Abridging a historical biography is already an exercise in intelligent and informed curation; doing this for children can take a trickier turn, especially keeping in mind all the discussion around school history syllabi, what to include, or not, and how much. And while there are, of course, hundreds of women freedom fighters who contributed to the independence movement in a variety of ways, it might be hard to find any big problems with the lineup of 35 that find place in prolific children’s writer Anu Kumar’s latest book, Her Name Was Freedom.
It has very well-known names like Rani Laxmibai and Sarojini Naidu, relatively lesser-known, yet famous, names like Muthulakshmi Reddi and Aruna Asaf Ali, and names that haven’t really found their place in popular narratives of the mainstream discourse on the freedom movement, like Dhanvanthi Rama Rau and Rani Gaidinliu.
The order of contents is interesting: Either the account of one life has a brief cross-reference to another strong and fierce woman, on whom a chapter follows, or Kumar begins a new chapter with an opening line that segues from the account that just ended. Yet each biography has distinctly impressive and inspiring facts: like reading, realising or remembering that Durgabai Deshmukh was only 12 when she single-handedly raised Rs. 25,000 to get Mahatma Gandhi to speak to Devadasis. Around the same time, she also set up a school for girls to learn Hindi in her hometown Rajahmundry in Andhra Pradesh.
But such spunk and sparkle is dimmed by the telling, which is dry and textbook-like. This is ironic, since the research that backs Her Name Was Freedom is commendable, and it is exactly the kind of effort that ought to inform co-curricular reading, that could light up a young reader’s curiosity about the contributions that freed and made her country what it is today.
There has been a lot happening in the space of non-fiction for children, and given her consistent efforts in this area, Kumar’s Her Name Was Freedom should have made its mark in a list of increasingly popular short biography anthologies that are making up for what school textbooks tend to lack—whether in terms of content or in terms of how it’s presented. Biographies for children are also just the right spaces to allow non-fiction to be more visual, perhaps even playful in its approach.
That each of these women was admirable, even great, is a given. However, all the chapters are rather hagiographic. Especially as a young reader, it helps to learn about a role-model’s slip-ups—not everyone’s failures are owing to betrayal by a trusted ally. This sort of glamorised victimhood is passé and teaches, at best, nothing. It would have also helped to know exactly what it meant for these women to defy convention, even if not how they went about doing it. Anybody could say a late marriage was “unusual in those days”, it is the biographer’s job to tell us—and more importantly, a young reader—more.