Story and script: Subhadra Sen Gupta
Illustrations: Tapas Guha
Pratham Books. 2014. Paperback. Full colour. Rs. 35. 14 pages.
ISBN: 978- 81- 8479- 545- 5
India, according to history textbooks, achieved independence from the British on August 15, 1947. Has self-rule proved worthwhile? Do we have universal freedom from hunger, from homelessness, from illiteracy today ~ at least for our children? Not by a long shot, as any random reality check in 2015 proves.
The 2011 Indian national census (in lieu of elusive current figures) found that, of a total population of 259.64 million between 5 to 14 years old, about 4.35 million work as child labour. In agriculture. In handicrafts. Even as household help. That’s despite pro-child legislation on the books, but seldom implemented.
Against this backdrop, I was deeply moved when the Nobel Prize for Peace 2014 went to Indian Kailash Satyarthi and Pakistani Malala Yousafzai "for their struggle against the suppression of children and young people and for the right of all children to education."
Right on cue, this book appeared from two creative individuals I admire. They bring to life aspects of invisible India. Of runaway children who sniff glue over little bonfires at despair-edged railway platforms to quell their hunger. Of child ragpickers who sift through our consumer waste. Of children destined to a cycle of poverty by an accident of birth; born to read, but forced to labour. Indian publishers often consider their stories unmarketable or unfit for urban child readers.
In Freedom Run, Subhadra Sen Gupta and Tapas Guha create an irresistible narrative for Pratham through vivid, colourful comicbook frames. The central figures are three pre-teen boys who knot carpets for a living for a brutal, mercenary loom owner in a village in the Mirzapur or Bhadohi districts of Uttar Pradesh. They earn little or nothing because their fathers are in debt. Their workshed, like their young lives, lacks light. Suddenly, a window of opportunity beckons. Will they be able to make the break?
As with her popular history and adventure books, Freedom Run is Subhadra at the top of her writerly game. As an editor, I admire her impeccable plotlines, her humour, her deeply-researched evocation of place and time. As a writer, I am in awe of her fluidity across genres, her zest for life on the page, and her unforgettable characters including those in Let’s Go Time Travelling, Bishnu the Dhobi Singer and Ashoka: the Great and Compassionate King among her 25+ books. As a reader, I admire her total sync with young minds.
This book is as much Tapas’s masterwork as it is hers (as with their collaboration on Satyajit Ray’s popular Feluda series). Besides a perfect choice of typeface, his brilliance surfaces repeatedly, through alternate visual perspectives, though action that spills over frames. Such as two boys in anguished conversation through the warp of the loom. Or the fear on a young face as the furious owner raises his cane to strike. Or the wraparound joy framing a boy who sights his big brother and a glimpse of freedom. Or the threatening adult silhouettes against a wall as the three children sneak out at dawn. Or the drama-packed frames of the chase through Varanasi that tease both the eye and the mind ~ and charm the reader.
The comic-book style for proficient readers is perfect for this essential story of our time. Perhaps this book will lead to a generation less ignorant of child labour or a little-known India. A sign of a more egalitarian world? Or similar treatment for other burning issues?
‘Freedom Run’ reaffirms that Subhadra Sen Gupta was the right choice for the Sahitya Akademi’s Bal Sahitya Puraskar 2014.
Story/ Content: ****
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