Content Warning: This guide includes discussions of violence.

Plot Summary

Ahimsa opens with Anjali and her friend Irfaan painting a “Q” on Captain Brent’s property. Brent is a British officer in their village, and Anjali wants to get revenge on him because she thinks her mother was fired from her job working for him. When Brent hears them, Anjali and Irfaan flee, but they’re caught. Anjali denies doing anything in front of her mother, Shailaja.

At home, Anjali’s parents reveal that Shailaja quit her job because she didn’t like being complicit in the British government’s injustices. She’s joining the freedom movement, following Gandhi’s call to act with ahimsa (nonviolence). A few days later, Ma burns their nice clothes because they were made with cloth that, though of Indian cotton, was sold back to Indians at higher rates by the English. From now on, they’ll only wear khadi, or homespun clothing. Anjali reluctantly adds her clothes to the pile and then finds comfort with their cow, Nandini. At school, Ma is a special guest and shows a spinning wheel, or charkha. Ma explains what khadi is, and while Anjali teases her at first, the girl comes to realize that she’s good at using the charkha and comes around to her mother’s new role in the movement.

One day, Ma and Anjali hear Anjali’s great-uncle Chachaji yelling at Mohan, an “Untouchable,” or Dalit, who cleans their outhouse. Dalits are the lowest caste, and those in higher castes refuse to touch them, believing that they’re inherently unclean. Ma steps in, defending Mohan, and picks up the broom to finish cleaning. Anjali and Chachaji are shocked because Mohan touched the broom. Ma explains that Gandhi says they should call DalitsHarijan,” meaning “child of God” (71).

Anjali accompanies her mother to the next meeting of the freedom fighters, where she meets the local leader, Keshavji Parmar. Shailaja announces that she and Anjali will go to the basti, where the Harijan live, to educate them. Their first visit is to Diwali, and they bring sweets. Anjali runs into Mohan, who tells her that he considers the term Harijan insulting. Anjali talks to her father about this, and they begin calling Harijans Dalits instead. When they talk to Keshavji about it, he points out that it’s hard to understand since they’re of a higher caste. He’s a Dalit himself and says that Gandhi is imperfect, but he wants to support freedom and equality.

Shortly thereafter, Anjali and her mother start cleaning their own outhouse. When they wheel the cart to dispose of the waste, Mohan sees them and helps. He offers to hold Anjali’s side so that her classmate doesn’t see her. On the way to dump it, she lets him but feels ashamed. On the way back, she holds it and announces what they’re doing to their neighbors, who are disgusted.

After teaching the Dalits in their basti for a while, Anjali conceives a plan to integrate her school so that Mohan and his friends can learn with her classmates. Anjali’s teacher is secretly a freedom fighter and participates in the plan. The neighbors threaten to withdraw their children, and Ma compromises, agreeing that the Dalits will sit at the back. Anjali is dissatisfied with this but accepts it. However, riots between Hindus and Muslims delay the plan for integration. Everyone is stuck in their home, and a curfew is imposed. School is canceled.

Worried about Irfaan, Anjali sneaks out one night and is caught in the violence. Captain Brent protects her. Anjali soon sneaks out again when she hears the Muslim call to prayer. She runs into Irfaan, who blames her and other Hindus for the violence. They fight. At home, upset, she says that she hates Muslims, and her mother reminds her that India needs both Hindus and Muslims to survive.

People start graffitiing Anjali’s home because of her family’s work with Dalits. Her parents wonder if they should stop being a part of the freedom movement, but Anjali encourages them to continue. They decide to go to a freedom movement meeting before curfew. However, afterward, both Ma and Keshavji are arrested. They’re accused of inciting violence through their work with the Dalits.

Anjali helps Mohan sell one of the necklaces he makes. He tries to encourage her that her mother’s work continues through her. Anjali visits her mother in prison and encourages her mother to keep going because the freedom movement is worthwhile. At home, however, when Mohan tries to give one of his necklaces to Anjali’s neighbor, he’s beaten badly and leaves town.

School is set to open after Holi. Anjali and her father see Ma again, and she has begun fasting. Anjali reminds her to take care of herself and that she’s still going to work to integrate her school. She struggles, feeling cut off from her friends because Mohan is gone and Irfaan still isn’t talking to her. Her father tells her that Mohan has always struggled because of his place in society and that she must be patient with Irfaan. She asks Captain Brent to pardon her mother, but he refuses.

On Holi, Anjali goes to the basti, and she tells her teacher that they should have class outside since the classroom was destroyed in the riots. They can bring the Dalits, and no one will have to sit in the back because it’ll be outside. He agrees. One of the Dalits gives her a methi plant. At home, Nandini the cow doesn’t seem well, and Anjali runs to Irfaan’s house, since his family runs a dairy and can help cows. Without hesitating, he and his father come to Nandini’s aid. Nandini gives birth and lives. Irfaan and Anjali reconcile, and they name the new calf Ahimsa.

Anjali goes to the newly integrated school. At first, only the Dalits and Irfaan are there, as many parents have kept their children at home. Slowly, however, Anjali’s classmates arrive. That night, Anjali sees hundreds of people marching through their village in a funeral procession for Keshavji, who supposedly tried to escape. She, Irfaan, and her father join the procession. Some people think his death occurred because the British didn’t want him around anymore. The riot takes them to the shop where freedom movement meetings are held, and Captain Brent announces that they’re closing the shop. The procession turns violent, shocking Anjali that this is happening at a funeral for someone who advocated for ahimsa. When she realizes that someone is going to kill Captain Brent, she stands up and yells, “Ahimsa!” (281). Irfaan joins her. Soon, everyone quiets and retreats. Anjali saves Captain Brent, and in return, he pardons her mother. The novel ends as Anjali and her father bring Ma home from prison. The family feels hopeful and like freedom is all around them.