Do books rooted deeply in contemporary India with ordinary Indian children as protagonists really work? That is a question everyone associated with children’s publishing in English in India has surely asked herself (yes, most of them are women). True, there hasn’t been a breakout bestseller like Potter or Jackson yet, but it’s an increasingly vibrant space and writers are telling stories that are refreshing and original. Dear Mrs Naidu by Mathangi Subramanian is one such book.

Have we not all wanted to be a teenage wizard and change the world we inherit with magic and bravery and the power of friendship? But what if you are twelve, and you decide to change your world, but you don’t have either magic or a magical school to go to? You go to a government school where the teachers may or may not teach, where the Headmaster comes only on the first day of the month, and where the playground is dusty and has little chips of stones that get into your shoes – when you can wear them.

This is the school Sarojini goes to – the Ambedkar Elementary School in Bangalore.  She neither has magic nor a great schooling to help her, but she has other things that we recognise in every child her – she is brave, she is articulate, she thinks, and she has friends of all ages to come to her aid. In some ways, she is Harry Potter if he were an Indian girl without a father growing up in a slum in a teeming metropolis.

Sarojini meets Sarojini

Dear Mrs Naidu is the story of twelve-year-old Sarojini. She has been given an assignment by Annie Miss, her idealistic new teacher in school and she has to write a series of letters to any historical figure. Sarojini, who has been given a book on the life of Sarojini Naidu by her mother’s employer Vimala Madam, decides to write to her namesake.

Sarojini is herself being brought up by her mother who works as a maid in a number of households and the many aunties in her neighbourhood form a raucous chorus to all that is happening in her life. It is but natural that she decides to write to a remarkable woman from Indian history.

What begins as a school assignment soon becomes an exercise that Sarojini clearly begins to love and look forward to. She starts writing her thoughts and having conversations on paper with Mrs Naidu, whose life was so different from hers, and yet they were the same in little ways. Sarojini writes that when Mrs Naidu was small, she was told by her parents to speak in English and not Bengali. In protest, she had locked herself up in her room for a whole day and didn’t even come down for lunch. Because of this, Sarojini writes, ‘… you seem like someone who understands kids like me. Like maybe you wouldn’t mind if I asked you questions and read detective stories…’

Sarojini’s life too has changed in a big way recently. Her best friend Amir, with whose family they had shared a roof and a wall, has moved away. His brother has got a job in a call centre and the whole family has moved to a better neighbourhood. Amir is now going to a private school – the Greenhill Public School. Suddenly, the friend who fetched water with her from the water tanker in the morning is gone, she is walking to school alone and doing her school work alone. He has new friends and a new bicycle and even if he wants to, why would he want to hang out with her?

Sarojini pours her heart out to Mrs Naidu, and then says she is going to attempt something to change this. She has learnt about the Right to Free and Compulsory Education Act 2009 otherwise known as RTE at Annie Miss’ Child Rights Club (attended by only two children), and she decides to go to Greenhill to ask for a seat for herself. That, however, doesn’t work out well. But Sarojini decides to take the help of Vimala Madam who is a famous advocate, to learn more about the Act. She reads that reservation is only a part of the Act. There are many more provisions related to improving existing government schools that are being ignored. With her friend Deepti’s help and to the immense skepticism of almost everyone around her, Sarojini decides to tackle the problems in Ambedkar Elementary School and have the law help her.

But can that really happen? Do laws, however well meaning, help those whom they are supposed to serve? Can laws change attitudes of apathy and remove the scourge of corruption that has permeated even the fabric of the education system? Sarojini believes they can. Her aunties and her mother may not agree initially, but she tackles each issue one by one, taking the help she needs and believing that things can change.

Lessons of a different kind

Dear Mrs Naidu talks about issues of inclusiveness, accountability, respect, honesty and initiative but in the very convincing voice of a twelve year old girl. Sarojini’s letters are not only heartfelt, they are also very funny. She describes her school and the squeaky clean private school she visits, the slum she lives in and the scrum at the water tanker every morning, Vimala Madam’s dark house that is filled with books, and the roads of traffic-choked Bangalore with malls sprouting everywhere with a keen eye and impish humour.

This description of the councilor politician, for example, works as well as an illustration: ‘[The face] was attached to a woman stretched out on a divan, wearing a nightie, full make-up, and chunky gold jewellery… She was texting on her mobile, but doing it really slowly because her long, polished nails got in the way of pressing the keys.’

Sarojini’s world is filled with strong women characters. But the one that emerges the strongest is that of Mrs Naidu. Through little bits of information on her life and Sarojini’s construction of her personality, one gets to know Sarojini Naidu in a way that very few young adult books have done for historical characters. She is never there , yet she is there in every line and becomes an inspiring and brave presence who would know what it is like to want to ‘move the skies’.

And Sarojini does move the sky in her own way. There is a part where the children and their parents start repairing the school compound wall. Sarojini looks at them and instead of feeling happy that they are finally united and helping themselves, she is filled with rage. ‘I realised I wasn’t proud. I was angry. Really angry. Why should Deepti’s Appa and all the other workers have to miss a whole day of wages for something the government should be doing for free? Why should kids who are supposed to be doing their homework spend their afternoon picking up garbage?’

Dear Mrs Naidu gives the answers to this. Whether anyone is listening, is to be seen. I for one would recommend this book to every child, parent and teacher; and even to those politicians tapping away on their phones refusing to look beyond their petty needs. It’s a book that is clear eyed and yet gives hope, optimistic but not naive. It tells of a world that can be changed, and you don’t need to be a wizard to do so.

Dear Mrs Naidu, Mathangi Subramanian, Young Zubaan.