Everyone will tell you that children hate history. Actually they don’t. They hate the history that is taught in schools. They love historical fiction and they sit mesmerised by those loud and garish television serials on Rana Pratap and Razia Sultan that are full of historical mistakes. Watch them explore a crumbling monument or touch ancient stones as their minds buzz with questions and you will realize how easy it is to get children interested in history.
The trick is to write a book that includes all those intriguing human details that textbooks ignore, which means a book full of fascinating and little-known facts woven into the history of India is guaranteed to hold their attention. If history is told as a story with lightness and humour and is connected to their lives, you will have them reading avidly. And then a history book on which no one expects them to give a test? Ah, you have a definite winner!
As a history geek, I zipped through Sanjeev Sanyal’s delightful book for adults, Land of the Seven Rivers, feeling really happy that someone was finally writing about our country as the story of a people and the evolution of a civilization. It was full of topics and facts worth discovering – the death of ancient cities and vanishing rivers, the place to go looking for dinosaur eggs, how we built ships without nails, and, most crucially, did Indians have a sense of geography and did we know how to draw maps? Now, Sanyal has adapted this very same informative book for children and middle-graders, high-schoolers and quizzers can rejoice.
It is a sad fact that Indian historians do not write popular history and wouldn’t dream of doing books for children. Their giant tomes are filled with jaw-breaking sentences sprinkled with jargon, complex theories and intimidating footnotes that aim to impress other scholars. I have struggled through books that have succeeded in making the lives of people like Akbar, Ashoka and Gandhi yawningly boring. Unfortunately, this superior attitude is transferred to our school textbooks because the curriculum is devised by the same bunch of scholars who are often out of touch with children. So, students memorise names, dates and acts of parliament, but no one tells them exciting things like it was the Portuguese who introduced chillies into India or that Princess Jahanara wrote poetry.
A writer who is not afraid of research and can then transform his material into readable books is so very welcome. History can be fun and thank god Sanjeev Sanyal understands that! I enjoyed the gentle way in which he has woven in some important and very relevant themes into his book. For instance, in India, there is no ‘pure’ race, Aryans or otherwise; how the world has been an interconnected organism since ancient times; the startling fact that till the medieval period a dusky skin was preferred and that is why Krishna, Rama, Draupadi and Arjun are all dark-skinned and more.
Sanyal ranges fearlessly through our history making surprising connections that will make children sit up. The oozing lava of volcanoes in the Deccan Plateau millions of years ago would one day play a crucial role in Shivaji’s guerrilla warfare. The fact that Sanskrit has many Tamil, Munda and even Greek words and is not really a ‘pure’ language is likely to make our Brahmanical bigots weep.
The zany subheads and boxes with weird facts do add a lot to the story, but I wish we had more illustrations. Today’s children, weaned as they are on the Internet, are uncomfortable with pages and pages of text and the cover has an awful textbook look to it. At times, I felt the language could have been simpler. Words like “endogamous” or “GDP” sort of stop the eye and children are not patient readers. For a twelve plus child, I felt this book was a bit too complex and text heavy. In fact, it has enough material for at least two smaller, less intimidating books.
I have a suggestion for the author. If he would send the book to a school to be read by children in classes eight and nine and then sit with the kids and listen to their responses, he’ll get a clearer idea of their vocabulary, comprehension levels and, most crucially, what they found interesting in the book. Children start history in class six and at twelve plus their knowledge is still a bit wobbly.
For instance, a short introduction explaining why the book is called The History of India’s Geography would have helped. Then, some sections go into too much detail like the one on the Islamic empire or the long chapter on European wars. These could have been shortened without losing the main thread of the story.
For a long time I have felt that to get children excited about India’s history what we really need is a series of Horrible Histories on India, Terry Deary style. But can you imagine what would happen when children are encouraged to laugh at the antics and foibles of our revered rulers and leaders? The Lok Sabha would froth at the mouth and pass a new law to lock up more writers and their young readers. Till then, here’s hoping Sanjeev Sanyal will keep on writing for children.
By Subhadra Sen Gupta
Authors: Sanjeev Sanyal and Sowmya Rajendran
ISBN No: 978-0-143-33366-1
Puffin Books, 2015
Subject category: Contemporary/Non-Fiction