As a parent, I must admit, on most days I’m fairly confident. But come exam season and I’m flying by the seat of my pants. I was an average student at best, and never has that bothered me as much as it does when it is time to help my kids with their studies. That’s when I realise how little I remember from my lessons at school. I blame our archaic textbooks and stiflingly monotonous lectures for a rather glaringly large gap in my learning. If you were a school-going child in the 1980s-90s, you know what I’m talking about!

Remember those orange and green history textbooks we had to learn from – filled with dates and names you had to ‘mug up’ with only smudged, grainy pictures for visual cues? They were antithetical to the idea of learning! My strong feelings on this subject perhaps drew me towards a new graphic novel The People of the Indus, and one look at the book was enough to change my perception of what a history book should look like.

What history book for young readers should look like

The People of the Indus, written by Nikhil Gulati with inputs from Jonathan Mark Kenoyer (one of the world’s leading experts on the Indus Civilisation) is Penguin India’s latest publication aimed at a YA/general audience – a visual storytelling of an ancient civilisation that may have influenced the way we live today in so many ways.

The book begins with a note by the author on what inspired him to write The People of the Indus. He talks about a lazy college trip to Lothal, one of the sites of the Indus valley civilisation in Gujarat, that set him on a long, self-reflective path and culminated in a book a few years later. The book has a kurta-pyjama-clad, bespectacled narrator (drawn to the likeness of the author himself!) who ‘walks’ the readers through the Indus Valley Civilisation and its connection to the Egyptian and Mesopotamian civilisations.

Through an informal, almost conversational narrative, and detailed black-and-white illustrations, we are introduced to the various facets of life in 2600 BCE. We learn about why families migrated from one place to another, how they built their houses, the famous drainage system, the professions of that time, and why the Indus civilisation differed vastly from other ancient civilisations. But this history lesson is one like none other – it never gets boring.

We don’t just read that the Harappans used animal figures on their trade seals, we get to see the size of these seals. When we read about the ‘Journey of a Bead’ we learn about their fascination with Carnelian beads and how they used a rare metamorphic rock to make special drills!

Encourages critical thinking

Along with historical facts, the narrator asks fundamental questions. If the sites found along the Indus River was the birth of civilisation in South Asia, why were we so drastically different from the Egyptian and Mesopotamian civilisations? Why didn’t the Harappans ever build pyramid-like structures? How did they maintain order without warfare? These questions settle into a corner ofyour mind and keep the most discerning reader riveted to the book.

By the time you reach Chapter 2, you find yourself invested in the lives of the ancient settlers. You want to know more about the people, about how they communicated, what they wore and ate, and even how they managed to survive without a central government. Gulati and Kenoyer load us with
facts but they do it in a way that doesn’t feel heavy. Dates are mentioned in passing and do not form the crux of the story, instead, it is an intimate look into the lives and times of the Indus civilisation, that forms most of the narrative.

The book isn’t purely non-fiction. Gulati includes a fictionalised story of a family at the beginning of every chapter to show readers what life may have been like back then. It’s surprisingly not that different, he says. “I felt like it would be nice to connect to people back in time, 5000 years ago. They were completely different, but at the same time, people are the same, you know. Their motivations are the same, their dreams and desires, and their needs are kind of the same. So, I wanted people to be able to imagine life from their perspective.”

By the time you are halfway through the book, you already know this is not a one-time read. You can feel it in your gut that you will return to this one, enjoy it, and take away a new nugget of information at every subsequent read. Books that the whole family can read and enjoy are my favourite kind and seeing the way my children engaged with the subject matter, made me think about why we don’t use books like this as part of our pedagogy. It supplemented their classroom lessons and made them read history for fun!

Was the goal of the book simply to introduce information to readers? Gulati says, “The idea of the book is not really to be able to inform. The idea was to be able to engage you in a narrative where you are able to not only picture yourself back in time or picture the world back in time but also be able to compare it to how you live today.”

Isn’t that the fundamental reason we read history?

The People of the Indus and the Birth of Civilization in South Asia, Nikhil Gulati with Jonathan Mark Kenoyer, Penguin.