Was King Ashoka fond of chewing paan? Mulligatawny was a soup, but what was pish-pash? Who played pachisi, chaupar and the ancient board game of lam turki?
Using these wonderful bits of trivia and using her own Masters degree in the subject, writer Subhadra Sen Gupta opened a new portal into history. Fun, informative, inclusive, unbiased and unobfuscated by hagiography or political messaging—she was a storyteller who juggled the history of India, spooks, ghosties and coming-of-age tales with equal aplomb. On Tuesday, she lost her fight to COVID-19, leaving behind a big gap in the world of children’s literature in India.
Subhadra Sen Gupta’s career spanned decades of writing for a younger audience right from her early days as a writer for the much-loved Target magazine to a career that leapfrogged across fiction, history and ghost stories. With 60 books under her belt and awards like Sahitya Akademi’s Bal Sahitya Puraskar and the Big Little Book Award by Parag Initiative of the Tata Trusts, Sen Gupta has won love as well as validation for her extensive body of work.
What happens when Vishnu takes three giant steps as Vamana? What were the weapons used in the war between Alexander and Porus? Her long collaboration with illustrator Tapas Guha yielded a memorable series on gods, warriors and famous battles of India retold with a generous dose of adventure and thrills. In an unusual departure, her Exploring India series also took younger readers on a journey through the lives of minstrels and storytellers; weavers, potters, farmers, cooks and poet rebels, touching on all the little pieces that make up the giant patchwork quilt of India’s history.
Were women a part of the team that drafted the Constitution? Why do political parties have symbols next to their names? The questions Subhadra Sen Gupta took up in The Constitution of India for Children, are those we have all wondered about and wanted to ask, and through them, she creates a handbook in a fun digestible format and explains our most important document as a nation.
Her historical fiction transported her young protagonists back to different eras in the past. Imagine a young girl in Pataliputra in the 3rd century BC or the teenage dreams of the Rajput princess Jodh Bai before she went on to become a Mughal queen.
From scripting comic book versions of Satyajit Ray’s Feluda series to writing her own mystery novels, Subhadra Sen Gupta garnered fans across ages with her imagination, honesty and an omnipresent wit.
“Being open to change, asking questions, being rebellious, being creative—that is how a civilization grows and becomes like a huge banyan tree—giving shelter and shade to many people of many regions, languages, religions and gender.”
Simple words and a big message—these lines written for children could very well serve as a life reminder for adults. Sen Gupta’s strength lay in this simplicity and with it, she unveiled history as a vibrant subject for children.
A line from her publisher’s bio offers a window into her mind—she was a writer who created stories for children because she thought they were the best readers in the world. And these remain her richest legacy.