If you studied Indian history in the early 2000s, you were inundated with endless pages of text. A few pictures here and there, chapters would never end come the 10th and 12th board examinations. Along the way, we changed our perceptions of history. The old cliche about history being written by the victors is no longer necessarily true in today’s day and age. History is being written again. Re-written from the perspective of common folks, lesser-known freedom fighters and all the locations that the tour guide from those family vacations didn’t mention to us growing up. In honour of India’s 73rd Republic Day, here are some Indian Kid Lit suggestions we picked at the bookshop and that would make good companions to our textbooks.
We The Children of India: The Preamble to our Constitution by Justice Leila Seth is well-known. Another title by children’s writer Subhadra Sen Gupta, The Constitution of India for Children,is the story of the coming together of the Indian Constituent Assembly to put down the laws and rights that unite our nation. In ever-familiar fashion, Subhadra patiently ties in facts and stories about the world’s longest written constitution and the events that led to the Republic Day celebrations that culminate in the national capital every year. Peppered with personal anecdotes of independent India’s leaders, the illustrations add to the compendium which is a must-read for junior and middle graders.
It is said that at any given time there is either an election happening, or about to happen in India. Given the vastness of the landmass, for children the entire process can sometimes be overwhelming to understand. Elections in India is an interesting title that pops up every now and then. It introduces children to the different types of elections in India. Written in the lead up to the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the book also explains the technology behind holding elections in the largest democracy on the planet.
When I Grow up I Want To Be… is a series of two books which introduce you to Indians across generations who have contributed in their own unique fields. Learn about the housekeeper who became a comedy sensation in Mumbai.
Listen to the story of Keshav Suri who is fighting for LGBTQ rights in the corporate sector. The diversity in stories is a step in the right direction to inclusivity in our society at large. Prashant Gade’s story is an important one, for envisioning cheaper prosthetics for persons with disabilities. Hear from athletes Dutee Chand, Manasi Joshi, and Shafali Verma about their unique journeys in Indian sport and more. The stories are a great way to introduce kids to the everyday lives and alternate career paths that Indians have followed.
Taking a quick peek at pre-Independence Indian history, Mallika Ravikumar’s book Of Revolutionaries and Bravehearts was like a breath of fresh air. Ravikumar who has a degree in ancient Indian culture and history has masterfully crafted tales that will regale older middle-grade readers. There are eight historical stories of ordinary people like Yusuf who manned the ship Miri that belonged to the sailor of Kozhikode. On the way back from a trip to Mecca, the ship with 300 strong families and crew were trapped by the Portuguese and Vasco da Gama himself. What happens when the coming of da Gama alters the spice trade and history itself? Read on to find out.
Heroes The Colour of Dust is another unique title which tells the story of six sparrows and the Salt March. While Gandhiji prepared for the Dandi March, these six creatures of the sky wanted to help him from above, keeping a watch as bodyguards. Despite the elder sparrows forbidding them, calling it a human affair, the quest was on. In the words of Red Millet, “Friends, sparrows, Indians, it’s official. On this date, right here on this spot, we will begin taking recruits for a new regiment, the first of its kind: the Mahatma’s Guards!” Amit Majmudar’s book, which is a translation, is told by the sparrows: Muttsbane, Amli, Lychee, Thunderfluff, Red Millet, and Hatcher of Winged Words. In a dazzling tale read of daring escapes from cats and dogs, bitter vendettas, tragic backstories, sneaky sahibs and stalwart Indians.
Women Path-Breakers is a graphic comic novel that tells the stories of Indian women that broke the glass ceiling. Read about Muthulakshmi Reddy who sought the permission of the Maharaja of Pudukottai to study in his college but faced opposition and was even pelted with shoes on her way to becoming one of the first women to study medicine in India, and later the first woman legislator in the country. One particularly interesting tale is of Anasuya Sarabhai, who was a pioneer of the labour movement in the country. A strange sequence of events that begins with the early loss of her parents, and an early failed marriage ended up with her spending time in London School of Economics. Learning from the Suffragette Movement, she brought those ideals back to fight for equality in her home country. By the time of her death in 1972, Anasuya was taking care of almost two lakh workers from textile mills across Gujarat. Special mention to the Kolkata-based Harsho Mohan Chattoraj who was one of the artists for this special edition on path-breakers. Chattoraj’s typically bold drawings appear in the stories on Reddy, and Kanaki Ammal: India’s first lady Botanist.
In the archaeology and monument section, we have two books worthy of mention. In the newly released Magnificent Monuments of India series, translator Tilottama Shome looks to her training as an architect. Shome deconstructs our most famous monument: the Taj Mahal. Teaming up with illustrator Kavita Singh Kale, the two narrate the story of how the magnificent structure came to be built. There are detailed plans and photographs to accompany the storytelling. There are deep symbols that lie hidden everywhere in its plan and the stories of the people who built it — from the mighty emperor to the architects, and humble stoneworkers and masons who worked on it for years.
India Through Archaeology: Excavating History was another compendium that caught our attention. Learn about how we piece together the narratives in locations across this country. Read about characters such as Bhagwanlal Indraji, often described as the first Indian archaeologist, who was known to correct James Princep’s translations in Pali language and Brahmi Script because he was so fluent himself. Travel along ancient spice routes and learn about unexpected finds such as the city of Vijayanagara, which caused a sensation in 1900.
To conclude this selection, we’ve chosen a box set of books because one simply wasn’t enough. Sonia Mehta, fondly known to many of us as Sonia Aunty, is behind the Discover India series. Each book is a deep dive into the state or union’s culture, customs, food, clothes and more. The books are also peppered with activities.
The idea for the series came to the multitalented Mehta when she pondered the question “Why are we diverse?” Nearly three years and almost 40 books later she’s still searching for answers, looking for stories to tell about India. She adds, “the whole thing comes together like a jigsaw puzzle.” Let that thought guide your reading recommendations this weekend. Get your book recommendations on @storytellerkol on Instagram and Twitter.
The author is a freelance journalist and runs the independently owned Storyteller Bookstore in Kolkata.