That we can never have enough good, well-researched books on Indian history for children, written by authors with tons of street-cred, a secular outlook, and no personal axe to grind, is a time-honoured given. Such books become more urgent in times like the ones we live in, when history is often used as a tool to manipulate opinion and engender bias in the young and impressionable.
Happily, Red Turtle’s A Children’s History of India, a weighty tome (almost 450 pages) that tells the fascinating story of the subcontinent from the hoary time 4600 years ago when it was called Jamubudvipa, all the way until half a century ago, when free India began to fast-forward itself, checks all these boxes.
As far as credentials go, author Subhadra Sen Gupta, India’s grande dame of both historical fiction and non-fiction for children, who has been writing some stand-out books in this genre for over a quarter century, has the best there are. Her research is both broad and deep, the insights she brings in liberal and sympathetic, and her writing style, as far as possible, is confident, light and easy.
There are many things to enjoy about A Children’s History of India, some of which are listed here.
– This book is meant to be a keeper, a reference book that will be opened and closed many times while researching for school history projects. Keeping this in mind, the publisher has wisely chosen to issue it in sturdy, durable hardcover.
– The monotony of the text-heavy pages are leavened by frequent info-boxes, which provide interesting sidelights into the topic under discussion. The small ‘Elsewhere in the World’ section that ends every chapter is a nice inclusion, giving the insightful reader some perspective on how events in India did not happen entirely in isolation, and were in fact often connected with what was happening elsewhere.
– There is plenty of wonderful trivia as part of the main text itself. Did you know, for instance, that whenever Chandragupta Maurya appeared in public, some of the guards accompanying him carried trees on which live birds nested, including a flock of parrots trained to circle around the emperor’s head?
– In deference to the twenty-first century reader, the section on further ‘reading’ includes pages and films that can be accessed on the Internet, which is today’s young people’s oracle of choice.
– Sen Gupta’s opening essay, about Jambudvipa, or ‘the island of the rose-apple’, India’s earliest avatar, describes our beautiful land in words that are evocative, lyrical, and heartwarming, a cunning strategy that, one hopes, will serve to make the young reader’s heart swell with pride, thereby demolishing her resistance to reading a history book NOT prescribed by school.
– The closing essay, a nostalgic look-back at life in India in the sixties and seventies, is a great addition to the book, and will inspire parents to talk to their children about their own childhoods (which might be deprived or glorious, depending on the life lesson the parent is trying to teach at that time), thus weaving personal histories into the larger backdrop of the country’s.
– The pen and ink/watercolour illustrations of historical monuments, with the play of sun and shade on them, are nicely executed by Priyankar Gupta. His clean cover design, with the montage of famous rulers through history, has a nice, minimalistic appeal.
Despite these significant pluses, one can’t help feeling that A Children’s History of India is a bit of a missed opportunity. The trouble is, the overall feel of the book, to a casual young browser, is not one of exciting stories of kings and queens, whether with or without parrots circling around their heads, but something too close to a textbook for comfort.
Take the titles of the chapters: The Arrival of the Muslims, The East India Company, The Constitution of India, or the subtitles of the chapter sections: How did the Guptas rule?, Flowering of Culture, Rise of Nationalism, for instance. Exactly. There is nothing to distinguish them from standard-issue history textbook chapter titles.
Or the maps, rendered exactly as they are in those same dreary history textbooks, containing all the information they need to but displaying absolutely no effort on the part of anyone to make them even mildly interesting for a young reader. Or the page layout and design, which doesn’t grab and hold attention, or direct the reader to the more interesting bits (and there are several of those).
Or even the portraits of the dramatis personae in the long, long history of the subcontinent, which are simply faithful reproductions of exactly the pictures used in school textbooks! Surely other references exist, of the main movers and shakers, at least in the last five hundred years?
To be fair, A Children’s History of India doesn’t market itself as a ‘fun’ read, but if it is meant to get children “interested in history”, as its author says she hopes it will, it sadly falls short. In this day and age of riveting history video blogs by people like the vlogbrothers (aka brothers Hank and John Green), irreverent – and delectable – book series like Horrible Histories, and excellent NCERT textbooks, a book in the same genre will require more than great research and competent writing to truly appeal to its young, globally-connected audience.
By Arundhati Roshan B.
A CHILDREN’S HISTORY OF INDIA
Author: Subhadra Sen Gupta
Illustrator: Priyankar Gupta
Rupa Publications, 2015
Subject Category: Contemporary/Non-Fiction