Winter Reads: Women in History by Rituparna Sandilya

My winter reads with my daughter this year had very little to do with winter! Instead, we had a good dose of history, where we met a whole lot of gutsy women...

'Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls'

The new year began for us with a huge surprise - the best there can be - with the gift of a book: 'Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls', by Elena Favilli. Fourth in the 'Rebel Girls' Series, the gift came from one of my dearies - Anurima Chanda. Srishti is blessed with a sizable army of aunts (sister-friends from different phases of my life) who spoil her every chance they get. But this is one of the most thoughtful gifts that she has ever received. “Srishti is both Indian and Dutch, a true citizen of the world. I wanted to gift her stories that would expand her horizon”, Anurima told me, when I called to thank her.

It's true. Srishti was born in the Netherlands and spent the first five years of her life in Amsterdam. She is a Dutch citizen, born to Indian parents, now growing up in India. In all my time in the Netherlands, I'd resolutely held on to my Indian passport, to the surprise of many. I would have ideally wanted a double-citizenship, but India doesn't have provision for one, which is a pity. Since I’d increasingly looked upon myself as a trans-national, deeply rooted to the land I was born and spent most of my life in, but also very much at home in the foreign land I migrated to later in life. Anurima knows this. She and I had been colleagues for two-and-half-precious months, in which we somehow packed conversations of a lifetime, in between classes, over lunch and coffee. That has continued, after she left Kolkata, over WhatsApp. She is one of the very few with whom I have WA 'conversations', occasionally, and one of the reasons I can tolerate the app.

A fellow writer, deeply invested in children's literature, she said she "really hoped" we liked the book. Of course we did! We are reading 3 stories from it at a time, on weekdays, taking turns to read. We love the design of the book: every story is a single spread; with the story on the left (mentioning the profession and dates of the pioneer/stalwart in question) and portrait on the right (with the name of the illustrator and a quote). As Srishti pointed out to me one day, altogether, there are 7 elements on every spread!

I know only a pitiful few of the 100 immigrant women who have been celebrated in this book: Anna Wintour, Golda Meir, Hannah Arendt, Gloria Estefan, Marjane Satrapi, Rihanna among them. But of the 45 stories we have covered so far, I was particularly struck by that of the artist Carmen Herrera, who, we are told, sold her first painting at the age of 89! It gave me such hope!! I also loved her quote: "I never met a straight line I did not like".

'Like a Girl: Real Stories for Tough Kids' 

‘Rebel Girls’ has become a good companion volume for another such compilation that I’d bought for Srishti two years back. I had actually bought it for a couple-friends’ daughters, Mithi and Chini, whose combined birthday we had been invited to. Srishti is a bit younger than them in age (2 and 4 years, respectively) and greatly enjoys their company whenever they meet. She was a tad young for the book when I gifted it to them. But I just fell in love with it – its cover, content, design - so I bought a copy for her as well. Soon enough, we were reading it together. She loved the stories. Loved the illustrations even more – especially the 2-page spreads of famous sisters. Lata Mangeskar-Asha Bhosle was her favourite (she knows them, of course, has heard many of their songs); Lakshmi Sehgal-Mridula Sarabhai, mine. I like this pairing especially because they were a soldier and a dancer! And for the particular ‘mudra’ (hand gesture) that Sarabhai is caught in. Growing up seeing my sister learn this dance form, I have always had a special corner for it in my heart.

The 51 Indian women who find a place in this book span seven centuries, most of them from the last. Starting off with warrior-queens (Sultan Razia, Chand Bibi and Laxmibai), the book ends with six current star athletes (Mary Kom, Sania Mirza and Dipa Karmakar, among them). In between, we find a wide range of women stalwarts from different spheres: from artists (Amrita Sher-Gil, Rukmini Devi Arundale) and activists(Mahasweta Devi, Medha Patkar, Irom Sharmila), journalists (Gauri Lankesh, Barkha Dutt)and politicians (Indira Gandhi,Jayalalithaa),to legal luminary (Leila Seth) and astronaut (Kalpana Chawla). 

Two of the women featured here turned up in other books that Srishti would read within the next year. And they would create quite an impression on her! 

'A Children’s Illustrated History, Book 3'

That history – or for that matter – any story can be written differently, both in terms of length and content, Srishti got to know by reading this book. Her entry point was “Laxmibai – The Brave Rani of Jhansi.” She had already read about the brave queen in ‘Like a Girl’. Here, she was reading in a children’s history book - still illustrated, but this time, with black-and-white photographs. It didn’t take her long to realize that this is a different realm of knowledge, of stories told differently - with facts and dates, maps and meanings. Also, with questions at the end.

This happens to be one of my most precious possessions. It’s my Class-V History textbook, the reason I fell in love with the subject, much before English Literature. It’s also the only relic I have of my 12 years of ACS (Auxilium Convent School, Dum Dum, Kolkata).

It’s a book of 12 luminaries, primarily political leaders, from the 18th to the 20th century – spanning Europe, North and South America, and Asia. Washington and Lincoln, Lenin, Garibaldi and Napolean find their place here. As do Simon Bolivar, Kemal Ataturk and Mao-Tse-Tung. Florence Nightingale is the only non-political figure and one of two women featured. And Tipu Sultan and Gandhi, the other Indians (apart from Lakshmibai).

