My scepticism-meter goes through the roof whenever I hear about children’s novels about the ‘underprivileged’ written by authors who have lived and worked in the first world, even if they’re of Indian origin. The exoticization of India’s ‘great unwashed’ has unfortunately found its way into children’s literature, and lately into Indian children’s publishing as well. So it was with some misgivings that I picked up Dear Mrs Naidu. However, by basing her work on relevant fieldwork, Mathangi Subramanian seems to have skirted those potholes.
This epistolary novel starts off as a school project for which 12-year-old Sarojini starts writing letters to her namesake, the freedom fighter Sarojini Naidu. Only, she has so much fun that she doesn’t stop when the assignment finishes.
A student of Ambedkar Government school, daughter of a domestic help, and reader of detective fiction in copious quantities, Sarojini is bright as a button. But there are some things she doesn’t understand—like why does no one fix the hole in the gate of her school, why do some teachers not bother to teach, and why does the local councillor not give them roofs that don’t leak? But mostly, she wants to know, will she remain best friends with Amir even though he’s now ‘rich’ and has moved to a fancy apartment and goes to a fancy school?
Through her letters, Sarojini alternately regales and informs (us) of what happens when she discovers the Right to Education Act. From using it to try to get a seat at Amir’s posh school, to demanding that Ambedkar Government School itself be fixed, she finds that having rights and getting them are very different things. Simultaneously reading a biography of Sarojini Naidu, the younger Sarojini finds inspiration from the older Sarojini’s life, which gives her the courage to ask for what she should have. What happens eventually isn’t hard to guess, but for the ‘how’, you will have to read Dear Mrs Naidu.
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- It’s nice to read about youngsters taking control of their lives, demanding their rights and getting them.
- As an English book, it is unlikely to reach kids like Sarojini, Deepti and Amir, but it is an opportunity for privileged children to learn about how those who are not that fortunate live, and how they must fight for things that better-off kids take for granted, things like playgrounds and teachers that teach.
- My favourite thing about this book is the humour, especially how Sarojini goes out her way to not say ‘dead’ lest she ‘insult’ Sarojini Naidu. ‘Historical’ is my favourite synonym for ‘dead’!
- Also loved the fact that Sarojini chose to fix her own school via the RTE rather than strive for a seat in a fancy school.
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- There is no diplomatic way to say this, but the book is sort of… boring. It’s true that this novel will thrill adults because of its message (oh, how we love ‘messages’!) and I predict that it will find its way into libraries and recommended reading lists. But, honestly, how to convene an SDMC and whether the headmaster will let our protagonists see the accounts doesn’t make for great suspense.
- There seems to be a glaring error: During the independence of India (and Pakistan), Tasmiah Aunty’s grandparents crossed over to Pakistan but her parents chose to stay in India. Wouldn’t her parents have been little children and have had no say in such matters?!
- The main character is a bit of a Mary Sue. I wish there had been more complexity in Sarojini. She’s the quintessential ‘good girl’, good at everything, clever, obedient, confident, brave…
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- It seemed that there were places where some token minorities were inserted for the sake of it. That said, diversity is a reality and I fully support it being represented, and I don’t have a better idea of how to depict it in children’s fiction without it seeming forced sometimes.
Information is power—don’t you forget it!