A gorgeous new picture book brings us along with the celebration as a Hindu girl attends the wedding of her cousin Ritu to another woman and stands up against those who would stop them.
Ritu Weds Chandni, by Ameya Narvankar (Yali Books), begins as young Ayesha shows her excitement about going to her cousin Ritu’s Hindu wedding and dancing at the traditional baraat procession. Ritu is marrying another woman, though, and some family members stay away because they don’t approve. Some neighbors have also said they will try and stop the wedding. “The are not happy to see Ritu marry her girlfriend,” Ayesha’s chachi (aunt) explains, adding that there is nothing wrong with them getting married, “It’s just that some people do not understand their love.”
Ayesha’s happiness over the wedding is evident, however. Ritu, “radiant in a bright red and gold sari,” causes her to exclaim, “You are the most beautiful bride I have ever seen!”
As the procession winds its way through the neighborhood, though, some neighbors shout angry things at them. Several then ride up on horses and spray cold water on the participants, including Ayesha and the brides. Ayesha, seeing how miserable the brides are, shows her courage and spirit and stands up to the neighbors, loudly encouraging everyone to keep dancing. Ritu and Chandni are grateful, and the wedding ends joyously.
I am often skeptical of new LGBTQ-inclusive picture books that focus on LGBTQ identities being a problem in some way (even if the problem is in the minds of those who are biased). There have already been a lot of books like that over the past few decades, and what we generally need today, I believe, are more books that simply show joys of LGBTQ lives (or that show them encountering problems that have nothing to do with their LGBTQ identities). Having said that, I’m not going to make that judgment for this book. I am not Hindu myself and not in a position assess the type of books that will feel authentic to Hindu communities. Perhaps a book that didn’t mention the bias that a same-sex couple would encounter would be seen as too unrealistic. As Narvankar says in the afterward, when he was growing up, “there were no role models for the kind of happy relationship I wanted to have with my partner.” While this was a burden to him as a man, “these societal expectations carry far more weight for women.” Even now in India, he says, Ritu and Chandni’s marriage would not be recognized.
Given that the book does deal with the problem of bias, I do like the way that Narvankar handles it. The story makes the love of Ayesha for her cousin, and the love of Ritu and Chandni, shine through as the power that overcomes the hate. And while Ayesha is advised by the adults around her about the bias, she then takes action herself to address it—a model for young readers. Obviously, adults need to be aware that scenes of verbal and physical harassment may be disturbing to very young readers and should judge their children’s readiness for reading them accordingly—but Narvankar offers them a way to discuss such matters in a thoughtful way with an empowering and celebratory ending.
Narvankar also offers a glossary at the end with definitions of the Hindi words in the book, and a few suggestions for additional children’s and young adult books featuring South Asian LGBTQ experiences.
The real standouts of the book, though, are Narvankar’s richly colored illustrations, heavy on red, gold, and teal. He depicts a diverse and dynamic South Asian community of young and old, traditional and modern, and of various skin tones. There are lots of wonderful details in the decorations at the wedding, the patterns on the guests’ clothing, and the plates of food they hold. The neighbors’ water hoses curl threateningly like snakes, but the supportive family and friends dance and clap and hug. The book is visually stunning and simply a pleasure to look at and read. No matter your religion or heritage, consider this book for your shelves.
(This and a few other picture book titles coming out in December weren’t in time to make the initial publication of my 2020 Holiday Gift Guide. I’m going to review them this week and update the Gift Guide as I go.)
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