I immediately warmed to these two volumes for three reasons. Firstly, the nice get-up—attractive red and yellow covers dotted with what at first glance seemed like emojis. On a closer look they turned out to be tiny portraits, objects and monuments and a very catholic choice also—a kullar of tea, a Harappan seal, a cell phone, a veena, a temple bell, Alexander, The Buddha, Akbar, Tipu Sultan, Rani Jhansi, Jinnah, Nehru, Ambedkar, Manmohan Singh, Narendra Modi, Amitabh Bacchan, Gol Gumbaz, Taj Mahal… a foretaste of the range covered by the authors. Secondly, the couplet from Firaq Gorakhpuri quoted at the head of the Introduction.
Sar-zameen-e-hind per aqwam-e-alam ke ‘firaq’
Kafile baste gaye Hindostan banta gaya
Caravans of people kept coming and settling
in this land, and India kept forming.
Only a sensitive poet could have put it so beautifully. And two cheers for the authors who have adopted this as their credo. Thirdly—the style of writing which is breezy with a touch of scepticism and mischievous humour. Here is a quote:
The last battle (between Chandragupta Maurya and the Nandas) was fierce, and the Buddhist text Milindapanho, gives utterly unbelievable figures for the losses, claiming that 10,000,000 soldiers died, 100,000 horses and 10,000 elephants perished, and so on. It almost seems that the Indians, having invented the zero, did not know when to stop using it.
Writing history for children is difficult business. Professional historians for instance never stop agonizing about how to arrange the vast amount of material at hand. The tyranny of the chronological and evolutionary approach never goes away (i.e., society progresses over time, a very nineteenth century view). Indian historians have tried to wriggle out of the colonial Hindu-Muslim-British take but it tenaciously persists (alas) in some quarters. Ancient-Medieval-Modern is more acceptable (but among professionals there have been some serious fisticuffs about when and how eras transmute). The broad thematic approach valiantly adopted by NCERT history texts under the baton of Professor Krishna Kumar some years ago chose cultural movements, migrations, economic transformations and big events. And then there is the question of the relevance of a history text-book does it speak to the present? One reason well-meaning attempts flounder is because children fail to connect.
The Garodias are not professional historians but the biographical note on the authors reveal that between them they have an impressive range of degrees in engineering, finance and management, besides being passionate travellers, quizzers and businesswomen. By and large they have stuck to the tried and tested chronological account of eras, dynasties and rulers with interludes about the culture, economy, administration etc. Their approach to facts about the past is sensible and rational. A very good few pages are the bullet points on the origins of Aryans. They have even incorporated data from genetic research and I am sure the next edition will tackle David Reich’s best-selling Who We Are and How We Got Here also. It is fascinating to know that intermingling and genetic mutation has made North Indians more lactose friendly i.e., into milk consuming cultures and this trait declines as we move southwards. No doubt this had significant cultural ramifications. They are however diplomatic about animals eaten by the Vedic people. The Vedas according to them list 50 animals that were eaten from fish to cattle and alligators—draw your conclusion!
As I dipped into the two volumes randomly, the impression formed that the authors were more invested in early India. The nature of Aryan society for instance is clearly and logically deducted from available facts and new evidence. This invitation to reason is participatory—an enabling tool in provoking curiosity among young readers. By contrast the chapters on the National Movement are a quick run of important landmarks and personalities—the excitement and challenges that Indians felt at becoming modern and empowered politically is missing. Frankly, I was disappointed that there is no mention of peasant and tribal revolts and Dalit critiques of caste society. To take one example—can we imagine Modern India without Jotiba Phule?
The volumes have been designed well with inserts, boxes, ‘fun facts’, maps, photographs and illustrations. Quibbles apart, this panorama of Indian history reads well and is user friendly. But it is unpardonable that the publishers tell us the name of the jacket designers (Madhav Tankha and Syed Salahuddin) but not that of the illustrator. Some stereotypes could have been avoided—why does a bearded man with a drawn sword appear at the beginning of the Sultanate chapter?
Partho Datta teaches in the School of Arts and Aesthetics, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi.