Updated: May 5, 2021 3:33:28 am
IN MID-DECEMBER last year, when the Big Little Book Award, the annual literary award to celebrate the best in children’s literature, was announced, declaring writer Subhadra Sen Gupta and illustrator Rajiv Eipe as the winners, Sen Gupta was her usual self-effacing self. She was delighted to have received it, but, like always, refused to make a fuss about her achievement.
In an email correspondence with this reporter, she wrote, “So this was a pandemic award and the experience has been rather amusing. The trophy arrived by peon after a man called, ‘Madam! Mittal & Co say bol raha hoon. Apka trophy taiyar hai (Madam, I am calling from Mittal and Company. Your trophy is ready).’ Soon a man came thumping up the staircase carrying a package. No swishing up on stage in a sari to applause!”
Witty, feisty and an excellent raconteur, Delhi-based Sen Gupta, writer of over 50 books for children and young adults, and winner of the 2014 Bal Sahita Puraskar, passed away on May 3.
The writer, who would have turned 69 next month, had been suffering from Covid-19.
In a moving Facebook post, her cousin Shuddhabrata Sengupta, artist and curator, Raqs Media Collective, broke the news and wrote, “My cousin, Subhadra Sen Gupta,…beloved writer of historical fiction and history for children and young readers — who many waves of kids across India adored for how she made history come alive for them… — passed away last night due to Covid-19. She fought the disease bravely. Gone with her is her remarkable sense of how the past remains alive, as story, as history, as memory…”
Throughout her writing life, Sen Gupta tried to make this sense of the past, of history, approachable for young readers. From biographies of rulers such as Ashoka and Akbar to well-researched accounts of the freedom struggle in A Flag, A Song and A Pinch of Salt: Freedom Fighters of India (2007), Saffron, White and Green: The Amazing Story of India’s Independence (2008) to A Children’s History of India (2015), and, most recently, The Constitution of India for Children (2020), Sen Gupta’s books sparkled not just with a historian’s meticulous research but also with a storyteller’s unerring flair for atmosphere.
We’re extremely heartbroken at the demise of one of our well-loved children’s authors, Subhadra Sen Gupta. The gap she’s left in the world of children’s literature would be hard to fill. She will live on through her stories for times to come. pic.twitter.com/qR4g2gB6wV
— Penguin India (@PenguinIndia) May 4, 2021
In her books, she insisted on publishing her email id for readers who might want to reach her with questions and opinions. “I meet children at schools, where I talk less and listen more. In the last five years, I have sensed a confusion about history, and, also, human values…,” she said in an interview with this paper in January 2020.
Friend and editor Sudeshna Shome Ghosh, publisher, Talking Cub, said it was her ability to listen that set Sen Gupta apart as a writer and a friend. “Her books were mostly about history, a subject not always the most popular, especially with children. Over the years, I have seen her interact with children. She was soft-spoken, she heard them out, and, invariably, they would warm up to her and her books. She was always brimming with ideas. I have known her for nearly 15 years and when I look back now, I can see how she has influenced my choice too, as a publisher. Many of the books I ended up commissioning were about history,” said Shome Ghosh.
If history was her forte, she was equally at ease with tales of adventures and ghost stories. Delhi-based illustrator Tapas Guha, a friend of over two decades, who worked with the writer on several projects, credits this to Sen Gupta’s zest for life. “She was curious, diligent, but more than that, she was a warm and empathetic person. Every month, till Covid-19 struck, we would meet up for coffee at my place, and, as it happens with old friends, talk about the past and the future. On Friday, when we spoke on the telephone, she told me she had tested positive [for Covid-19] but that her symptoms were manageable. We exchanged messages last evening, too. In all the time I have known her, I have never [really] seen Subhadra ill. I still cannot believe that she is gone,” said Guha.
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