Priya Kumari, whose book for children, Leaf Talks Peace, has an endorsement by His Holiness, The Dalai Lama, recently spoke with India Currents.
IC: Why was writing this book important to you?
PK: One day my five-year-old son asked me, what is friendship? I got reminded of the episode of [the] Buddha’s life, where he gave the message of independent origination of life. You need to live in harmony with all beings, with nature, and be at peace with the two. So that is friendship, and that can create a better world.
That night I wrote this poem [that led to the book] because the thought kept on lingering in my mind that this is such a beautiful thought, and it ties beautifully into today’s world.
IC: Some of the words in this book are complex. It almost seems like you want the parents and teachers to be reading the book with the kids, discussing with them.
PK: Yes. In all my books, I tend to incorporate guidance for parents and teachers, for a detailed author’s note, for them to use my books as a conversation starter. Because when you’re reading to young children, they are also building vocabulary. When I was writing the words “plurality” and “solidarity,” I thought about it, that maybe it’s difficult.
But then I see six-year-old reading novels like Harry Potter. I’m sure there are many more difficult words in them. Then why not just introduce some beautiful words which can form part of them growing up, and it will add so much meaning?
IC: I noticed that you use the phrase “interdependent origination of life” multiple times. Can you explain?
PK: Interdependent origination of life simply means that everything in the shared world is dependent on each other. So a child gets this message that we are not alone, and we can’t be mean, and we can’t be thinking of only ourselves. We have to live in the shared world in harmony with other beings and with nature to prosper.
The other word will be “peace within” which ties into independent origination of life. Because, in order to be happy, you have to first be happy yourself. If you live in harmony with other individuals, this is social peace. And with nature, it is ecological peace.
So individual peace, social peace and ecological peace are the keystones to have a peaceful society.
IC: What is the central message you wish to convey in this book?
PK: Harmony. The main character [a leaf]’s name is Harmony, and that is what I want the children to remember as a key takeaway from the book. So whenever they see a leaf, that will remind them of harmony. And once they have this term in their head, they will understand what they need to do to bring harmony to the world.
IC: Are you a Buddhist yourself?
PK: I’m not a practicing Buddhist, but I am immersed in Hindu-Buddhist values. I grew up in the Himalayas, in a town named Siliguri. My house was situated across the monastery and a Shiva temple. I grew with chanting in the morning, and also with the sound of bells from the temple.
IC: How did the Dalai Lama’s endorsement come about? That is pretty big.
PK: In 2020 end, when the book was almost complete, I knew that this is a unique book. I didn’t come across any book which gave complex and important messages to children in a simple way.
That motivated me to submit it to various leaders and spiritual gurus. I sent it to Dalai Lama ji’s office in India, to Rinpoche‘s office and I was really blessed that after two months of submitting to his office, I heard from his office saying that he wrote a foreword for the book. I didn’t have any words to say. I was crying.
IC: I can imagine. The book talks about nature, about oneness, diversity, peace, about letting go of the ego. It can be a book for adults, too.
PK: The picture book is for children, but the message is for everyone. I did a Kickstarter campaign for this book for preorders, and there were so many people who were reaching out to me saying that I love the message and I don’t have kids, but I want this book.
If you see the reviews from librarians, teachers, they are heartwarming. They are like, we love the author’s note and the guidance for teachers and parents.
IC: The discussion guide at the end of the book was really well done, designed to stimulate both conversation and thought.
PK: Many Montessori schools have adopted the book as part of their peace education curriculum. It has become my mission to make peace education a part of schools, because I see a better world if that happens, because kids will be equipped with what they need to bring about harmony in the world.
IC: I wanted to know your thought process behind “The End of Me.”
PK: It’s a very philosophical poem. A plant needs water to grow, and if it doesn’t have water, it will die. You need all the elements to survive. If even one is missing, then we, as humans, can’t survive.
IC: You say, “See the plurality in me, human solidarity in me.” Can you explain?
PK: Even at the end of the book, if you see, there are many leaves, right? We show how these can be different shapes, different sizes. So if we explain to kids that leaves are of various shapes and sizes, we show that’s how humanity is.
There are various races, ethnicities, colors, culture, rituals, religions, genders. And that should be protected. And if that is protected, that is how we become stronger. If there is a plurality of thought, that’s what makes humanity stronger.
IC: You also say, “Protect the many in me. Protect the we in me.” What do you mean by this?
PK: So, as I said, it’s again philosophical. So, like in a leaf, there are so many elements, right? And that is what is shown in the book. That there is water, air, sun, earth. A leaf needs all of them to survive.
“These “Many/Diverse” elements work together as a “We” despite being different, similarly we humans must live together in harmony with each other despite being different and protect our oneness.”
IC: In your author’s note, you say that harmony can happen when there are no dogmas but the constant evolution of thoughts. This is a beautiful thought. So, in this context, what does harmony mean to you?
PK: What I want to bring across is inclusivity and acceptance. And as human, as global citizens, we should be open to ideas, open to cultures and diversity. And if we are stuck to one idea that this is right, and that is wrong, then we can’t be accepting. Right? And that is why we see so many political tensions, so many cultural tensions.
If we can teach our children to be more accepting, I think we can create a better world for them and they can create harmony in the world.
IC: You also say the leaf, a symbol of human wellbeing, comes from interdependence and not from coercion. Can you explain?
PK: We as humans are dependent on nature, right? We are dependent on each other for survival.
Harmony can happen only if we understand that we are independent on each other and not by fighting or coercion. If we understand that we are interdependent, and we are accepting of plurality and ideas, then I think there can be harmony.
IC: I’m trying to understand what you mean by coercion in this context.
I have a seven-and-a-half-year-old son. Just recently, he was told by a good friend, “You don’t know Jesus. That’s the only one God.” And my son was like, “Mama, is there only one God?”
I was surprised because my son very well knows that there is Jesus, there is Allah, there is Judaism. He goes to a Jewish charter school, so he learns about the Jewish culture, and so many other cultures that they discuss in school. I always tell him that you follow your culture, but don’t look down on others.
So I was surprised that the friend, he’s in a vacuum. He doesn’t know there are so many different cultures. And in spite of the diverse environment he is living in, he doesn’t have an idea that there are different faiths and different cultures.
IC: You worked with illustrator Anusha Santosh. How did you make sure that her work was right for your vision?
PK: A concept is very difficult to illustrate, right? If it was just characters, it would be easier. But the entire book is very philosophical. When we are looking for an illustrator, we are also looking for the thought process, and not only the art.
My sample illustration for this book was the second page of the book, Harmony on the Tree and [the] Buddha Sitting under the Boddhi tree. When I saw the eyes of Harmony, and [the] Buddha and I was sure that I want to work with this illustrator.
IC: Any final thoughts?
PK: I go to schools, I talk about peace education, how it is important to be part of their curriculum. We see increasing hate crimes on streets, targeting different cultures. I think if we start from the ground up, we can create a better future. Because catching the person who is doing that and putting in jail with a short-term solution. How long is it sustainable, right?
While I see so many diverse books in bookshelves on bookshelves in schools and libraries right now, it’s sad to say that so many of them have misinformation, misrepresentation, especially on Indian culture. I see books and drama with poverty and trash being representative of what India is.
It is saddening because kids should be proud of their roots, of their culture and books endorse their feelings. And if these books are not correct representation, this can harm their self-confidence. And that again will create disharmony and coercion.