Bhakti Mathur has taken young readers on a trip to the Golden Temple in Amritsar and the Venkateshwara Temple at Tirupati and now she is on a journey of discovery to Fatehpur Sikri and the dargah of Sheikh Salim Chishti. At a time when children are often confused by the battles over religion it is good to find a writer presenting the positive side of faith and speaking with reason, compassion and empathy.
Sadly the subject has become so absurdly toxic that a genuinely well meaning writer like Mathur has been forced to add a declaimer in the beginning. In the screeching world of social media you can be sure there will be some thin-skinned bigots ready to claim that their religious feelings have been hurt by this gentle and generous book. This is the world we live in.
The narrative voice is of a nameless Amma and her two young sons who are on a trip to Fatehpur Sikri. So the story is livened up by the questions and comments of the two boys who are not exactly enthused by a long car ride and the prospect of a day spent looking at a lot of old buildings. So Amma has to try hard to capture and hold their attention and that means research and Mathur has done her homework very well. To digress a little, in her bibliography I discovered my book on Fatehpur Sikri and smiled for a long time.
Mathur tells the story of Akbar’s religious tolerance and of Salim Chishti and the Sufis with a light touch. Amma says, ‘That is why I love dargahs. They unite people across religions and I love everything that unites humanity.’ Recently I have noticed many children’s writers gently writing about religion that contradicts the official, political narrative. They are doing it with scholarship and civility and it will be understood by young readers as it is done without what kids call ‘giving gyan’, that is the default voice of our academics.
This book is as much about Salim Chishti as of Akbar. Mathur gives many examples of a tolerant, open, generous time, like the quotation from Jesus Christ that is carved on the Buland Darwaza and about Akbar’s Ibadat Khana where even atheists were invited. I really liked her sensitive explanation of why people tie threads on the jali at the dargah, ‘…the real hero lies within us, that we already have everything within us to turn our dreams into reality. The act of tying the thread is a way of seeking the saint’s blessings to give us strength to work hard and for our endeavours to bear fruit. So no one else can make your dreams come true, only you can!’ It was an excellent way to strip the act of superstition while still looking kindly at faith.
A thoughtful book like this needed an artist who could capture the spirit of the place and Priyankar Gupta’s sensitive colour illustrations are a perfect companion to the text. I looked at them very carefully for historical accuracy and particularly liked the way he had captured the jali corridor with the sunlight pouring in and the dappled reflection on the floor and also the image of the quawwali singers. One must also thank Puffin for publishing a fully illustrated, all colour book; Indian publishers are often reluctant to do so.
Subhadra Sen Gupta enjoys introducing India’s amazing history to young readers, through both fiction and non-fiction. Her The Children’s History of India, (Rupa / Red Turtle) was specially written for every child who falls asleep over a history text-book.