These days, the news – both Indian and international – often sends me spiralling into the depths of despair. To escape the sense of doom and gloom the real world offers, I turn to fiction to offer me comfort and hope. Obviously books are my constant companions but I also love TV shows (despite being an atrociously slow watcher of things). My Sunday evenings are currently dedicated to Doctor Who. The latest episode of the show featured the protagonists time-travelling to Alabama in the 1950s, bumping into Rosa Parks, and realising they needed to guard history against being tampered. You know, as one does.
The episode not only delved into historical issues but also included explorations of contemporary prejudice. And the narrative did these things perfectly – it was timely, it wasn’t preachy, it offered a good balance of solemn reflection and frantic action, and it managed to resonate deeply with most of the audience. Of course, I sobbed through most of it. And then I went online and encountered parents discussing how their kids were now asking questions about Rosa Parks and social justice thanks to the show, I sobbed some more.
Fiction for children offers a safe space to explore contentious real-world issues. Not only can children’s books provide young people the tools to understand the world, but it can also empower them to question the way things are. The Rosa Parks episode was a mix of fact and fiction (pretty sure the actual events didn’t include a time-travelling alien), included contemporary and historical perspectives, and showcased different kinds of resistance both explicit and subtle. It inspired me to round up a range of Indian children’s books which reflect the same themes particularly the one which underpinned her most famous action – how ordinary people can do extraordinary things to question established norms and resist injustice.
Why do I have to sit separately in a corner of the classroom?
Why can’t I drink water from the tap like other children?
Why do the teachers never touch my books?
The ‘whys’ shout louder in little Bhim’s head as he grows up, trailed constantly by the monster of untouchability. They catapult him into a lifetime of struggle for equality. They shape the remarkable ideas that are the cornerstone of the Indian Constitution, which he drafted as India’s first Law Minister.
The book follows the life of an extraordinary man, ‘Babasaheb’ Bhimrao Ambedkar, who energised the struggle against caste prejudice. His fiery speeches and writings urged Dalits to protest against the inhumanity they suffered, and continue to suffer. This straightforward telling, visualised with quirky imagination, brings to children a man whose story will raise their awareness of discrimination — leading them, perhaps, to ask their own whys.
Chipko Takes Root
Here is a story set in the hills that shows what bravery and grit can accomplish. Dichi, a brave Bhotiya girl takes part in the Chipko movement to save her beloved trees. Everybody in her village knows that trees give them all the important things in their life. Rapid deforestation in the Himalayan region of Alaknanda river caused floods in the 1970s and gave birth to a movement to save trees by hugging them. Read this heartwarming tale to learn the power of collective action as seen through the eyes of young Dichi.
You can read the book for free here.
Mati pesters her grandmother and father for her own plot of land in the big field. When she does get it, she works hard. And then she hears that a company wants to make a coal mine in their village – the enormous black pit that will eat up all their lands, like it has in the next village.
The little girl’s anxiety about losing her land to “a monster machine” cuts close to the heart as it takes head-on an issue that is ravaging tribal Chhattisgarh, where this story is set, and every other place where there is ‘development’ at a cost. The earthy tones of the illustrations take us straight into the fields, while strong lines etch out the determination of two feisty females – Mati and her Ajji – who will not give in.
The Case Of The Missing Water
When the tank in Ranj’s village dries up, she sets out on a mission to find the missing water. Join Detective Ranj on the case.
You can read the book for free here.
Moyna lives in a little tribal village. She cannot go to school because she has to tend the goats, collect the firewood, fetch the water. But she is so full of questions that the postmaster calls her the ‘why-why girl’! Mahasweta Devi is one of India’s foremost writers. In this delightful story, her first picture book, and the only children’s book she has written in English, she tells us how she meets Moyna (and her mongoose!) and helps her find answers to all the why-whys – in books, that Moyna herself learns to read.
(Thanks for the tip, Asha Nehemiah!)
