Summing up a country, that too one as complex as India, in a single volume is ambitious at best and foolhardy at worst. But you’d have to admit, it is an incredibly tempting project, especially since there don’t seem to be too many fact-cum-trivia books about India for children. Of course, there’s no dearth of non-fiction on India for young readers— for example, Subhadra Sen Gupta’s A Children’s History of India and Let’s Go Time Travelling (with Tapas Guha), and Leila Seth’s We the Children of India on the Preamble to the Constitution immediately jump to mind. But there is a lot to write about India and shouldn’t the books basically be writing themselves and elbowing each other for shelf space?

India A to Z is a “bumper infopedia… packed with fascinating facts, terrific trivia and colourful cartoons on just about everything in India”. Written by Veena Seshadri and Vidya Mani, it has cartoons by Greystroke and illustrations by Sony Bhaskaran. It attempts to break India down into digestible alphabetical chunks. So, if you wanted to know whether dinosaurs ever lived here, turn to ‘R for Rajasaurus’; if you were after the story of the first ever airmail sent (which happened in India, incidentally), go to ‘P for Post’; the Koh-i-Noor controversy is alluded to in K; for a monthly festival round-up, head to F; or perhaps you’d like to look up desi Nobel Laureates, under N, of course. Well, you get the drift — the book basically takes you on an alphabetical journey of India.
There is a wide, if somewhat random, range of subjects covered. So you have generic topics such as ‘Forts’, ‘Lakes’, ‘Villages’ and ‘Zoos’, to specifics like ‘Gandhi’, ‘Aryabhata’, ‘Bhopal Gas Tragedy’ and ‘Dabbwala’. Some of the topics are a bit bewildering — ‘X for the X Avatars of Vishnu’?! — but the authors try their best to keep the tone fun. The writing style is casual, and there are catchy subheadings to boot. The cartoons interspersed on each page are a nice touch, as is the slight wisecrack-y tone in them to keep things in perspective. (Though the cow on page 49 talks about being eaten in ‘G for Gods and Goddesses’ completely without irony!) There are also photographs and some curious images that look like they were once photos, but have been squeezed through Photoshop filters to make them look like paintings gone wrong (the “delicious Mughlai dish” on page 22, for instance).
This volume is intended not just to be a ready reference for various things in India, but is also a source for project ideas or a homework reference. The selection of topics is rather hotchpotch and one wonders if having a theme would, after all, have been better. But a collection such as this will never be satisfying, never ‘complete’, because of the scope of what it wrestles with — even if a publisher were to be generous enough to put money into bringing out an as-comprehensive-as-humanly-possible encyclopaedia set on India. Thus, it seems futile to dwell on what India A to Z missed. Overall, it is an easy read, whether you start at A and work your way steadily through to Z, or just jump in randomly.

Of course, we know one mustn’t judge a book by its cover, but this really could have done with a much more fun exterior, especially given the subject matter (why are the authors’ and illustrators’ names not on the cover?!). It is so generic that if you removed the text, you’d have your task cut out guessing what the book is about. Seems like a chance missed since this would stand out as the prefect gift for the trivia-loving youngster in your life. Oh well, you should get it for them anyway.

By Payal Dhar

Authors: Veena Seshadri and Vidya Mani
Illustrators: Greystroke and Sony Bhaskaran
168 pages
Rs 325.00
ISBN: 978143332572
Penguin, 2013
Subject Category: Contemporary/Non-Fiction
Age-group: 8+
By Payal Dhar


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