Her books on Indian history often have Subhadra Sen Gupta’s email address in them for children to be able to reach her with their queries. A new book usually means a deluge of emails, flush with questions. “The smart ones try to make me write the projects for them. The mail starts with a paragraph of profuse praise and then a quick list of questions starting with, ‘Do you know anything about…?’ They have been trying to con me for years,” says the Delhi-based writer, with a laugh.
Yet, over the course of the last few years, the letters, and the queries that have come up during school visits for author interactions, have spoken of something else. “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. They are taught something in school, and, in some cases, are exposed to very different ideas at home. After reading my book, A Children’s History of India (Rupa, 2015), one girl wrote to protest at my calling (Mughal emperor) Akbar ‘Great’. She was convinced that he raped Hindu women,” she says. In another instance, Sen Gupta recalls a student asking her what Jawaharlal Nehru had done for the nation. “As the history of independent India is not taught in school, they know little of Nehru’s achievements or his role in the writing of the Constitution,” she says.
Long before the nationwide protests broke out over the Citizenship (Amendment) Act and the proposed National Register of Citizens, Sen Gupta had begun work on a book that she hoped would dispel this confusion that she’d sensed — an accessible children’s version of the Indian Constitution, a book fundamental to the idea of the country’s composite identity. By the time her The Constitution of India for Children (Puffin Books, Rs 299), illustrated by Tapas Guha, came out ahead of the Republic Day, the protests had, through public readings of the Preamble, brought the Constitution firmly back into public consciousness. “I had no inkling that things would pan out the way they did. But, if you think of it, the moment was just right, and, in reading out the Preamble at protests and discussing fundamental rights, people were really finding their way back to how the members of the Constituent Assembly had thought of this country — as accommodating and respectful of each other’s differences,” says Sen Gupta, when we meet at Guha’s residence in Chittaranjan Park.
Since its publication in 2010, former chief justice of Himachal Pradesh Leila Seth’s We The Children of India: The Preamble to Our Constitution (Puffin Books) has been the benchmark for a primer on the Indian Constitution. Illustrated by Bindia Thapar and peppered with black-and-white historical photographs, Seth’s book is a classic. Sen Gupta acknowledges her debt to it but her book holds its ground. She packs in rigorous research — her source materials, among other things, include books by Granville Austin, Bipan Chandra, Ramachandra Guha and Derek O’Brien — and throws in lesser-known nuggets of information. In one of the most interesting segments of the book, called The Backroom Boys, Sen Gupta gives a glimpse of the massive scale of operations required to put together the Constitution and the people in the Constituent Assembly Secretariat, who helped the Drafting Committee, headed by BR Ambedkar. She speaks of how Rajendra Prasad, India’s first President, transformed the Rashtrapati Bhavan into an Indian establishment and of the mutual trust shared by Nehru, Mahatma Gandhi and Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel. From the 15 women members — that included Ammu Swaminathan, who advocated equal rights for women, and Dakshayani Velayudhan, the only woman Dalit leader — to Munda leader Jaipal Singh, who spoke on behalf of the country’s tribal people, the fascinating account of the diversity of the Constituent Assembly, that debated, discussed and worked for a road map for an equitable future, comes alive in the book.
While Sen Gupta references historical photographs through her narrative, the book steers clear of the use of any. Instead, Guha’s cheery illustrations hold it together (One illustration to demonstrate the right to equality, for instance, has a tongue-in-cheek reference to ‘WhatsApp University’). “As I struggled to try to make fundamental rights and directive principles interesting to a 12-year-old, …Tapas came to the rescue with his cartoons. Using illustrations instead of photographs was a conscious decision as, instead of a hazy black-and-white photograph of say, Sarojini Naidu, if she is speaking to you in rhyme and wearing a bright sari, they will remember it,” says Sen Gupta. “I wanted the illustrations to make the narrative contemporary, so that was a driving principle in using cartoon-like sketches,” says Guha.
It took Sen Gupta about nine months to finish the manuscript. By the time the book came out, people had taken to the streets to uphold the democratic ethos of the Constitution. In hindsight, Sen Gupta wishes she had done a segment on citizenship. Perhaps, that will be grist for another book.
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