Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Invterview with Children's Author Subhadra Sen Gupta

On October 2nd, we suggested one way you to celebrate Gandhiji's birthday would be to give a copy of Subhadra Sen Gupta's book, Mahatma Gandhi, to a child you know. You can read more about that book--including an excerpt that looks at Gandhi's green politics, among other things--here

I thought it would be fun to follow up that piece with an interview with the author.  Subhadra Sen Gupta has written dozens of books over the years, for both children and adults.  My kids are big fans, having read several of her books, including Double Click and the graphic novel version of the Feluda Mysteries that she worked on with artist Tapas Guha. Here, we talk to her about textbooks, history, and the continuing relevance Gandhi has for children and environmentalists today. 

It would be safe to say that Gandhiji was an enormously complex man--your book's website calls him "the most unusual leader this country has seen." What is it that continues to make him relevant--and, in some quarters, controversial--even today?  In other words, why did you write this book, when there have been so many books about him already?
I wanted to do a book that was about a remarkable human being. If you read the biographies of Bapu done for children they have this icky holy, holy voice and turn him into a saint and he was never one. He did not even like being called Mahatma you know. 

Also no one talks about the things that interest kids - his false teeth, eccentric diet, wet-towel-over-bald-head image. I was sort of trying to fathom why people loved him so much, he could charm anyone.

He was never a sanctimonious man and I wanted to collect all the funny things he said. And most importantly he used his humour to show us we did not have to feel inferior to anyone. A visit to the Buckingham Palace? Okay let's go in my dhoti-chaddar fashion ensemble. I wish I could have seen the king's face :-)

Every child in India already studies Gandhiji in school.  What makes your book different from the textbooks we already have?
This book is about the Bapu we are forgetting - courageous, complex, shrewd, funny, and a man who was always ready to admit a mistake. Textbooks talk down to kids and are consciously moralising. I am just telling them about a superhero in chappals. 

What kind of reading and/or research did you do in writing this book? What I always do with my history writing for kids. Read the adult books, big fat ones - here it was the biographies by Louis Fischer, BR Nanda and Judith Brown. Also the history books on the freedom movement. 

Then I tell the story in a way that kids will enjoy. Sort of seduce them into reading history. So they are full of trivia and weird and revealing facts. 

Many children (my own included) dislike history because they associate it with a twice yearly ritual of mugging up dates and names of people that seem irrelevant to their lives so that they can pass exams. Certainly, we want all children to have some common understandings of history and civics.  But is there another way?
Of course there is. The problem is that the stupidly long curriculum is set by university professors who have long forgotten what it was like to be 12 years old. 

My head is buzzing with ideas but then no one will let a writer like me do anything. You need a Phd and no sense of humour to qualify. Kids who are lucky to get a good history teacher learn to love the subject. That is why I do these books.

You've said that in many ways Gandhi was an environmentalist. What
lessons might modern greens learn from his life and teachings?
He was saying pretty much the same things as environmentalists today but what is remarkable is that he was saying it nearly a century ago.
For more about the author, go here.
To read more Green Light Interviews, check out our Voices page.


  1. I'm going to get her books. Even though my daughter is almost an adult. I'm so curious to know what she's done to make history interesting for kids. So important.

  2. Banno--I have to confess that that I also really liked Double Click (Zubaan), which is not history at all--it's a hip new take on the old 'boarding school' mystery genre. Strong girls; adults who care (in addition to the required bad guys); characters that urban Indian young people will like. (And it's not just for girls; my son liked it a lot, though he wouldn't give it to his friends as birthday presents!)


What do you think?