Words to Live By: The Best of Indian Non-fiction for Children



Words to Live By: The Best of Indian Non-fiction for Children

By : Veena Seshadri  /  2017
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As soon as it slides into your line of vision, Deepa Agarwal’s non-fiction anthology for children, Words to Live By, sets out to seduce you with its pick-me-up vibes. There’s the spot-on title to begin with. Plus Arijit Ganguly’s catchy cover with a little girl lost in a book under a spreading tree. She has some intriguing company too – a twisty-twirly snake, a roaring tiger, and a bird with a we’re-not-amused expression eyeballing a young boy who is gazing at a star-splashed sky. Lastly, there’s editor Deepa Agarwal’s impressive track record of lucid, child-friendly writing, which makes it logical to assume that the collection she has assembled will be well worth reading.

The rather ambitious blurb describes the anthology as “a rich and lively gathering of India’s finest and most original thinkers and writers, leaders and opinion-makers, naturalists and adventurers, scientists and culture experts”. (However, one needs to add here that those whose work finds a place in the book wrote or have been writing within the last 150 years or so. In fact, the oldest writer featured in the collection is Rabindranath Tagore.) Delve into the pages of the book and you will not be disappointed for it celebrates the writings of an eclectic group of people with impressive credentials. For those who wish to find out more about them, biographical sketches are provided in the back pages.

Aldous Huxley’s definition of the essay as a literary device “for saying almost everything about almost anything” would pretty much sum up this anthology, although it is not merely a compilation of essays. We also have the odd letter, statement, and book excerpt interspersed with speeches, reminiscences, revelations, and even poignant coming-of-age stories (like those of Ruskin Bond and Leila Seth) shadowed by the insane upheavals that follow the loss of a much-loved parent. At the very beginning, Agarwal asks the question, “Is non-fiction simply writing that provides information?” and goes on to assure us that the twenty-two pieces she has selected are “far more than that”. And so they are. Words to Live By covers a broad spectrum of subjects, styles, registers, concerns, and perspectives, and provides insights into the various elements that define the Indian ethos.

Children are inspired to dream big and absorb the right values when they have an exceptional role model. So, it comes as no surprise that a familiar excerpt from the autobiography of Dr. Kalam – a tribute to his family and the teachers who stoked his aspirations – leads in to this reading experience. In a similar vein, Sudha Murty’s piece, while primarily questioning gender bias, gives us glimpses of her mentor, and highlights the importance of integrity, strength of character, and perseverance. If you suspect that with such a generous sprinkling of ideals, there is bound to be a moral lurking somewhere, you would be right. But the message emerges painlessly in both pieces because the writing is passionate and sincere.

Through the ideas and voices of well-known Indians, the subjects broached in the book cover every aspect of life in India:

B. R. Ambedkar challenges the caste system and argues that economic progress will be meaningful only when there is a reformation of the social order.

Dilip Salwi gives us a glimpse of the Nobel Laureate, Dr. C.V. Raman, while Jayant Narlikar portrays, at some length (there is even a table of instrumentation texts in Sanskrit thrown in for good measure), the astronomer king Raja Jai Singh, who is best known for his observatories.

The revolutionary leader Bhagat Singh argues, during the proceedings of the famous Assembly Bomb Case, that true justice will be done only when there is an understanding of the motive behind actions.

In a letter to his daughter, Jawaharlal Nehru provides “a little peep” into the emergence of patriarchs and their transformation into kings in the distant past.

Mahatma Gandhi dwells on his schooldays, and his unshakeable belief even then that one must uphold the truth.
Nandan Nilekani explores the challenges in India’s school system, and how they hold back the underprivileged, while Rabindranath Tagore voices his belief that young minds are roused by inspired teachers rather than books, and that they should have the freedom to learn in natural surroundings.

Sheila Dhar writes about a remarkable musician, and Jim Corbett spins a tale of tigers and an unusual hunter.

Sarojini Naidu’s tribute to Mahatma Gandhi soon after his death is more a fervent message to the nation (and is surprisingly relevant in the current situation). This is followed by Dr. Radhakrishnan’s assertion that science and technology alone cannot fuel progress for “character is destiny”. Some of the other lofty themes covered are tolerance and harmony (Vivekananda), the potential of women (Subhas Chandra Bose), and the role of pioneers (Subroto Bagchi).

The last three excerpts are in a different vein altogether. Valmik Thapar springs on the reader the startling revelation that the “Indian” lion isn’t Indian at all, but was brought by traders from “across the seas” for the entertainment of kings and emperors! This is followed by Vikram Seth’s quirky tale of his sojourn in Tibet. And nudging the book to a delightful conclusion is Zai Whitaker’s rollicking account of how reptiles defend themselves. Whitaker’s piece is well stocked with curious creatures – tail-dropping lizards and skinks, not to mention snakes and crocodiles that, believe it or not, “hiss, growl, groan and moan in an effort to frighten predators”.

The tone of the book is uplifting, and nothing has been dumbed down for children, which means some styles are easy and accessible while others have a more ponderous ring to them. So, will the book resonate with young readers? Agarwal has a clever mix of topics and styles to encourage them to keep turning the pages. Still, not everyone will enjoy every piece in the collection although it might keep them engaged if a parent or teacher shared in the reading experience, and went on to discuss some of the concepts and ideas. All things considered, Words to Live By works on several levels and is a useful resource both for browsers and cover-to-cover readers.

Veena Seshadri is an editor and writer.



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