Does history have to be boring? How do you explain an army’s role to children? These are some of the questions that a new children’s book, India To The Rescue, seeks to answer. Told in an adventure-mystery style, it is full of twists and turns, taking young readers, aged seven and above, on secret flights, and a ride on a tiny boat through the inky darkness.
It is based on journalist Sushant Singh’s Operation Cactus: Mission Impossible in the Maldives, which uses reports and testimonies to reconstruct India’s largely forgotten intervention to avert a coup in the island country in November 1988.
The book, co-authored by children’s writer Shruthi Rao and published by Juggernaut Books, hails the operation as one of the country’s quickest, boldest and most successful missions.
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“This account was originally written by Sushant Singh, who researched the story and interviewed many of the characters in it. I’ve adapted it, adding a few extra dialogues and dramatizing some scenes. But be warned—every detail in this book is real!” writes Rao in the introduction.
India To the Rescue breaks the mission down in an engaging way, starting from the basics: where is the Maldives on the world map. It has interesting nuggets about the island of Male, which, it describes, is just twice the size of Bengaluru’s famous Lalbagh garden, or a little larger than five times the size of Delhi’s Lodi Gardens, and a background to the Indian mission.
The chapters are supplemented with illustrations, maps and boxes to make the story accessible to young readers—or to adults who don’t want to wade through tomes.
And yet, the book doesn’t shy away from complex questions, such as does a country really need a military. There are details explaining brigades, battalions and platoons, and Squadron 44—the ‘do-gooders’ unit of the Indian Air Force.
“When you need someone to ferry and airdrop troops, supplies and equipment, you turn to 44 Squadron,” the authors observe.
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“It helped that I approached the story as a lay person, with no previous experience of knowing about the operation,” says Rao. “I tried to look at it from the eyes of a child.”
As she tried to understand the strategies behind the mission, Rao kept noting down details to create a skeletal structure of the story. She kept going back to Singh’s text to break down the jargon, and added contextual notes.
“What would a child like? That was my guiding point,” she says. The writing process involved several steps, with Rao referring to testimonies from Operation Cactus to create dialogues and dramatise scenes in a way that would appeal to children.
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From the outset, Rao and the publishers were clear on the need to have boxes. A lot of information, which couldn’t be part of the dialogue or sketches, or which needed to be explained further, was designed as a box.
There is an interesting one on dhonis. The title, So what exactly are Dhonis? And no, the answer isn’t related to cricket, would surely attract the attention of readers. The box explains it further: “People have been living on these islands for centuries. How did they get from one island to another? They used dhonis. Nope, not the former captain of the Indian cricket team. Dhonis are small handcrafted boats. (If you speak Kannada, Telugu or other south Indian languages, you would’ve recognized the word in a trice!)”
For Rao, the details of Operation Cactus were a revelation. “I had no idea that such an exciting event had taken place in the 1980s. The story captured my imagination and I ended up spending a lot of time looking at old videos. It was like going down a rabbit hole, but made the process of writing a lot of fun,” she says.