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Once upon a time

Authors are revisiting stories of women achievers to present a new set of role models for children and young adults

Written by Surbhi Gupta |
Updated: August 27, 2019 12:10:19 am
Illustration of Nannamal

Not many have grown up listening to the story of Seema Rao, India’s Wonder Woman, the first to train soldiers in close-combat warfare. Or of dancer Rukmini Devi Arundale, who was rebuked when she first performed the dance form Sadir on stage and coupled it with classical music, but later became a pioneer in reviving Bharatanatyam. Or of Homai Vyarawalla, the first woman photojournalist in India, who captured many iconic moments of India’s freedom struggle. Stories of many such women are now being revisited by writers through books for children.

A recent book is The Dot That Went For a Walk… (Rs 649, Caterpillar Wings) that presents 51 women achievers in India. “We want the young generation, especially girls, to look up to Indian women as role models. From our experience during the many talks at schools, boys are equally inspired by the stories — a good story is gender neutral.

So, we chose to tell stories of nation builders who have been forgotten and must be celebrated,” says Sarada Akkineni, who has worked on the book with Reema Gupta and Lakshmi Nambiar. They have been vary of fairy tales where women are portrayed as damsels in distress waiting for a prince rescue them. “When we asked our kids and their friends who their female role models were, they struggled to come up with any names besides those in entertainment or sports,” says Akkineni. Soon their research led them to artists, musicians, and scientists.

In their book, we meet crafts revivalist Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, lawyer-activist Ela Bhatt, botanist Janaki Ammal, actor Deepika Padukone, chef Tarla Dalal, and economist Devaki Jain, among others. The authors have collaborated with 51 women artists and illustrators for portraits in the book.

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Dubai-based writer Gayathri Ponvannan also felt that there were just a handful of books about Indian women achievers, “especially about those from the past”. “I felt that while we might know about remarkable Indian women, we don’t always realise the magnitude of their achievements. Our current lifestyles are so very different that it is not always possible to imagine how different – and difficult – circumstances have been in the past.” In her book, Unstoppable (Rs 350, Hachette), apart from stories of modern women, we also meet lesser-known personalities.

There is Prabhavati, of the Gupta empire, one of the first women to rule a kingdom in India, and Rudrama Devi, a warrior princess from the Kakatiya dynasty, who ruled over present-day Telangana. “All of them have faced enormous struggles in achieving their dreams. For instance, the first Indian woman graduate was initially barred from taking the university entrance exams; the first teacher was often abused on her way to work; and the first woman lawyer was not allowed to practice in the courts. I particularly admired their ‘never quit’ attitude,” says Ponvannan, who has written the novel Time Racers (2015, Penguin).

The trend started, in 2016, with Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls, written by Elena Favilli and Francesca Cavallo, which became the most-funded original book in the history of crowdfunding. It narrated the stories of 100 women with illustrations by woman artists. “It started with that globally, and in India, Aparna Jain followed it up with Like a Girl (Context, 2018), and now the format has caught on. Even in the past, there were books on Indian women such as Rani Laxmi Bai, but the personalities were limited and repeated. In these new books, we’re seeing women from different professions. Previously, in books that listed 20 leaders in history, only two would be women, so these books are filling that gap,” says Sayoni Basu, co-founder of Duckbill in Chennai.

In She Can You Can (Rs 299, Harper Collins), San Francisco-based Garima Kushwaha and Rajat Mittal have catalogued stories of 26 Indian women as an alphabet book. A is for Arunima Sinha, who is the first female amputee to scale the Mount Everest, B is for Bhanu Athaiya, who became India’s first female Oscar award winner for Costume Design for Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi (1982), and C is for Chitra Ramakrishna, the first woman Managing Director and CEO of the National Stock Exchange. “I grew up hearing the term ‘bada aadmi’ — a successful man. The implicit belief that men are meant to do great things while women are there to support them is so flawed,” says Kushwaha.

Science writers Aashima Freidog and Nandita Jayaraj’s book 31 Fantastic Adventures in Science: Women Scientists in India (Rs 399, Puffin) released on Sunday revisits stories of women who “are not seen on TV, in textbooks or in newspapers”. They present women who work in diverse fields from environmental biotechnology to particle physics, palaeobiology to astrophysics. They tell us about Sharada Srinivasan, an archaeometallurgist, who was the first to find out more about Aranmula kannadi of Kerala, the metal mirror which reflects better than glass. Also featured are stories of biotechnologist Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, astrophysicist Prajval Shastri, cancer biologist Bushra Ateeq, computational biologist Lipi Thukral, and condensed matter physicist Archana Lakhani.

Meanwhile, London-based Raj Kaur Khaira broadens the scope and presents stories of 50 women from Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka. In the book, Stories for South Asian Supergirls (Rs 599, Kashi House), we read about chef Ravinder Bhogal, born in Nairobi and brought up in London, who specialises in fusion cuisine. There is Mindy Kaling, an actor and comedian in the US, who has Tamil and Bengali roots. She also talks about Pakistani filmmaker-activist Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy and Indian author Aanchal Malhotra, among others.

Part of the The Pink Ladoo Project that aims to eradicate gender-biased customs and traditions, the book was to make South Asian women realise their power. “We are so much more than Western media wants us to think we are. We are clever, strong, gentle, kind, pioneering and all the rest. We don’t need saving,” she says, adding that people are always trying to erase, play down or edit the history and legacy of brown women. Each biography is paired with a portrait drawn by one of the 10 South Asian female artists.

“Through these stories, we would like every child to be inspired, to dream bigger, think of new possibilities and fight harder. These are the new-age fairy tales of heroines who definitely don’t need rescuing. These stories will make children innovative and resilient to failure,” says Akkineni.

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