Beloved children’s writer Subhadra Sen Gupta died in New Delhi of covid-19 on Monday night, her cousin Suddhabrata Sengupta, the artist, writer and part of the Raqs Media Collective, announced on Facebook. In a heartfelt tribute, he spoke of Sen Gupta’s extraordinary gifts, both as a writer and human being—especially, her “remarkable sense of how the past remains alive, as story, as history, as memory.”
Sen Gupta was the author of 60-plus books—fiction, non-fiction, ghost stories, adventures, mysteries picture books—for young readers, including bestsellers like A Bagful of History.
Indeed, Sen Gupta’s talent was unparalleled when it came to breathing life into history. Last year, after being given the Big Little Book Award by Parag Initiative of the Tata Trusts, she told Lounge about the beginnings of her interest in the subject. “I had gone for a school visit and asked children about the subjects they hate most,” she remembered. “The top choice was Hindi, followed by History.” When one of her young audience wondered if children in ancient India were given holiday homework, the question made Sen Gupta pause—it urged her to reinvent the wheel about the way history was being taught to the young.
Armed with a Master’s degree in the subject and a curiosity as lively as her little readers, Sen Gupta decided to decode the mysteries of the past for children. She was determined to show that history wasn’t a boring chore that merely involved memorising dates and facts. Narrated the right way, the past could invoke a rich sense of wonder and inspire fun. Whether she retold stories from Mahabharata or took off into the alleys and gulleys of Mughal India, Sen Gupta never forsook her quirky sense of humour or her propensity to add colour and texture to her characters and settings.
In recent years, Sen Gupta moved on to modern Indian history, writing a stellar introduction to the Constitution of India, illustrated by Tapas Guha, which came out, coincidentally, as the protests against the controversial citizenship laws in India were gathering steam in 2019-20. In her gentle but firm tone, Sen Gupta debunked toxic lies that continue to be spread about the Mughals or Jawaharlal Nehru on “WhatsApp University”. Children, after all, aren’t unscathed by the misinformation their elders are so readily susceptible to.
Sen Gupta, who took children “very seriously” (as she once said in an interview), explained ideas like secularism, republicanism, sovereignty and democracy in her inimitably lucid style, bolstered by Guha’s zany illustrations. She celebrated the roles played by Dalit leaders, women politicians, and tribal rights activists in the making of our Constitution. It is because of her 60-odd books that India’s children (and adults too) have a rich insight into the complexities of their past. Her novel, Mystery of the House of Pigeons, was adapted into a TV series. Her legacy will be hard to rival.
"She was a real woman of letters with a range of talents that few writers possess. From her writing for children to her fiction for adults, she brought a deceptively light touch that, paradoxically, illuminated the depths of what lay below," says writer Amitabha Bagchi. "Her short story 'Dooz Charu and the Establishment' should be included in any anthology of fiction set in Delhi."
It’s hard to pick a few books from a dazzling career like Sen Gupta’s but here are some personal favourites:
The Constitution of India for Children: A lively look at the tenets of modern Indian state, vibrantly illustrated by Tapas Guha, and explained via accessible examples and anecdotes.
Let's Go Time Travelling: Life in India Through the Ages: Illustrated by Tapas Guha, once again, this book transports you to other eras, giving you glimpses into the daily life and practices of the great and the small—from Emperor Akbar’s fondness for paans to the jewellery designers of Harappa.
A Mauryan Adventure: Girls of India: Told from the perspective of a young girl who works as a maid in the royal palace in 3rd century BCE in Pataliputra, this book bears the stamp of Sen Gupta’s unique synthesis of meticulous research and keen storytelling skills.
The Secret Diary of the World's Worst Cook: A charming coming-of-age story told through the perspective of a 15-year-old boy struggling to find himself, this tale will resonate with the young and old, anyone who has ever wanted to defy their parent’s wish for their future career.
Mahabharata Stories: Sen Gupta retold some of the most gripping episodes from the epic with flair and humanity, highlighting key life lessons but never laying it on a trowel. The 12 books she wrote around the Mahabharata are now available as a set.