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Amar Farooqui

ASHOKA: THE GREAT AND COMPASSIONATE KING
By Subhadra Sen Gupta
Puffin Books, New Delhi, 2013, pp. 110, Rs. 150.00

RANI LAKSHMIBAI: THE VALIANT QUEEN OF JHANSI
By Deepa Agarwal
Puffin Books, New Delhi, 2013, pp. 134, Rs. 150.00

JAWAHARLAL NEHRU: THE JEWEL OF INDIA
By Aditi De
Puffin Books, New Delhi, 2013, pp. 141, Rs. 150.00

VOLUME XXXIII NUMBER 11 November 2009

Puffin has brought out three historical biographies in its Puffin Lives series, for children aged ten and above, which recount the lives of Ashoka (Sen Gupta), Lashmibai of Jhansi (Agarwal), and Nehru (De). All three are well-known figures who would already be familiar to school children from various sources. The three books attempt to acquaint readers with these figures in a historical context, placing them in their respective contemporary worlds—not as legends detached from historical reality. The storybook style employed by Sen Gupta, Agarwal and De in their narratives, makes for easy reading and comprehension that kids (and perhaps adults as well) would find attractive thereby encouraging them to approach the discipline of history with greater enthusiasm than is often the case.   Ashoka’s greatness as a monarch notwithstanding, he was virtually forgotten for several centuries. The rediscovery of Ashoka was made possible by the decipherment of the Brahmi script, in the third decade of the nineteenth century, through the pioneering efforts of James Prinsep. Sen Gupta’s account of Ashoka begins with a discussion of Prinsep’s work that serves to introduce the reader to historical method. The story of the rediscovery of Ashoka is as fascinating as the story of Ashoka itself. Children need to be made aware that knowledge of the past is not available in some readymade form waiting to be put into a history book.   Sen Gupta moves on to outline the early history of the Mauryas: the founding of the Mauryan kingdom, the role of Chanakya, the relationship between Chanakya and Chandragupta, and interaction with the Hellenistic world. After a brief reference to the relatively obscure reign of Ashoka’s father, Bindusara, she provides a detailed account of Ashoka’s reign with one chapter devoted to the Kalinga war and its aftermath and another to Ashoka’s religious beliefs. The book concludes with a description of Mauryan society, based partly on material contained in the Arthashastra. It needs to be borne in mind that the Arthashastra is a normative text, and does not necessarily portray contemporary society as it actually was—which is the impression one gets from this chapter.   Rani Lakshmibai’s supreme heroism has been the subject of several historical and literary works, but surely there is room for a well-written and historically accurate biography of the Rani intended for a younger audience. Agarwal’s narrative is lively, yet restrained. Lakshmibai’...


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