‘I take children very seriously’ : Subhadra Sen Gupta on her latest book 'The Constitution of India For Children'

As India marks 70 years of being a Republic, writer Subhadra Sen Gupta’s latest work breaks down the Constitution for children

“Read the words carefully – it says, ‘We the people of India’, not ‘We the Hindus of India’ or ‘We the men of India’. This sentence is just one of many such in Subhadra Sen Gupta’s latest book The Constitution of India For Children (Puffin). And the timing of the release is also very apt, given the furore in the country over undermining the Constitution. But, says the author, she had submitted the text in August last year as she wanted to celebrate 70 years of the document that underpins India’s state. But there was also another reason... “during sessions in schools, I sensed a confusion about history, identity, rights... because children are taught one thing in school and, in some cases, hear something completely different at home. Like the malicious misinformation being spread about Jawaharlal Nehru.”

The Constitution often seems to be inaccessible and difficult – “such big words that no one knows the meaning of,” as one student put it. But Subhadra’s book de-constructs what’s in it in uncomplicated and straightforward text aided by pithy and sharp illustrations by Tapas Guha. The chapter on the Constituent Assembly talks about the women members, the lone tribal members and the Constitutional Adviser and Chief Drafting Officer, whom she terms “The backroom boys”.

‘I take children very seriously’ : Subhadra Sen Gupta on her latest book 'The Constitution of India For Children'

Subhadra says she “lays down the facts” and lets children make up their minds. “I take children very seriously. If you listen to them carefully, you’ll realise that even a nine year old has much more humanity and common sense than many adults. They want the truth.” As far as the illustrations are concerned, she terms her books “collaborative efforts. I couldn’t do it without an illustrator, editor and designer. Tapas and I have been working together for many years and he rescued the book from becoming too solemn by suggesting cartoons. Brooding over the illustrations, the editing and fact checking, the many options of page design ... that is the process I love as a book begins to be a reality.”

Admitting that the book was “tough, as I was working with dry facts and not exciting events”, she talks of how she struggled to make concepts like liberty or secularism easy to understand. “The chapters on the Preamble and Fundamental Rights were the hardest I have ever done.” She found “stories about people” in books by Granville Austin and Ramachandra Guha, Leila Seth’s book helped her refine the style. Those interested in further reading can check the list at the end.

‘I take children very seriously’ : Subhadra Sen Gupta on her latest book 'The Constitution of India For Children'

Most of Subhadra’s books for children have revolved around history and this began“a bunch of school kids telling me that they found history boring.” So she began with historical fiction and “discovered that even the simplest of plots becomes rich with images if placed in the past. So I got kids wandering the streets of Pataliputra, riding elephants and meeting weavers, potters and chefs and I was hooked! When handled well, children love history because it is about their roots.” Another reason was “because every government changes the history syllabus to suit their own ideology.” She recalls the details of Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination was once dropped from the class VIII textbook. “The nonsense on social media does not help,” she adds.

Write Way
  • When: Early morning
  • Where: Often on a well-cushioned sofa
  • How: My first draft is usually done by hand
  • What: Making history a story about people

When I point out that historical fiction is mistaken for mythology-based fantastical fiction, Subhadra accepts that “history is easy to manipulate and will always be mixed with mythology and fantasy.” But she doesn’t have a problem as long as it is clear that the book is fictional. “The challenge comes when people knowing no history create their own mythology about their heroes and demonise people they do not like and pass it off as history. We don't need heroes; we need great human beings.”

A few favourites
  • History books: Books by AL Basham, Abraham Eraly, and Upinder Singh
  • Historical fiction: By Mary Renault and Sharadindu Bandopadhya in Bengali
  • Historical films: Shatranj ke Khilari because it was historically correct
  • Authors: Hilary Mantel, Antonia Fraser, Bipin Chandra, and BR Nanda

Finally I ask about something I found intriguing. At the end of most books, Subhadra publishes her email id encouraging her “under-age pen pals” to give her feedback. “It helps me stay in touch with children,” she replies. “They tell me what they liked or did not like and often write when they are confused. My inbox was full during the controversy over Padmavat. They could not understand why anyone could threaten an actress they admired because of a film. One child wanted to know if jauhar was ‘compulsory’ for women and another wondered if the men also jumped into the fire.” There is a flip side too. “They try to get me to write their school history projects by sending me a mail dripping with praise and then a long list of questions.”

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Printable version | Jul 7, 2020 9:44:13 PM |

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