Guthli is like any other child. She talks non-stop, wanders around the Satpura hills, where she lives with her parents and sister, loves to draw fairies, and has a chicken for a friend. Yet, in spite of being the apple of her mother’s eye, she gets mightily upset if she is prevented from wearing her sister’s beautiful frilly frock on Diwali, or is addressed as a boy—even when she is called a little “prince”—by her family.
Kanak Shashi’s delicate little tale about Guthli, an unusual “boy”, comes alive through the thoughtful text and sensitive illustrations over just a few pages. Published for June, which is recognized as Pride Month, by Tulika Books, the book makes profound observations about gender identity through simple yet affecting situations, using the latter to talk to children aged 6 and above about issues that parents and adults find difficult to approach.
“I have been exploring the issue of gender for long in my art practice,” says Shashi, a trained artist from Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda, on email. “I was working with schoolchildren when I wrote this story in 2010.” It’s the “performative aspect” of gender that particularly drew her attention, she adds, especially the way “gender roles are framed, taught and performed…(from) fairly early in life”.
In telling Guthli’s story as she did, Shashi says she wanted to subvert the received notion of being a boy or a girl. From stubbornly refusing to use the pronoun assigned to Guthli at birth, to depicting the emotional cost of Guthli’s life as a girl, Shashi leaves small acts of rebellion strewn through her story.
Although she hasn’t had any responses from young readers, Shashi says educators, teachers and some parents have found her story useful to discuss gender with children. “There are many possibilities of gender, not one, two or three, but our social structure doesn’t allow it,” she says. “I hope Guthli’s story will inspire the reader to imagine a world that is not bound by strict binaries and power structures of patriarchy, and the violence that it causes.”