Driven by the lack of representation of Punjabi culture in children’s literature, publishing house @kalam.creations released Dosti, a children’s book set during the Partition of India in Pakistan.
The story centers around two characters, Manh the Mor and Chanh the Chakor. The two childhood best friends were bonded by their love for music, but became abruptly separated by the Partition.
Dosti delicately tackles a range of themes from friendship, to separation and migration.
5X Press sat down with debut author Steeven Toor and illustrator Sukhneer Sidhu to talk more about the book and how it came to life.
According to the duo behind the book, the project was a long time in the making. Toor and Sidhu first met years ago through the Sikh Student Association at the University of Calgary and had discussed working on a creative project.
When the pandemic hit, both artists had more time for their creative endeavours and revisited the idea of Dosti.
Both Toor and Sidhu were motivated by the lack of representation that they experienced in the education system.
“I think about how much time I spent reading Twilight, Hunger Games, Harry Potter. Every one of these stories are etched in my brain. The common denominator from every piece of literature I read as a kid: Not a single person was of South Asian descent” said Toor.
However, things are changing. Toor said individuals like Rupi Kaur, Simran Jeet Singh, Baljinder Kaur and many more are opening doors for creatives to explore Sikh history in contemporary literature.
For Toor, another significant motivating factor was to spark an interest in the minds of young people about Punjabi history in hopes that it can also act as a catalyst for building intergenerational relationships.
Inspired by the book Train to Pakistan by Khushwant Singh, Toor became committed to distilling the history of our elders from the time of Partition.
“We’re at an intersection because the folks that were 15-years-old during Partition are now between 80 and 90-years-old,” said Toor.
“We use so much oral history in our culture, so it’s just very important to me that there’s other ways that history gets captured.”
The foreword of the book is powerfully written by Partition survivor Mr. Jaswant Singh Cheema, as another act of preserving the experiences of this painful moment in history.
Dosti can act as the beginning of a “continuous learning process”, piquing the curiosity of children and sparking critical conversations with parents and grandparents about Punjabi history and culture.
Sidhu, a Master’s of architecture student who has always had a passion for reading and drawing, said her experience working in the education system and at Chapters made her aware of the lack of stories available for Punjabi children.
Sidhu herself moved to Canada from Punjab at the age of 13, and often felt alienated by the lack of Punjabi representation in literature.
For this reason, Toor said he felt it was important to tell this story, and to help alleviate some of those feelings.
“It’s very easy to feel isolated and different. I think for a lot of people, books are like company,” Toor said.
“It’s important to read stories where [children] feel like, whatever they’re experiencing, whatever they look like is okay. It gives you confidence in your identity,” said Toor.
Sidhu said the book captures images and experiences of her own life. Moving to Canada and missing her own friends as a child, Sidhu felt deeply connected to the story arc of Manh and Chanh.
In her illustrations, Sidhu led by her intuition drawing what made her feel connected to home in India.
In writing the book, the author-illustrator relationship was much more collaborative than the norm.
Toor and Sidhu recognized the intentionality that is required to write a children’s book, particularly when it comes to such a painful topic.
“It was a very careful maneuvering. There was a lot of thought put into every word, every decision, almost like carving something with precision,” Toor explained.
“Especially since it’s for kids, there’s a balance between trying to give a life lesson and delivering content that is traumatic.”
When it comes to learning about Punjabi history, Dosti is just the beginning.
Toor is even working on a lesson plan so Dosti can be taught in elementary schools. His hope is for more stories to be told at intermediate and advanced levels, so education about Punjabi history can deepen over time.
Sidhu explains how this ultimately comes down to members of our community telling our stories.
“All the support shows how we need these stories. Anyone who has a creative idea, I just hope that they take the risk and make something. We need our voices out there.”
About the author: Jeevan is a UBC Sociology student, writer and self-proclaimed cinephile (to annoy the film majors). An aspiring journalist, she loves writing silly little articles about pop-culture, media, politics and the South Asian experience while balancing her job in community-engaged learning. When she isn't having an existential crisis, you can find her over-caffeinating, binging a new show or trying to prove that she's a much cooler, brown Rory Gilmore Instagram: @jeevanksangha
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