The recent influx of biographies for children offer a glimpse of the grit and determination of trailblazers whose legacies we still celebrate. Here are two such books:
Incredible Indians: 75 People Who Shaped Modern India
Born to a Brahmin father and a Devadasi mother in 1886, at a time when Devadasis were relegated to the edges of society, Muthulakshmi Reddy did what few women of her time were able to. She owned her unique legacy and forged an identity of her own, defying social norms of the time. A gifted child, she was encouraged by her father, a principal in a college in Pudukottai (modern-day Tamil Nadu) to study. Reddy created a sensation by studying in the state-run all-male Maharaja College before going on to study medicine, specialising in surgery. Founder of the Adyar Cancer Institute in Chennai, Reddy was committed to women’s rights, advocating for rights to healthcare, education and enfranchisement for women and for the abolition of the devadasi system.
Like Reddy, Hansa Mehta (1897-1995), too, made use of her liberal upbringing, joining the freedom struggle while studying in England and dedicating her life to the cause of Independence. She defied conventions to marry a man outside her caste and was imprisoned several times for her anti-colonial activities. An equal rights advocate, Mehta was among those who pushed for the enshrinement of women’s rights in the Constitution after Independence.
The stories of Reddy and Mehta, alongside 73 other men and women from fields as diverse as politics, industry, literature and environment, form the heart of Ashwitha Jayakumar’s Incredible Indians, part of Harper Collins’ India series. A homage to the pioneers of modern India, this is a book that introduces children not just to those luminaries who are always at the forefront of public imagination, but also to those trailblazers who are consigned to the dusty pages of history, remembered ever so sparingly, despite their immense contributions. Jayakumar’s biographies are simply told and anecdotal and the inclusion of photographs and illustrations serve to render the stories more intimate.
Ardeshir and Pirojsha Godrej: Pioneers of Progress
Amar Chitra Katha
Long before the current government’s thrust on ‘Make in India’, the idea of self-sufficiency or “swadeshi” had revolutionised India’s resistance to British rule by encouraging every Indian to produce and consume local goods. In Mumbai, a young Parsi man, Ardeshir Godrej, with a flair for scientific innovations and a love of poetry, drank in the words of freedom fighters such as Dadabhai Naoroji and Bal Gangadhar Tilak and thought of ways to contribute to India’s fast-depleting economy. After trying his hand at various innovations, in May 1897, Ardeshir would eventually set up a factory in Lalbaug to produce locks, birthing Godrej, one of India’s oldest business houses. Over time, helped by his brother Pirojsha, who matched his passion for innovation with business acumen, they would expand their production to safes, steel storages for office and homes, typewriters, refrigerators and personal care products such as soaps.
Over the years, as Ardeshir and Pirojsha pushed the cause of Swadeshi, Godrej became a household name, known for its trustworthiness and the integrity of its products. Its crowning glory came in 1951 during the first general elections of independent India, when the company produced nearly 17 lakh steel ballot boxes for the mammoth exercise.
Saigal outlines the biography of the two brothers who brought about a monumental shift in Indian industries in a benign graphic retelling. The writer manages to avoid hagiographic territory, not a mean feat, considering the book was produced in partnership with Godrej & Boyce, the flagship company of Godrej Group, to celebrate the group’s 125th anniversary. One of the reasons for it is that the narrative is set against the larger canvas of the Independence movement and the lives and enterprise of the Parsis. Amar Chitra Katha’s veteran artist-illustrator Dilip Kadam lives up to his formidable reputation. For old timers, the reproduction of some of the company’s old commercials will evoke nostalgia.