There are people of a certain vintage, children of the 1980s and 90s, who remember an English children’s magazine called Target. In our house, we were enthusiastic readers of Target. We didn’t get much else Indian fare. For that, there were stories and novels in Bengali. But in English we read Enid Blyton, the classics, and Tintin. Into this world, came Target like a breath of fresh air.
Here there were stories written by familiar sounding names – Sigrun Srivastava, Ruskin Bond, Margaret Bhatty. In the pages of Target I saw comics by Ajit Ninan and it was here that I first met the writer Subhadra Sen Gupta. Her stories, often mixing food and history, had children with names just like ours. They lived in Delhi or Lucknow, and had fantastic adventures even in these places. Who knew that was possible!
The ’80s rolled by, and my days of reading Target fell by the wayside. The magazine quietly folded into other teen publications, and eventually disappeared. I was too busy with life to notice that gradual slipping away. And then, some time in the early 2000s, in a publishing office in Delhi, I met a Target writer in real life.
As an editor working for the children’s imprint of Penguin, it was inevitable that I would soon interact with many of the names that once appeared on the pages of the magazine. Atanu Roy, Suddhasatwa Basu, Tapas Guha, Paro Anand were all established artists, illustrators and writers now. The cradle that had honed their skills had sent them out into the world, and now, here I was, an editor with a few years of experience under my belt, talking to Subhadra Sen Gupta.
By then, Subhadra was already a much published writer. From Target, she went on to write for Children’s Book Trust, Puffin, Scholastic, Rupa and others. She wrote short stories, novellas, illustrated books, comic strips, and more. One of the first times I met her, our conversation turned to childhood reading, and I told her about my love of Target. To my delight, she had a fund of stories about being a part of that writing team.
She talked with respect and extreme fondness about the legendary editor of Target, Rosalind Wilson. How Rosalind took a novice writer like her under her wing, taught her to get her nuances right when writing for children, encouraged her to indulge her passion for history in her stories, and gave her the confidence to become a professional writer. Listening to Subhadra, I felt I was getting a lesson on how to be a better editor; like we were both young and ready to conquer the world with our books.
I was later to learn that this was part of Subhadra’s great charm – that she connected with every person, irrespective of age, as an equal. That I was more than 20 years her junior did not strike me till I saw the date of her birth (1952) recently.
Over time, she became Subhadra the writer, and then the friend. With her I could talk for hours about food, which was another one of her great loves. We also had the shared experience of growing up as Bengalis in Delhi. We had hilarious conversations about our general befuddlement if we were despatched to Kolkata and had to tell one relative from another.
And then there was our love of children’s writing in Bengali. Bengali children’s magazines had informed both our growing years, and we had an inordinate love of ghost stories. She adored the writer Lila Majumdar, and inspired by that I re-read Majumdar as an adult, delighting in her peculiar humour and wonderful imagination. And then, of course, there was our huge fandom of Satyajit Ray, thanks to which we could quote verbatim from his stories and novels.
Through these conversations I also got to slowly realise a growing love of history in myself. She could talk about Delhi for hours. Having grown up there, the city ran in her veins. She knew the galis and kunchas of Old Delhi, Daryaganj in particular, where she spent her childhood. Nizamuddin was one of her favourite places – the dargah, the qawwali, the shops selling food. And boy, could she tell a story that encompassed all of these aspects!
It was from these long addas over bad office machine coffee and tea that the ideas germinated of some of her wonderful creations. Let’s Go Time-Travelling in India was a fun, trivia laden ride through Indian history bolstered by cartoons and illustrations by her long-time collaborator Tapas Guha. A Children’s History of India was conceived as a one-stop reference about our history starting from pre-history and going to post-Independence India. She pulled it off when she wrote without lapsing into deathly boring history mode even in one line of the book.
Subhadra wrote biographies of Ashoka and Mahatma Gandhi and accounts of the freedom movement of India. In these she was accurate but irreverent. She brought alive incidents and people, always careful to show them as realistically as possible. There was never any glossing over the tough and problematic bits and pieces of history – she would tackle them head-on.
She often broke out of this hold of history on her writings, though, and created delightful fictional worlds. A book born of her love of food was The Secret Diary of the World’s Worst Cook, where a 15-year-old boy discovers his legacy of food while on holiday in Lucknow. In her fictional world adults were flawed, but there were always the cool ones who actually got what children were trying to say.
Subhadra created the Foxy Four series, about four girls who solved mysteries, each one a distinct character and voice, and the two books in the series travelled to different cities, somewhat like in the wonderful Feluda stories. She wrote a collection of ghost stories, Mostly Ghostly Stories, where there were ghosts in kitchens, in old bookcases, even in the computer. The collection was funny, creepy, thoughtful, and a delight to read.
Subhadra’s writing was filled with respect for her reading audience – children. From her I learnt to never think any less of children only because they lack in years. They more than make up for that in astuteness, she told me many times. They asked her tough questions, often, and she loved it. She loved answering what the Harappans may have eaten for dinner, or what Emperor Ashoka looked like (not like Shah Rukh Khan perhaps), or how the samosa became Indian.
