Wednesday, July 22, 2009

History, the commoner's view

Of the many children’s books I got to see at the speed-dating session/small book fair with German publishers in Berlin a couple of months ago, I was especially taken by the historical fiction titles in the dtv junior catalogue. These are books that combine fictitious plots with historical background and detail: a young protagonist is typically at the centre of each story (a boy who joins Hannibal’s army, two children solving a mystery in ancient Rome), which makes the whole thing more interesting for young readers. It’s very different from the textbook format of supplying dry detail about a historical event or setting.

Needless to say, there’s a lot of scope for doing this sort of thing in India, given the country’s vast and varied heritage. Atiya Zaidi, publisher, Ratna Sagar and a member of our traveling band in Germany, just sent me a revised edition of Of Kings and Commoners: Fact & Fiction from the Past, a children’s book that covers various epochs in Indian history, from the Indus Valley Civilisation down to Mahatma Gandhi’s salt march in 1930 (with stops along the way at the Maurya, Gupta and Chola dynasties).

The format is simple and neat: for each historical setting there’s a short story (typically not more than seven or eight pages long) followed by a separate section that provides background detail. The stories aren’t intricately plotted and they don’t need to be: their function is to present the common man’s perspective of life in those times, to make the strange and the distant seem familiar, and to throw in some authentic detail that can be elaborated on in the second section (a child playing with a clay monkey in the Indus Valley story, for instance). In one story, a boy enters the Pataliputra palace and catches a glimpse of King Asoka. In another, a young stone-carver nervously teaches the emperor Akbar how to use a chisel. A family makes a three-month journey from Dilli to Daulatabad and back to Dilli again under the reign of the volatile Muhammad bin Tughlaq.

This is an engaging way to teach history – and actually, even the non-fiction sections here are more interesting and compact than the school textbooks I recall.
Five of the stories in this book are by Subhadra Sen Gupta, the remaining three by Monisha Mukundan. Both writers are quite experienced in the historical-fiction genre, though I’m not familiar with their other works. If anyone has information on other Indian publications of this sort, I’d appreciate a pointer.


  1. very nice post . I hope someone in NCERT read it . i think the main problem with history education ( and Education in general ) is of our obsession with Single right answer .We don't accept the diffrent interpretation even in history . so we are left with no other choice but to teach just objective fact ( Dates, WARS,Dynasty ,Fort ).Add our politics of consensus to mix and you loose ANY chance of discussing two different point of view on any historical topic . No wonder Bhagat Singh and Subhash C Bose never got their rightful place in history of Indian freedom struggle .

    thanks to this linear teaching methods student are left with practically no understanding to envision a "what If " scenario. IMHO for common masses learning to do these "what if " scenario analysis is only purpose of history .

    Long back in school days my History teacher asked us "what would have been the consequence if India had attained freedom in 1857 ?"

    There were many answers one was ,that there would have been one India +Pak cricket team .

    We didn't realized that in that case probably there would not have been India as we know it today . That was our understanding of History in class 10th . our last year of studying history

    No wonder history keep on repeating it self

  2. Very nice post, Jai. I am aware of couple of similar writings in Bengali (mainly novels), though I am not sure whether they have been translated in English. The ones primarily coming to my mind right now are - Those Days by Sunil Gangopadhay ( - on 19th century Calcutta backdrop with historical figures, First Light: A Novel by Sunil Gangopdhay.
    Also, coming to my mind are Maitreya Jataka by Bani Basu (though in Bengali).
    Incidentally two of Satyajit Ray's films are based on Sunil's work - The Adversary and The Days and Nights of The Forest.

  3. hi jai

    may have to just strut my own stuff here - a bit you may know (i hope) :-)

    My two puffin books were based on history.
    Atisa and the seven wonders had a time travelling machine taking off to the 7 ancient wonders. it combined fiction with fact (what was reported by sources from the past and some details of the places, etc). And then there were the accounts of foreign travellers who came to India in the past. you cd say they were elite commoners! The book is called In the country of gold-digging ants. Incidentally, am doing a sequel to Atisa and another fact cum fiction book on the Taj Mahal.

  4. Thanks, Anu. Linking to your two books here: Atisa and the Seven Wonders and In the Country of Gold-Digging Ants.

    Daeboo: thanks for the tips. I know about Gangopadhay's books, but I was mainly talking about historical fiction for very young children here.

  5. My favourite history book from childhood is The Story of India for Children by Gratian Vas. It is the best and most compreshensive guide to history that a child can get. It is a book I keep coming back to, whenever I need to refresh my memory about some aspect of Indian history.

    I also read a lot of stuff by Subharda Sen Gupta, like A Princess' Diary Jahanra, Dear India Give Us Freedom, Bishnu The Dhobi Singer, Jodha Bai and some more that I probably have misplaced. The Making of Taj by Pratibha Nath. Sanghmitra by Monisha Mukundan. All wonderful books.

  6. I think this concept can be taken forward and translated into full-length novels/TV series as well, not necessarily for children, and much more intermingled with the lives of historical figures, to make them more human. If something on the lines of TV series Rome, can be done with Indian history, it'll be a treat to watch/read.

  7. Ashish: there already are quite a few such books for older readers: off the top of my mind, I can think of Kiran Nagarkar's Cuckold, Indu Sundaresan's The Twentieth Wife and Kundal Basu's The Miniaturist, but there are others.

    Shramana: thanks.

  8. Jai,
    If you are looking for similar settings for children, I would highly recommend reading Saradindu Bandyopadhyay's (the author for Byomkesh Bakshi novels) Sadashiv series (originals in Bengali). It is set in the backdrop of Shivaji's rule. It's English translation has been published by Penguin - Band of Soldiers: A Year on the Road with Shivaji.
    Highly recommended.

  9. Personally, I think the best single history guide for Indian and world history alike is "Glimpses of World History" by Jawaharlal Nehru, which is actually a series of letters written by Nehru to Indira Gandhi while in jail. I think it should be compulsory reading for every Indian, adult or child. It's amazing to read about the Indian freedom struggle, colonialism, and World War II from the viewpoint of someone who was there.

  10. Some easy to read history based books:
    Letters from a father to his Daughter by Jawahar Lal Nehru.
    The story of Gandhi by Rajkumari Shanker
    Nehru for children by M. Chalapathi Rau