That’s How I See Things

Looking for the Adivasi and Dalit presence in Indian children’s literature

01 January 2017
Disaibon Hul, a children’s book published by Adivaani, written by Ruby Hembrom and illustrated by Saheb Ram Tudu, tells the story of the 1855 Santhal rebellion against zamindars and the British.

IN 2015, ADIVAANI, an independent press dedicated to creating “a database of Adivasi writing for and by Adivasis,” published a revolutionary children’s book titled Disaibon Hul. Ruby Hembrom, its author and also Adivaani’s founder and editor, wrote in its preface, “It is our duty to keep our stories of injustice, persecution and hope alive in public spaces. ... Dear gidra, don’t let the Sido and Kanhu in all of us die.”

For the first time in Indian English children’s literature, the words “our” and “us” were used by a Santhal, presupposing and centring an audience of Santhal readers who knew that “gidra” meant them—the “children” for whom references to Sido and Kanhu as freedom fighters were as familiar as references to Bhagat Singh or Mangal Pandey.

Hembrom’s exhortation is echoed in the book’s illustrations, by Saheb Ram Tudu, who is also Santhal. The first double spread, in sepia, with rib-baring cattle and bare-breasted women, sets the scene for the 1855 Santhal rebellion against zamindars and the British in what is now Jharkhand. Tudu alternates watercolour paintings with stark black-and-white line drawings that give the narrative a live-report kind of immediacy. The switching of artistic medium mirrors the way that traditional storytellers share and process intergenerational trauma—in narratives that cyclically smoothen and jolt. Hembrom writes with similar echoes to oral history styles, transitioning from the third person on one page—“Unable to tolerate the unjustified arrests, they attacked the police”—to the first person on the next—“We were at war.” The complementary choices of text and illustration continue when the text bluntly summarises history: where the book reads “Sido and Kanhu were captured and killed,” a double-spread illustration depicts them in action—one running away from a horse-riding pursuer, while the other is being led away in ropes.

The text references murder and oppression without sensationalism or evasion, while the illustrations focus on the agency of the Santhals (including women, who are present on almost every page), who make weapons, participate in village councils, take oaths to resist till death. There are more children’s books in English dealing with racism and sexism than with settler-colonialism, so the book’s political theme, including its violence, makes Disaibon Hul a rare addition to the much needed category of books which give adults ways to have honest, age-appropriate conversations around topics that kids are already experiencing and forming opinions about.

For Tara’s Gobble You Up!, Sunita, a Mandna artist from the Meena community, illustrated a tale told by her grandfather.

Deepa D is a Delhi-based writer whose book reviews have appeared in Mint Lounge, Business Standard and The Pioneer.

Keywords: books Dalit literature Adivasi Dalit publishing Children's Books