Srishti was delighted to see a bit of the 10-year-old me engraved in the text – in the form of dates written, in a rounded handwriting, on the top-left corner of the first page of every chapter. Also, in a few other hasty jottings on the margin. This child me is the closest to her in age. And though she has seen a few photographs of mine from that time (taken on our new ‘Hot-Shot' camera, bought on the occasion of an uncle’s wedding the year before), she felt a stronger kinship with the pencil notes on the book

That year was a turning point in my school life: from a shy, stuttering, frequently sick and absent, skinny girl, known to everyone as ‘Nilanjana’s sister”, I transformed into a somewhat more confident school goer. That journey had tentatively begun in Class III, with the efforts of a kind class-teacher named Miss Esmenia; Miss Aureen continued that process. I would finally bloom in class VII: do well in studies, earn a name as a singer, and become class monitress for the yellow house. In the universe that was ACS, I would finally make my mark. Later, I would be known as a debater, which would somewhat outshine the singing reputation in the final two years of school.

All of that began in class V, with Miss Aureen. She  made it a point to boost my confidence, pushing me into participating in contests, making me read aloud in class, praising every little improvement I showed. It was not just me,  she was an attentive class-teacher who magically managed to cater to the individual needs of 50+ students. I just happened to be one of the more successful examples of her efforts that year.

Our class teachers taught us every subject, except second language (Bengali/Hindi). And they usually taught it well. But if they didn’t - which was the case in my class IV - school could be a nightmare. Miss Aureen, however, was gifted and we didn’t know which of her classes to look forward to more. History became my favourite – because I was asked to read out more in this class. My earnest efforts to perform better naturally led to me reading the chapters with more attention. I came to love the stories in the process, aided in no small measure by the visual appeal of the book, its many photos and illustrations. This was the 1980s: school textbooks were very unimaginatively designed then. All you had were texts, and tables and maps where required. Everything else was left to our imagination. This book was thus a treat! 

Leafing through the book with Srishti was an unimaginable delight! The ghost of that earnest child-me, trying hard to gain confidence and prove herself, also sat with us, an invisible presence, as I took Srishti through the life of Laxmibai.

There was one detail about Laxmibai that was common to both the renderings (in this history book & ‘Like A Girl’): the Rani fleeing Jhansi in the cover of night on horseback, her own infant tied to her back. It’s an image no child can forget!


Srishti knows about Jawaharlal Nehru, the ‘chacha’ Nehru who loved kids so much that his birthday is celebrated in India as ‘Children’s Day’. Since she has great fun in school every 14th November - when teachers come together to perform for the children, apart from giving them several goodies - she seemed pretty well-disposed in learning about Nehru’s daughter! I of course quickly pointed out that Indira was much more than just a daughter to her father. But it seemed an easy enough entry point. (It will be a while before I tell her about the darker side of not being Nehru’s daughter).

I told her the most well-known bits about Indira Gandhi before coming to the book – the Nehru’s of Anand Bhawan, Allahabad; Jawaharlal Nehru and his books in prison, especially ‘Letters from a Father to his Daughter’; her mother Kamala Nehru’s early death; her years in Tagore's Shantiniketan; her affectionate relationship with Gandhi; her choosing to be by her father’s side during his 17 years as PM. I did this because Indira Gandhi’s story in the book began with Lal Bahadur Shastri’s sudden demise in 1966 and the tussle between Morarji Desai and her within the Congress Party for the post of PM. Her life before that is given to us later, in a very innovative way.

‘Indira’ brings together a children’s story with a graphic biography. This is how: Indira Thapa, a school-girl, is given a summer assignment by her history teacher – an essay around her name. As it happens, she is named after the first and only woman Prime Minister of India. While she works on her essay, she also visits her teacher at her home to seek help. That’s where she meets, Priyadarshini, her teacher’s roommate, who is working on a graphic book on Mrs. G. Incidentally, this writer-illustrator too is named after her subject – for 'Priyadarshini' was Mrs. Gandhi’s middle name. The two bond; and we get to know Indira Gandhi’s life as the book-within-the-book evolves, even as we are told the story behind the naming of little Indira. This meta-narrative engages a child at multiple levels… as I discovered with my daughter, who relished the school-girl story as much as she enjoyed the graphic narrative (asking me a whole lot of questions along the way).



Eden Baylee said…
Hi Rituparna, thanks so much for wonderful reading recommendations! Sharing!

Unknown said…
Thank you, Eden, for this response! Delighted!!

Peter Leyland said…
Well that is interesting Rituparna. Were I still teaching in middle schools I would ensure that we had copies of the Rebel Girls series which I have heard of. I wonder too whether the many Indian women that I taught to be teaching assistants in England would have benefited from it. I remember some of the extraordinary visual presentations they did on religions, costumes and food which they were great at.

I like so much your stress on the importance of books and reading. I once used an article by Indian author, Shashi Deshpande, on how she regarded literature as having a beneficial effect on readers. I think it's vital.
Unknown said…
Thank you, Peter, for reading my rather long post! Shashi Deshpande is one of the foremost Indian writers in English, much revered. I am an academic myself & enjoy sharing my love of books with my child. 'Rebel Girls' is indeed a wonderful series - it deserves to reach out to a very wide audience!

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