May 4, 2021 6:07:57 pm
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, she 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 tayiyar 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 well 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, ‘Bul-di’ to all who knew her, 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 with her books — 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…”
In her long career, Sen Gupta tried to make this sense of the past, of history, approachable for young readers. From biographies of Indian kings 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. At the end of each of her books, Sen Gupta insisted on publishing her email id for readers who might want to get back to her with questions and opinions. “It’s important to let them ask questions, to hear them out…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 had said in an interview with this reporter in January last year.
Long-time friend and editor Sudeshna Shome Ghosh, publisher, Talking Cub, says it was her ability to listen that set her apart as a writer and a friend. “Her books were mostly about history, a subject not always the most popular with people, especially with children. Over the years, I have seen her interact with children. She was soft-spoken, she heard them out, and, eventually, they would always 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,” says 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 has worked with the writer on several projects, credits this to Sen Gupta’s zest for life. “I have known her since the time we were at Target magazine (a popular children’s monthly magazine published in India between 1979 and 1995) together. She was a curious, diligent writer, but more than that, she was a warm, empathetic person. Every month, sometimes twice, 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, barring a bout of cold recently, I have never seen Subhadra ill. I still cannot believe that she is gone,” says Guha.
Her body of work apart, if there’s one way to cherish Sen Gupta’s memory it is by celebrating her innate sense of fairness, says Shome Ghosh. “She was senior to us by very many years, but one never felt the age difference with her. She was never condescending, never an egotist. She was a friend, an elder sister; at the most, she was like an aunt who you loved deeply and occasionally sparred with,” she says.
Sen Gupta extended this sense of affection and cordiality to journalists on the books beat, too, regaling them with stories of old Delhi, where she had grown up, letting them know of interesting books, new and old, keeping track of their articles and occasionally letting them of a piece she especially liked, or, didn’t. In the last year, she had been working on a memoir that brought together her mother’s recipes and her family’s century-long history in the national capital, a project she had been greatly excited about. It was supposed to be published later this year.
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