Yet, in recent years, I found a more contemplative aspect of her when we spoke about interactions with children. She was immensely troubled by the polarisation that had entered our classrooms as well. Children spoke openly about their antipathy to certain religions and castes, about interpretations of history that pitted communities against each other. She tried tackling these issues more and more in her books – by presenting history with facts and sources, and not conjecture. By bringing out the essential humanism that is being brushed aside in the public discourse with greater efficiency.
In her career of over forty years Subhadra wrote a whopping sixty books and innumerable short stories. It’s impossible to talk about all and do them all justice. But it was easy to see that with each book she enjoyed herself thoroughly while conceiving and writing them. They were written with dollops of humour and a whole lot of heart – and a lot of skill.
As an editor, I loved seeing that glimmer of an idea that would soon grow into a book. Our editing process remained cordial and respectful always. She never lost her appreciation of the work of her editors and said so multiple times.
It constantly amazed me how much Subhadra kept up with the times. Her emails would have an ironic “babe” thrown in if she thought I was making too many demands on her. Like many other writers in the Indian children’s publishing space, she, too, spoke up more and more about the low advances that had been the norm for years. Often, we found ourselves on different sides of the fence – my hands tied by the realities of the market, while she made a rightful case of stopping pitiful payments to writers.
Yet, if it was an idea worth pursuing, we buried our last row and went back to work, figuring out solutions that was fair to all. She was quick to anger and equally quick to simmer down and listen to another point of view. Over time, we had a good understanding of each other’s pressure points and learnt to work around them. I edited her knowing she would never be unreasonable, and she knew that finally what we all wanted was the best book possible that would sell good numbers and stay in print for years to come.
And so, little did I know that it was for the last time that I was sending her an edited text, a fortnight ago. The book, a beautiful memoir about growing up in Old Delhi and being a Bengali in Delhi, was going to be one of her few books for adults. While editing it I felt I had got to know her and the entire Sen Gupta and Majumdar family intimately. Filled with delightful anecdotes about family eccentrics, long and raucous family meals, contemplative passages about near and dear ones, the book is also about the sights and smells of Daryaganj in the ’40s and ’50s.
It travels back even further in time and mentions accounts of Bengalis living through the mutiny of 1857, and how waves of “probashi”s left Bengal to look for work or as refugees, and settled in other parts of the country. It is a fascinating account of the various branches of these families that have got intertwined with time and how one could end up as an unwitting aunt to a recent acquaintance. This passage sums up her state of mind as she wrote the book:
“This is a selfish book that I have written just to please myself and so I let myself go sentimental, unapologetically nostalgic, and not scholarly at all. I also let all the ghosts enter and occupy my head for months. At times during my morning walk in the park I have laughed out at an absurd memory and startled the dogs and squirrels.”
When I emailed her my edited draft, we discussed timelines, the sections that needed tweaking, the additions I wanted, and in our heads the book grew a little bit more. It is, perhaps, the most wonderful part in the creation of a book. She had another book for children to finish for us, and there were multiple projects for other publishers in the works. When she said she was busy with these other ones, I replied, take your time, let’s not hurry this. Who knew time was watching over my shoulder as I typed those words.
For months now the Covid pandemic had been raging around us. I knew that Subhadra, like many of us, had gone through phases of intense creativity followed by stretches of fallow emptiness. She put the finishing touches on manuscripts and we bounced ideas off each other on email. We exchanged messages of our sweeping and swabbing routines, the endless jhadu and dusting. She described the culinary experiments of her sister while she made sure she stayed with the safer washing up duties.
We talked on and off about meeting in Delhi soon. It was a longstanding promise that we would roam the area around Nizamuddin together one day while she told me about Sufi saints and Princess Jahanara, whose grave lies there.
As April 2021 rolled by, images of Delhi literally gasping for breath swamped the news and social media timelines. I read updates with a growing horror, afraid for friends, family and colleagues. And then came Subhadra’s Facebook post, saying she had contracted the infection as well. My heart sank, but she mentioned her vaccination, and it gave me hope. Let her rest today, I told myself, I will text her tomorrow. But the next day brought the unbelievable news of her sudden demise.
Ironically, I was in the kitchen cooking a typical Bengali dish when I absentmindedly picked up the phone that had been pinging. As the news sank in, it seemed unfathomable that she, who had been a presence so alive, so full of laughter and brimming with ideas, could be gone in an instant.
One thinks of authors as permanent fixtures in our lives, and as an editor, even more so. As the news spread, all through the day I spoke to Subhadra’s friends and fans, and we talked about all that was funny and memorable, the books and stories, the people and characters she created and explained. I realised more and more that a sparkle has left our lives forever leaving behind a great void. All I can do now is look at the stack of her books on my shelves, and hope they keep reaching out to more and more children. There’s no way this cruel pandemic can silence the voice of a storyteller like her.
This series of articles on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on publishing is curated by Kanishka Gupta.
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