Subhadra Sen Gupta on making history fun in “Let’s Go Time Travelling!”

Did you know the English word ‘caste’ comes from the Portuguese word for varna or tribe, ‘casta’? Or that Shahjahan once gifted Jahanara the port of Surat for her paan expenses? Or the story of the nawab who, on a Europe trip, turned a Rolls Royce into a bin because he took offense at the car salesman’s behaviour. These and many such anecdotes dot Subhadra Sen Gupta’s new book Let’s Go Time Travelling! (Puffin Books).

A look at the architecture, food habits, dress, and social systems across the ages, the book principally looks at early India (the Harappan Civilisation and the Indo-Aryans), Ancient India (the Mauryas and Guptas, and the Pallavas and Cholas), medieval India (the Delhi Sultanate and the Mughals), and British India (the people of British India, and the rulers of British India).

Delhi-based Subhadra, a Master’s holder in History, has previously authored several books in the genre of historical fiction, like Sword of Dara Shikoh, Bishnu, the Dhobi Singer, A Clown for Tenali Rama, and History, Mystery, Dal, Biryani, to name a few. There have also been biographies on Jodh Bai, Jahanara, Ashoka and Gandhi, short story anthologies for adults (Good Girls Are Bad News and Waiting for Tansen), comic books and graphic novels, and books on travel and culture.

About Let’s Go Time Travelling!, the author explains over email, “My target readers are the kids in classes 6 to 8, who begin studying Indian history. The book aims at making history less intimidating for them and also talk about things that kids are curious about. The stuff that textbooks leave out, like food and clothes, transport and school.”

Every chapter or period in history begins with a short story about some imagined people of that era (always children). After that, however, it’s down to brass tacks and facts. “I was very clear about what I wanted to achieve before I started writing because with history there is a huge amount of research and you can’t be vague about your plans. And I planned to mix facts and fiction. The stories are a way to seduce the child into reading the rest of the chapter. Also they are an illustration of how children lived in that period,” Subhadra says.

With some centuries contained in 130-odd pages, research, naturally, proved more time-consuming than the writing. “One kid asked me if children in the past got homework, and you won’t believe how long it took me to discover they did not!” she tells us.

Did it require a very conscious effort to keep things lively and appealing to readers who might dismiss it as a history lesson that could be gained from school textbooks?

“In all my books I am very conscious of developing a voice, and here I wanted it to be light and conversational. That needs work as writing simply is much harder than being complex. Also having cartoons (by Tapas Guha) instead of illustrations was done to make it clear that this was a fun book.”

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