History Lesson by Mallika Ravikumar: Of Bravehearts and Revolutionaries - book review

Making history engaging for children is always a challenge. Of Bravehearts & Revolutionaries – Notable Tales from Indian History: Finding Meaning in Our Past written by Mallika Ravikumar with illustrations by Sai Madlik makes a brave attempt at meeting it head-on by backing historical fiction with the actual historical details behind the story. This is one of those rare books that captures various eras of history, and geographical regions as well as different age groups and strata of society.

The Content

The stories feature a saint, merchant traders, colonial officers, a king with a love for the arts, pillagers, and plunderers, as well as a teen freedom fighter.

Rather than going with the name of the character highlighted, the chapter titles invite the reader to explore the story without giving anything away. So, there’s ‘The Saint from Pandharpur’ and ‘The Braveheart of Assam’, which showcase Sane Guruji and Kanakalata respectively, to name just two of the eight characters that feature in the book. It’s interesting to see Sane Guruji often widely known as the author of Shyamchi Aiee, in his historical context and to discover Kanakalata. Read the book to know who else features in it! The stories are housed in four thematic areas of history and each story is followed by a separate section for the historical references (more of that later).

The stories travel from Assam, Darjeeling, to cities like Kochi and Surat. In the story "The Tea Thief of Scotland", the chapter headings unlike the rest of the book feature only names of the places that feature in the story – Bankipur, Calcutta, Shanghai, Hangzou, Darjeeling. The historical fiction spans war and plunder on forts and the high sea to soaring creativity in the sculptures of Mahabalipuram to conflicts over caste hegemony and prejudice over language, to name just a few. In the process, the book brings to light forgotten historical figures - such as Sukhna during World War I, who finds he can never escape his caste even after crossing shores to find an alternate occupation to cleaning night soil - and little known aspects of history such as the fate of the ship Miri and its passengers at the hands of Vasco da Gama; the famine in the Deccan in 1630 during the rule of Shah Jehan and the subterfuge involved in how tea came to be grown in British India.

The Art Work

Colours are liberally used in the illustrations and even the pages. For instance, the beginning and end pages are in soothing shades of mustard and green while the section “Connecting the Historical Dots” is marked out in blue pages. The colour code can help a resource person using the book to easily turn to that section for reference. In keeping with the darker themes of stories later, the riot of colour at the beginning gives way to tonal shades of the same colour towards the end. Sai Madlik’s illustrations are very expressive but the characters of Aruna and Kanakalata look a bit similar. The cover design by Akangsha Sarmah manages to not look too cluttered despite the plethora of information and images. The border stands out with part of its imagery also used beautifully for the page numbers within the book.

Some Unconnected Dots

The themes of Symbols & Language; Creativity & Enterprise, and Power & Perspective are a bit clunky and seem to be an afterthought. The Merchant of Surat under the latter does not quite fit the book title as the story is neither about a revolutionary nor a braveheart but about the impact of plunder on ordinary folks. The stories under the theme of Class & Conflict, which opens the book is about caste front and centre so why caste finds no mention in the theme is surprising. While the poem of Chokoba is sung during the joyous celebration in the story, there could have been more Dalit poems to build up the atmosphere during the fast of the main protagonist rather than only having an old woman ‘anxiously reciting verses from the Gita.’ There’s only a passing reference to Dr. Ambedkar in the story and the historical facts in this section make no mention of his pioneering work against caste discrimination such as the Chavdar Tale Satyagraha in 1927 to implement the rights of the untouchables to the public water bodies like the public tank. There is also no reference to how following rumours of his entry into a temple, it was ‘purified’. 

Given the book is meant for children there could have been a reference to the social reform by Savitribai and Jyotiba Phule as well who came long before Sane Guruji and Gandhi. Against all odds, they threw open the doors of their homes and started schools for girls regardless of caste. While touching upon the issue of reservation, the fact that the raging debate pre-dates Independence is omitted: Dr Ambedkar and Gandhi disagreed over the issue of reservation of electoral seats as opposed to separate electorates in the provincial legislative assemblies in British India for what was termed the depressed classes.

It is perplexing that females are completely absent in stories barring Kanakalata and her friends, and Yusuf’s mother who for some reason remains unnamed while the rest of his family has names. Where young girls appear, be it Aruna, Kanakalata or Lakshmi, they are subject to mansplaining, which makes the absence of women in the other stories starker.

Given the diversity in the selection of historical incidents featured, it’s a pity that diversity doesn’t come through in the storytelling as well, where the focus remains on a particular community featured but there is no presence of characters from other communities making an appearance, which is a bit strange. The “Harbinger of English” and “The Merchant of Surat” seem abrupt and monotonous as, unlike all the other stories, there is no circle of supporting characters that evoke those times more completely. In “The Harbinger of English”, for instance, the absence of local characters except from the point of view of the Englishman reduces the story to a one-sided British drawing-room conversation.   

Although the book is about providing “an alternate lens to look at history”, in "The Sailor of Kozhikode", the author herself succumbs to painting a historical figure as a complete villain to the extent of using an unseemly and avoidable analogy with dementia. Not all the stories are written in the measured tone of the opening story. The author could have toned down the stridency in speaking of the hegemony of English, for instance. A more nuanced look at the issue of language and Macaulay’s role can be found in another Penguin Random House publication, namely, Wanderers, Kings, Merchants: The Story of India Through Its Languages by Peggy Mohan. She points out that Macaulay’s English-medium education rule was after primary school, and even till middle school the mother tongue could continue to be the language of instruction. It is post-Independence that private schools introduced English right from the primary grade itself, replacing the mother tongue entirely. As much as English created and conferred class superiority, so did the use of Sanskritised Hindi before it.

Why it should be read

The section “Connecting the Dots…” is divided into two sub-sections: “Unbox the past: learn the history hidden in the story” and “Connect the story with the world around you”. It is an interesting device to make history more of a lived experience than something confined to the past. It compels more than passive reading and forces the reader to dwell on aspects that may either remain unnoticed or left unquestioned, such as “You too occupy a place in some form of social hierarchy, whether you like it or not”; “What if we were to remove the labels ['Great', 'Magnificent', 'Honourable'] and unearth the smaller stories beneath the greater legends?”

The book is an enriching deep dive into history with detours into the origins of Picasso’s Guernica, the embroidery of Kutch, how much Indian cuisine borrows from other nations, the absence of names of Indian sculptors, and the use of the underground radio in India’s struggle for Independence, to name just a few.

Information on the Book

Of Bravehearts & Revolutionaries is for the age group of 10 and up and is a breezy read for adults as well. A Puffin imprint published by Penguin, “Of Revolutionaries & Bravehearts” is available as an e-book as well. However, it would be much simpler to have the actual book in hand, given the reader may want to turn back and forth from the reference details to the story. The book is priced at INR 399 for the paperback. The paperback is available online as well as at book stores like FunkyRainbow and Kahani Tree.

Author Note

Mallika Ravikumar is the author of “Tracing Roots” by Karadi Tales; “Petu Ganesha”, “Janaki”, “Not From Mama’s Tummy”, “Not Like Ma”, and “Compassionate Crow”. With a post-graduate degree in Ancient Indian culture and History, she also curates content and writes on the subject.

Illustrator Note

Sai Mandlik is an animator, illustrator and programmer.

This book review has been written by Madhuri Kamat, author of Flying with GrandpaBurial of The Dead - Mystery in a Mohalla, and Yudi Yudi Dharmasya: Mahabharat - Through the Eyes of Kunti.


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