Pratham Books

Pratham Books

I recall, a few years ago, my then twelve-year-old daughter was grumbling indistinctly under her breath while doing her homework. Now that was not an entirely uncommon occurrence, so I ignored it until the grumbling got quite loud and quite coherent. “Why must they invent these stupid know-it-all characters?” was part of the complaint. I peeked into her Civics textbook and she was perfectly right. The chapter started with a little girl asking her grandfather the question that all children wonder and worry about: “Oh, how, but how, are rural townships and villages governed, Grandpa?” Grandpa of course dipped into his agonizingly boring brain and dug out the facts and figures in a chapter entitled (surprise! surprise!) ‘Government in Rural Townships and Villages’. The chapter in question contained complex organizational hierarchies to be memorized and remembered. The story approach was not just redundant, but actually irritating.

History, however, unlike Civics, is essentially a set of stories that actually happened, and as such has the potential to be spectacularly brought to life. Except that it rarely is. In most school textbooks, history is dealt with as a mind-numbing sequence of events that happened in certain years and which have to be painstakingly memorized by rote. It could have been a fascinating subject, if only its treatment dealt with historical characters more as human beings driven by specific circumstances and the fervour of the time rather than as two-dimensional, hard-to-pronounce and even harder-to-spell names.

And this is exactly where Bharati Jagannathan’s books score. A teacher of history (no surprises there!), she picks a moment in history – sometimes decades ago, sometimes centuries ago – and weaves a short and simple story around it in an attempt to peel it off the flat pages of a history textbook and infuse life into it. And, to a large extent, keeping in mind the target audience, I think she succeeds.

In A Fair to Remember (any similarity in name to a specific rom-com seems to be entirely coincidental), the story is set in sixteenth-century Vijayanagara, which we see not from our technology-glazed twenty-first century eyes, but from the perspective of a little girl – Gangamma, a tightrope walker – and her family, who eke out a living by putting up shows in fairs. We see the wonder of the age-old temples, ancient even then in the sixteenth century, through Gangamma’s eyes. For the child of today, the simple descriptions, from the cane coracle in which Gangamma arrives in Vijayanagara to the leaf-cups that she eats her jalebi in, are different and exciting. We can imagine how strange and foreign the Arabian boy Hisham can be to them, as foreign as the place is to him. The high point of the story, of course, is when Gangamma and her two friends come face to face with King Krishnadevaraya, who gives them gifts and prizes.

Along with the story are nuggets of history in coloured boxes. Nuggets which, by themselves, would have belonged to a musty textbook, but in the backdrop and context of the story, become interesting and extra reading for the child who would like to know more. These little asides link the historical sites mentioned in the book to present-day Hampi.

In One Day in August, we get a glimpse of a day in the life of Shagufta and Kishen. But it is not any regular day. It is the historic day when two events happened – Indian independence that was received with much joy and celebration but also the cataclysmic split of the country. The children who play happily and innocently with one another, and their families who coexist in harmony with each other, are suddenly made aware that they are supposed to be on either side of the conflict.

Through Shagufta and Kishen, the author gently explores the theme of communal tension. Shagufta’s brother is a lightly etched ‘angry young man’ who starts by chiding his little sister for worrying about “the Hindu boy’s” lost cow when the nation is in turmoil, but eventually can’t help but revert to the way things were before.

The illustrations are pleasant with an earthy feel that adds to the story. I personally liked the artistic sepia sketches in One Day in August over the childlike ones in A Fair to Remember.

If I must find some quibbles, I do wish the children were more at the heart of some exciting historic action, rather than spectators. While Gangamma does meet King Krishnadevaraya, the meeting is rather tame and uneventful. Similarly, in One Day in August, Shagufta and Kishen are mostly on the periphery of the action.

The editing and proofing in both books could have been a little more stringent. How exciting it would have been to view the freedom struggle or sixteenth-century Vijayanagara from the vantage point of a character present there at that moment in time!

All in all, these books provide much more than reading material for the older child. They are brave attempts to bring history to life. Kudos to Pratham Books and the author for that! After reading the snippets in the first book, our Christmas holidays are already booked in Hampi! Need I say more?

By Anandam Ravi

A FAIR TO REMEMBER
Author: Bharati Jagannathan
Illustrator: Prashant Soni
English
20 pages
Rs 35.00
ISBN: 978-93-5022-342-0
Pratham Books, 2015

ONE DAY IN AUGUST
Author: Bharati Jagannathan
Illustrator: Prashant Soni
English
24 pages
Rs 40.00
ISBN: 978-93-5022-348-2
Pratham Books, 2015
Subject Category: Contemporary/Fiction
Age-group: 10+

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