Deepa Agarwal has written more than 50 books for children and adults. The Wish-fulfilling Cow and Other Classic Indian Tales (Scholastic India, 2015) and an anthology - 100 Great Poems for Children - (Red Turtle, 2015) are two of her recent titles. Deepa has won the NCERT National Award for her picture book, Ashok's New Friends (Children's Book Trust) and her adventure novel, Caravan to Tibet (Penguin/Puffin, 2007) was selected for the IBBY Honour List 2008 as the best book from India. Five of her books have been listed in the White Raven Catalogue brought out by the IYL, Munich.
Is non-fiction simply writing that provides information? Some might think so. The pieces we have collected in this book, however, are far more than that. They are the real life experiences of real people who share the sources of their inspiration, the impassioned speeches and letters of women and men dedicated to causes, reminiscences -sad, comic and inspirational, fascinating glimpses into the lives of animals and reptiles as well as exciting travel tales. They are revelations from great achievers and leaders and nuggets of knowledge shared by experts in their fields.
Mahatma Gandhi's autobiography, The Story of My Experiments with Truth, is a book that I reached out for eagerly as a young girl. What impressed me was how frankly the Mahatma exposed his struggles. In the extract we have, Gandhi tells us about his school days, presenting a picture of a sensitive boy devoted to the truth, and shares the lasting impression mythical heroes left on him - permanent but hard to explain. He says, 'My common sense tells me today that Harishchandra could not have been a historical character. Still both Harishchandra and Shravana are living realities for me, and I am sure I should be moved as before if I were to read those plays again today. '
`My father, do not rest. Do not allow us to rest. Keep us to our pledge. Give us strength to fulfil our promise, your heirs, your descendants, your stewards, the guardians of your dreams, the fulfillers of India's destiny.' This is what the illustrious poet Sarojini Naidu said in her stirring speech on the radio when Gandhiji's assassination plunged the nation into mourning. Her words still resonate powerfully, reminding us that noble ideals do not die even though the person who embodied them may have departed this world. And who can deny that Gandhi's principles continue to inspire people throughout the world?
In the summer of 1928, ten-year-old Indira Gandhi was beating the heat in Mussoorie. Her father Jawaharlal Nehru was in the plains, plunged in the freedom movement. He kept the father-daughter relationship warmly alive through a series of letters, which also continued to educate in the most affectionate manner. These letters dealt with a variety of subjects — from the beginning of this earth to the development of civilization and government. Our extract from Letters from a Father to His Daughter is about the development of monarchy. Nehru talks frankly about the deterioration of this system: 'Kings forgot that they were really chosen by the people in order to organize and distribute the food and other things of the country among the people. They forgot that they were chosen because they were supposed to be the cleverest and the most experienced persons in the tribe or country. They imagined that they were the masters and all the other people in the country their servants. As a matter of fact, they were the servants of the country.'
Nehru taught Indira in this delightful manner. However, a friendly system of education for the young was in the minds of many iconic personalities. Rabindranath Tagore began his school Patha Bhavana, which later grew into the famous university of Santiniketan, because he believed that children should acquire learning in a free and natural environment, without the pain of excessive discipline, so they enjoy the process. In this extract from his work Personality, Tagore frees children from the tyranny of textbooks and exams, saying: 'At any rate during the early period of education children should come to their lesson of truths through natural processes directly through persons and things.' What a wonderful time the students must have had in his school!
Elders control children's lives, it is true. In 'Life at My Own Pace', a humorous yet poignant piece about his childhood, much adored writer Ruskin Bond talks about his love for walking which lets him enjoy nature from close — exactly what Tagore wanted for his students. And what possibilities Bond's Granny's orchard in Dehradun presented! He says, `I made friends with an old jack-fruit tree, in whose trunk was a large hole in which I stored marbles, coins, catapults, and other treasures much as a crow stores the bright objects it picks during its peregrinations.' But in the end we encounter what Tagore wished to save children from —the insensitivity of the schoolmaster who thoughtlessly misplaced precious letters — from Bond's deceased father.
Ruskin talks about his deep bond with his father, and so does another inspiring figure from our times — Justice Leila Seth. 'Memories of a Father and a Home' is an extract from On Balance, her moving and insightful autobiography. She remembers the treasured time when she got to know her father better during an illness that confined her to the house. He shared his beliefs and his love for books, which stood her in good stead because sometime before her twelfth birthday, sadly, he succumbed to an illness. 'So it was a very quiet and lonely birthday; truly the age of reason had arrived and it was a clear and cold dawn. There were no friends, no gifts, no warmth. But Aunty was wise; she presented me with Louisa May Alcott's Little Women, and I became totally absorbed in it.'
The chapter from former Indian president Dr A.P.J. Abdul Kalam's bestselling autobiography Wings of Fire is on a less personal note but also about growing up. It reveals how a dedicated teacher can inspire his students to reach for the skies, as Kalam literally did. He shares how he developed a lifelong interest in science and mathematics, and acquired the principles that made him such a respected figure of our times. `Iyadurai Solomon, who later became a Reverend, taught me that before anything I wanted could happen, I had to desire it intensely and be absolutely certain it would happen. To take an example from my own life, I had been fascinated by the mysteries of the sky and the flight of birds from early childhood. I used to watch cranes and seagulls soar into flight and longed to fly. Simple, provincial boy though I was, I was convinced that one day I, too, would soar up into the skies. Indeed, I was the first child from Rameswaram to fly.'
Yes, the lives of great achievers do offer important lessons for living. In Sudha Murty's `Aapro J.R.D.' we learn the importance of never giving up, whatever the odds.
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