Many years ago, I remember stumbling upon some volumes of Horrible Histories in a bookshop and being utterly fascinated that history could be treated like this too.
The slim volumes, written by Terry Deary and illustrated by Martin Brown, about the Tudors and the Romans and the Vikings and the World Wars, were hilarious but absolutely factual accounts that made history jump out and grab you by the throat.
Even after we began to be able to “own” our history, we’ve been unable to package it in ways that are accessible and attractive. Except, of course, for what Amar Chitra Katha did rather well in bits and pieces when we were growing up. This might be finally changing, with some really good stuff slowly beginning to emerge.
Tulika Publishers’ Excavating History is one such, and it does with archaeology exactly the sort of thing I’ve always hoped someone might do with history. The writer Devika Cariapa (with illustrator Ashok Rajagopalan and the design team) presents the story of unearthing India’s past in such an engaging fashion that it would be unfair to slot this as children’s reading alone. At least three adults who saw it have earmarked the book for borrowing — and I don’t intend to lend it.
The book is able to make the story of two chunks of prehistoric stone in Chennai’s government museum exciting in a way the real display in the real museum will possibly never do. When I got to the bit about how Harappan bricks were being carted off in the 1880s for the Lahore-Multan railway line, I actually held my breath. These are stories you’ve known in a broad-brush way and it’s great to get the details without necessarily digging into dusty tomes. I learnt, for instance, that in Hunsgi Valley in Karnataka, archaeologists found “factory” sites for the large-scale manufacture of Palaeolithic tools.
The Delhi-based Devika, archaeology student and researcher, used to take her kids and their friends to the capital’s many monuments and set up a game where they had to find a jalli pattern or a kind of pillar or cornice. They loved it. But later, when she had to teach history temporarily and asked her students how many liked the subject, not one hand went up. “I realised they had to learn it in an unthreatening, fun way,” she said, when I called to ask about the book. That was her earliest inspiration and soon she began writing stories for a newspaper.
Serendipity followed. When she sent a few stories for publication to Tulika, it transpired the publishing house was keen to start just such a series — one that would create among children an understanding of India as a complex, plural, eclectic society. And so, voila…
As we chatted, Devika suddenly laughed and said, “I am so passionate about it, I get carried away and keep talking!”
‘Passion’ — how interesting she should use the word. It’s the one emotion missing from our museums, libraries and archives. If we could inject some of it into how we study and preserve the past, we might be a little less callous about it. It might also be the key to begin respecting history as much as we do mythology, especially in these fraught times of reinvention.
Perhaps this is the trick — teaching children vital, vivid little details about the past. “They know there was a king called Ashoka,” says Devika. “They should also learn how we found out about Ashoka from some pillars. About how a coin or a stone can be a history book in itself.”
Excavating History is jam-packed with just such factoids — about the Acheulean hand-axe and engraved ostrich shells, about the fashion sense of the Kushanas, and a pre-Mauryan bronze plaque with famine relief instructions. Plus there are little asides — like a note on pillars or seals, a map pinpointing major Harappan sites, or a transcription of Megasthenes’ diary.
Reportedly, the recent Keezhadi excavations in Tamil Nadu have sparked so much interest in archaeology that more students have applied for the course in Madras University this year than they have in the last 50. It wouldn’t be at all surprising if a book like this had the same impact on the next generation’s career choices.