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Subhadra Sen Gupta

Tell us about your writing career as an author of children’s books. What made you shift to writing for children from working as a copywriter with advertising agencies?

I began writing in college and never stopped. Initially I was scared of doing historical fiction until children told me that after Hindi, the subject they hated the most was history. I read the textbooks and decided it was time to do non-textbook books. They love historical fiction and films, just the textbooks defeat them.

You can’t make a living as a writer in India so there was a career in advertising. It took nearly twenty years to reach the point when I could make a living as a writer.

You have written over sixty books. If you were to pick one that you enjoyed writing the most, which one would it be?

No favourites really. Just that when there is an element of history, in fiction and non-fiction, then it adds an extra layer of pleasure because somehow writing of the past is a richer and more imaginative experience. Suddenly there are horses and palanquins on the road instead cars and buses and women smoke hookahs and chew paan. Also discovering there were traffic jams and pollution too in the past.

Have any of your books been translated to other Indian languages?

Yes, many of them. Pratham Books translates into most of the Indian languages. Also one into Farsi, published in Iran and another was in European languages. So I often flip through one of my books that I can’t read and imagine a child reading and laughing at a joke in Telugu or Assamese that I imagined in English. It is a source of great joy.

How do you decide the topic of history that you would like to write on? For example, in your book, ‘History Mystery Dal Biryani’, how did you choose the historical threads and weave around them?

It begins with a plot and then I place it in a particular period. Historical fiction means you have to find out details of the life of the people. What they ate, wore, homes, school, how they travelled. It’s very different from what you are taught in college. I realised early that if I tried to write about every period of history I would get information overload. So I picked a period, collected books on it, and did my research. Began with the Mauryans and Mughals, then moved to Vijayanagar and the freedom movement. Now I am thinking of the southern dynasties – Pallavas and Cholas.

Children tell me what they like and most importantly do NOT like. It also starts off ideas. One book about daily life in the past started when I was asked if children had homework in ancient India and I did not know! I began to focus on ordinary people because they asked me why all my stories are about rajas and nawabs. They are the most curious about food, so I have done many stories set in kitchens.

While children are taught in school that history weighs the most, and many find it boring, how do you manage to unpack this notion with such great appeal?

I put the story back in history. Our textbooks turn history into dry facts where children are introduced to cardboard characters. I turn them into people. So Ashoka was a man from Patna who chewed paan. Akbar had a limp and loved mangoes. Bapu hated his false teeth. Once you have grabbed their attention children will listen and learn. They love history, they hate the textbooks that are written in this deadly dull manner. I have never understood why a child has to memorize so many dates or learn all the points of the Minto Morley Act. 

Tell us about your research before writing a book.

I plan very carefully. The content of every chapter is worked in detail and then I research chapter wise. Like right now I am reading about the Silk Road to describe the life of merchants in the past. I take lots and lots of notes and usually fill a fat notebook and I have a stack of them I refer to for later books.

 ‘The Constitution of India for Children’ has been a most notable work. What are your thoughts when you are presenting concepts like secularism, democracy, equality, liberty, fraternity?

It was the hardest book I have done. Children find concepts difficult and I had to explain democracy, secularism, acts of parliament… I gave human examples to explain them. To make books on history work, you need people, a story and interesting facts. My plan was to meet children in school after the summer vacations and pick their brains about what they liked or did not like. Luckily as I have my email address in the book, they have begun to write to me.

Very few Indian authors write non-fiction. Do you think writing non-fiction poses challenges than writing fiction? What are some of them? Have you faced any that you would like to share?

Writers are nervous about doing research and yes, non-fiction is harder to write but I love playing with facts and discovering things. Then I have always read a lot of non-fiction books and not just on history.

Who are some of your favourite authors for children?

I grew up reading Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay, Lila Majumder and Satyajit Ray and the magazine called Sandesh and they influenced me more than Enid Blyton and Nancy Drew. 

You are in touch with children and that contributes to writing your books. Tell us about your interaction with them?

I have been doing school sessions for over twenty years and the main purpose is to listen to children. I encourage them to talk and often it gets very noisy. I do not lecture or ‘give gyan’ as they say. As I grew older this was essential to keep up with their busy little heads. Then I began putting my email address in my books and the circle widened. 

The email conversations are as useful and with a pandemic I get at least two or three emails a week. Recently a girl wanted the story of the Kohinoor and a very practical boy wanted to know the difference between a zamindar and a district collector. My favourite is this 11 year old, all sympathetic about how hard I worked, who keeps offering to help me. The last offer was a plaintive, ‘I can also draw’ :-)

They are oddly protective about me. I take them to monuments and they hold my purse, help me up the high steps and run to get me water. Once two boys huddled beside me and taught me to use my smartphone. Children don’t expect you to be perfect just because you write books. 

 If you were to hold up a precious moment from your life as an author, what would it be?

My favourite moment is when I have these rows of solemn faces looking up at me and then I say something silly and they all dissolve into laughter. It is magic. What worries me is how in the last few years I have had more questions about religion. I wish adults would not fill their heads with prejudice and wrong facts. They are taught something in school and the opposite at home and it confuses and upsets them.

There are more authors writing in English for children than in regional languages today, while till a few decades ago this was not the case. What according to you is the reason? 

It is economics. Until regional language publishers support writers and improve their marketing and sales, it won’t happen. Luckily the translation scene is improving.