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Goodnight stories for tough Indian girls

'Like a Girl: Real Stories For Tough Kids', which profiles over 50 remarkable Indian women, is a must-have in every Indian child's library

Amrita Sher-Gil, illustrated by Sudeepti Tucker.
Amrita Sher-Gil, illustrated by Sudeepti Tucker.

First things first—Like a Girl: Real Stories For Tough Kids smells heavenly. It has that indescribable new book smell of paper and ink, so heady that every time I open it, I feel compelled to dip my head and take a big, deep breath, almost nuzzling the pages.

It’s the illustrations, I realize. Each entry in the book is accompanied by original artwork by an artist/illustrator in their distinctive style, and the rich smell of the ink permeates the full-page portraits.

This is the kind of work you savour slowly, taking time between readings to think about the incredible women in its pages and find out more about them. You can go chapter by chapter (the order in which the women are presented is chronological, so you start with historical figures like Sultan Razia and Chand Bibi, and end with young achievers like gymnast Dipa Karmakar and mountaineer Purna Malavath).

Like A Girl is Delhi-based author and leadership coach Aparna Jain’s take on the international publishing phenomenon Good Night Stories For Rebel Girls, which is now a series with two books that have sold over a million copies worldwide, with translations in 30 languages. The first volume features M.C. Mary Kom and Rani Lakshmibai, but Jain felt Indian women deserved a book of their own.

Jain writes in the foreword that she had backed the Kickstarter campaign to crowdfund Rebel Girls and felt that an Indian version was much needed, a thought that her publisher and editor at Westland Books, Gautam Padmanabhan and Karthika V.K., supported.

“Rebel Girls is a great template, but this book differs in small ways, such as the length of the chapters. Firstly, it’s aimed at a reading audience of 11-12 years old onwards, and the stories are sometimes more complex and couldn’t be confined to the one-page-per-person format," Jain says over the phone.

Gauri Lankesh, illustrated by Shruti Prabhu.

Like A Girl features 51 women of varying fame—while some, like Kalpana Chawla, Lata Mangeshkar and Asha Bhosle, are household names, many others are practically unknown outside their home territories or professions, such as sports journalist Sharda Ugra and chef Ritu Dalmia—not conventional choices but refreshing because of their relevance to girls growing up in the 21st century.

I must confess that I hadn’t heard of at least a couple of the women on the list: Birubala Rabha, the founder of Mission Birubala, an Assamese organization that fights superstition and provides support to victims of witch-hunting; and tribal activist and journalist Dayamani Barla, who fights for tribal land rights. Then there’s the Dalit feminist writer Bama (Faustina Soosairaj), whose book Karukku I’ve been meaning to read.

One of the most difficult chapters to write would surely have been the one on tribal activist and political leader Soni Sori—over three pages, Jain captures the nuances of her story, without glossing over her alleged rape, torture and incarceration.

Then there are names like Shah Bano Begum, Mayawati, J. Jayalalithaa and Indira Gandhi. The politicians were especially tricky—it is difficult to write a book about Indian women achievers and leave out Gandhi, but how do you explain the nuances of autocracy and the Emergency to 12-year-olds with a sketchy idea of politics?

“There was no way I was going to whitewash these people or shy away from writing about their mistakes and corruption. It’s okay to tell children nobody’s perfect and at the same time highlight their achievements," says Jain. “I feel women are under tremendous pressure to be perfect. I don’t think we want role models who are beyond criticism. In fact, I see the ‘controversial’ names as an opportunity for parents and educators to have a nuanced conversation with young readers about these people," Jain adds.

The chapters are in a simple, anecdote-heavy style, but it’s obvious that a fair amount of research went into the book. Jain says she tried to meet the subjects wherever possible, and when it was not, she met members of their families or others who knew them well. She met social worker Bhanwari Devi in Rajasthan, Soni Sori in Dantewada, and 92-year-old V. Shanta in Chennai, an eminent oncologist who worked closely with Muthulakshmi Reddi, India’s first female legislator and a pioneering medical professional.

The result is this keeper of a book. As my 11-year-old daughter put it, after speed-reading it over a weekend, “I want to give this to all my classmates. To the girls and the boys."

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