MIDDLE GRADE BOOKS
Neel’s parents want him to win a scholarship, and go to the big city to study. But Neel doesn’t want to leave his beloved Sundarbans, with its beautiful trees and its magnificent tigers.
And then a tiger cub goes missing from the reserve!
The evil Gupta wants to sell the cub and sets his people to search for it. Neel and his sister Rupa are determined to find the cub and take it to safety before Gupta and his goons find it.
Racing against time, and braving the dangers of the dark, will Neel succeed in saving the little tiger cub?
YOUNG ADULT BOOKS
In 1873, Jotirao Govindrao Phule wrote Gulamgiri (Slavery), a scathingly witty attack on the vedas being idle fantasies of the brahman mind which enslaved the shudras and atishudras. A hundred and forty years hence, Srividya Natarajan and Aparajita Ninan breathe fresh life into Phule’s rather graphic imagination, weaving in the story of Savitribai, Jotiba’s partner in his struggles.
In today’s climate of intolerance, here’s a manifesto of resistance.
What does it mean to be an untouchable in India? Why do some Indians despise the touch of others? Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar (1891–1956), one of India’s foremost revolutionaries, recounts his experiences of growing up untouchable and being routinely discriminated against: in school at the age of 10, in Baroda after his return from Columbia University, and while traveling. Battling odds, Ambedkar drafted the Constitution of India and eventually embraced Buddhism. Experiences similar to Ambedkar’s continue to haunt a majority of India’s 170 million dalits. They are still denied water, shelter and the basic dignities of life.
In this ground-breaking work, Pardhan-Gond artists Durgabai Vyam and Subhash Vyam interweave historical events like the Mahad satyagraha with contemporary incidents. Defying conventional grammar, they infuse fresh energy into the graphic idiom through their magical art mounted on an epic scale.
The perfect male-female bodies — says who? Aren’t sex and gender the same thing? Either male or female, right? Of course men and women are equal — but who calls the shots at home? Who makes the ‘rules’ we are all supposed to follow? Does what you wear ‘invite trouble’? Do women need to be ‘controlled for their own good’? Why is being different from the majority such a problem?
As gender issues hit the news hotspots more and more, there are questions and confusions, and the answers are covered by a smog of stereotype and convention. So how do teens make sense of all this?
Uncovering truths, untruths, semi-truths and myths, using everyday examples as well as references to popular media, the book explores what it means socially and culturally to belong to a certain gender. This book helps you find some answers, and raise more questions with better information. Being aware is a first step towards gender equality.
The book shifts the point of view of the epic – the saga of a heroic war – to bring a woman’s perspective to this familiar tale. Narrated by the heroine Sita, it is a powerful meditation on the fate of women, as they become pawns in the wars between men and kingdoms. Patua artist Moyna Chitrakar and book designer Jonathan Yamakami deftly rework the traditional scroll form to create a dramatic visual narrative.
Sultana’s Dream first appeared in 1905, ten years before the American feminist and novelist Charlotte P. Gilman published her feminist utopia Herland. An appealing story of how peace-loving women overpowered aggressive men through the power of their brains, this slim book anticipates radical ecological and feminist themes that continue to engage our attention to this day. This edition is also a fascinating dialogue across time and cultures: Durga Bai, a brilliant woman artist from the Gond tribe of central India, has drawn her response to Rokheya Hossain’s startling feminist fable from the early twentieth century, adding a new layer of meaning to a classic text.
Korok lives in a small Gond village in western Odisha. His life is in the garden which he tends every day. Anchita lives in the house which has the garden, and is an artist.
Then one day, the government tells the Gonds they have to leave the village because a company is going to mine the sacred hill next to it for aluminium ore. The Gonds oppose it, but the mighty government, led by police officer Sorkari Patnaik is determined to win. Korok knows a lot about wild flowers, and nothing much about the rest of the world, though the two friends are not going to give up.
But how long will the Gond resistance last, when everybody, from politicians to activists and even Maoists turn up at the little village?
What can a lone gardener and a girl with a computer do against the most powerful people in the land?
All the synopses have been taken from the publisher’s websites.