As the title suggests, Shruti Rao tells us the stories of ten Indian women who were path-breakers in their respective fields. Women have had to fight discrimination, violence and resistance in a highly patriarchal and misogynistic society. The stories of these women’s achievements are also stories of facing lifetimes of discrimination and resistance from society, and fighting to overcome them to do what they did. Most of the stories are from the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, which was a period of awakening around the world. It saw the suffrage movement and the two World Wars, and in India the Independence movement. These events saw women come out and participate in public life, lead struggles and fight for their rights and strive to claim a place for themselves. The story of Savitribai Phule is an inspiration and relevant even today where access to education and opportunities are denied to Dalits and lower castes. Her grit and determination to educate girls of all backgrounds was a movement for the good which brought in access to education at a time when it was available only to rich and high caste women. The men in the past felt that women were the weaker sex who shouldn’t be burdened with education!
Women like Kadambini Ganguly and Cornelia Sorabji fought their way through a system which tried its best to deny them their rightful access to higher education. Their desire to achieve was driven by the need to improve the lives of women, through access to better health care in the case of Kadambini Ganguly, through access to better legal services in the case of Cornelia Sorabji. Both were denied full qualifications, simply because they were women, but neither gave up on their missions and got their rightfully earned qualifications eventually. Lakshmi Sahgal was a maverick who was part of the Indian National Army. She led the women’s division which was involved in a direct action, at a time when women were given only ancillary and support services in the armies of the world.
PT Usha was a trailblazer in almost the literal sense of the word. She put India on the athletics world map, and won many a medal. CB Muthamma became an Indian Foreign Service officer despite the efforts of the men in the system to stop her from becoming one! She took the country to court and the landmark judgement in her case changed things for the good in the Services. We all know about Indira Gandhi and her contributions to the nation. Anusuya Sarabhai led the protests of the mill workers against the owners, and helped them get better pay and working conditions. Jaddan Bhai was an actress, director and a musician who ruled the silver screen. A Lalitha was one of the first engineers to qualify out of the College of Engineering, Guindy. Shruti Rao gives us a concise account of each person’s life, struggles and the magnitude of their achievements. She brings forth the discrimination faced by them in society, their courage, guts and grit to achieve and be forerunners. The writing is simple, and easy to understand. The book is suitable for children eight years and above. It also has a brief write up on other women, from India and across the world who also achieved in the same fields as the women discussed.
Some books are a joy to see, touch and read—the book isn’t just the writing, but an experience in itself. The Girl Who Went to the Stars and Other Extraordinary Tales by Ishita Jain and Naomi Kundu is just that.
The book is about 50 Indian women who are an inspiration to us. They are leaders, scientists, artists, writers—each a pioneer and pathbreaker in her own right. Colourful, vibrant and exciting, the illustrations bring the various women to life. They are an absolute delight, and one can spend hours just looking at them! The first motor-woman of Indian railways, Surekha Yadav, waves at us from her engine, while Indira Gandhi smiles at us with her magnificent eyes. The sketch of Kalpana Chawla has stars and her shuttle flying from her hair. We see Prabha Dutt covering the 1965 war on the sly even when her editors didn’t give her the permission. With a table of food in front, Tarla Dalal is seen tossing vegetables about. We see a cool Lakshmi Sahgal with shades saluting, while Ismat Chughtai has thoughtful women surrounding her. Mahasweta Devi is seen imagining her next story.
With its crisp and simple sentences, the text should be easy to follow for even younger children. The stories are concise, and at the same time give us an idea of what these women have achieved, the challenges they faced, and the impact of their achievements. The illustrations, along with the simple writing should make for a great show, whether in classrooms, or even as bed-time tales. Well planned and designed, the authors and the publisher have given us a must have book.
Vishesh Unni Raghunathan is a poet from Chennai who is also a Chartered Accountant.