A couple of years ago, Aparna Jain visited the international crowdfunding platform Kickstarter and decided to become one of the thousands of backers financing a children’s book chronicling the lives of some of the most inspiring women from all around the world. With the thought of gifting a copy of Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls to her niece, she happily pledged a token amount towards the literary project and awoke next morning to the sinking realisation that no such book existed in the Indian context for readers.
Six months later, after a bit of convincing from her sister-in-law, Aparna found herself diving into her next big project, an Indian version of Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls—titled ‘Like A Girl’.
A hot off the press and beautifully illustrated hardbound book that profiles the lives of over 50 inspirational Indian women who’ve stood up against rampant misogyny, led difficult lives, and achieved success despite the hurdles that come with being a woman in this society, Like A Girl is the feminist children’s literature we’ve all been waiting for. “It was important to write a book on tough things that children go through, which parents don’t usually talk about. And I thought this would be the perfect way to speak to both,” says Aparna who is an author and a leadership coach living in Delhi.
Sultan Razia, Mary Kom, Medha Patkar, Gauri Lankesh, and Karamjyoti Dalal—the book features Indian women from all walks of life, both dead and alive. While some names, like that of Kalpana Chawla and Barkha Dutt, sit at the tip of most of our tongues, others like Ela R. Bhatt and Birubala Rabha are practically unknown to most adults, let alone children. The stories are limited to an average length of one page and are written in a simple, straightforward manner, sans any kind of subtextual judgement. Each story comes with a lovely illustration made by one of the twenty-seven artists who comprise the all-woman team to have worked on this publication.
To handpick a list of just 51 women to represent a country that is so layered and complex was not exactly a cakewalk. “We were very clear about the fact that we wanted it to be a fully inclusive Indian book. At the same time, we also wanted difficult stories. In Rebel Girls, you’ll find a lot more of adventure and people doing cool stuff. But in India, all our icons are very different. They come from the grassroots,” Aparna explains. Midway through the research and writing process, Like A Girl transformed into a bedtime stories book for Indians across all age groups, with only the language focusing on a slightly younger target audience.
From getting in touch with these women to interviewing and then putting pen to paper, it took Aparna 6 months to encapsulate the rich lives of her subjects in as few words as possible. She found it particularly difficult to abridge the stories of political leaders like Kumari Mayawati and J. Jayalalithaa who’d lived such fascinating lives. While other stories left her grieving for womankind and everything it has had to go through. “After spending an entire day with Bhanwari Devi, who was gang-raped in 1992 for protesting against child marriage in her village, I didn’t sleep all night. Even Soni Sori, who I spoke to over the phone. These stories were difficult to write because they’re really sad stories and they make you wonder what you’re doing with your life.”
Moreover, to tell stories that are rife with sexual violence, inequality, and poverty, stories that give voice to the marginalised women of our society, ones that are not always glamorous is itself a tricky terrain to navigate. These are realities that parents often try to hide from their children but in Like A Girl, Aparna refuses to shy away. “My Editor, Karthika, and I were debating about whether we should write ‘sexual violence’ or ‘molestation’, instead of ‘rape’. Because rape seems like a bad word, and we were worried that parents wouldn’t want their children to read that. But then we thought, why not? It is an educational word, after all,” she tells us.
But as the Russian writer Leo Tolstoy puts it, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” The same is true for the women in our society as well—while their hardships are grim and nuanced, they all wear their strength and joy in pretty much the same way; something Aparna got to witness when she spoke to social activist Sudha Varghese, “I asked her about what it was like to be awarded the Padma Shri. She didn’t hear me the first time, so I repeated myself. And then she replied, ‘Oh, that was so nice, men!’ It was very adorable.”
With its easy narrative and powerful storytelling, complemented by the talents of young illustrators from all across the country, Like A Girl is a pioneer as far as children’s literature in India is concerned. It has sparked unlikely conversations amongst children, parents, and teachers alike—each taking home something inexplicable from this treasure trove of rare stories.
Feature image courtesy of Sudeepti Tucker (L) and Shruti Prabhu (R)
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