Roshen Dalal Feels that we Need to Teach History Differently
India at 70 Snapshots Since Independence is the latest book from writer Roshen Dalal, an expert in Indian History who has written books like Puffin History of India and Puffin History of the World.
Roshen’s book brings together significant events in India between 1947 and 2017 starting from India’s Independence. Set against India’s political backdrop, the book tells the story of Indian culture, important personalities and the role of the government in building new India. Together, the book makes for an interesting, rich and engrossing discourse on Indian history. Reading the book feels akin to hearing a story from a learned expert who has experienced the events. The beauty of Roshen Dalal’s writing complements India’s story and truly helps in engaging children with the rich history of India.
Ahead of the Children’s week celebration Riti Prasad and Preeti Vyas met the author to know more about what she thinks about India and its future. In this exclusive discussion with Roshen Dalal, she explains more about her body of work and her views on the political story of India.
What in your own vision makes the book India at 70 unique? How do you recommend children absorb the myriad of information that you have presented in the book?
India at 70 is unique as it presents a broader type of history, makes literature, music, cinema, sports and the environment a central part of India’s history. There is also a focus on regional literature and cinema, that is otherwise rarely touched upon. Also, it breaks the information up into bite-sized pieces and year by year events, making it easy to absorb.
What is your broad opinion on the current political atmosphere in India and the World?
Currently, both India and the world seem to be becoming more insular with a movement towards the right.
In this context, one of the greatest tipping points in both India and the world is the advent and growth of digital media and the internet.
What according to you is/are the most significant events in World/ Indian History which possibly could be labelled as Tipping Points (with reference to Malcolm Gladwell’s theory).
The term “Tipping Points” is used in different ways. In Malcolm Gladwell’s view they are small incidents that have a snowball effect, not sudden or grand events. A certain point or ‘critical threshold’ is reached, after which a small event can trigger a massive change. Malcolm Gladwell mainly looks at sociological change and how certain types of behaviour, as well as ideas and products, can spread. In this context, one of the greatest tipping points in both India and the world is the advent and growth of digital media and the internet. Others have seen specific events in history including wars and battles as tipping points. From this viewpoint, India’s Tipping point is certainly Independence and Partition, and, at an international level, I see the two World Wars and the break-up of the Soviet Union as the greatest Tipping Points of the 20th century.
As a historian, what is your vision for India of the future?
As a historian, I cannot predict the future. I’d like to see a pluralistic India with better education and healthcare, and with people living in peace and harmony.
Schools teach history through civilizations or dynasties and not by chronology. What is the best way to connect the dots for students? The dates are confusing, parallel events happen across the world and students may find it difficult to fathom what is happening for instance in American history at the same time when an event is taking place in Asia. Any sources or methodologies that you could recommend for teachers or parents?
I think one can make charts or media presentations for parallel developments and events. It is an important aspect of understanding history.
It is often challenging to get children interested in History. Being a History expert, what is your view on the role of teachers and parents in making History interesting and alive for children?
I have often answered this question, providing various suggestions. The teacher can do a lot, but only if he or she is an expert on the subject, and if there is some flexibility in the syllabus. A starting point can be to explain that history includes the history of everything, and to allow a youngster to focus on her area of interest. Also, different approaches to history can be suggested. In a talk, I had referred to histories written of emotions, and this generated considerable interest. Multi-media, videos, movies, and interactive games based on history, are also a great way to make history come alive. Parents and teachers can organise visits to museums or historical sites.
Could you recommend further reading for children between the ages 10-15 to enhance their knowledge of World History and Indian History?
For an introduction to both Indian and world history, this age group can start with my books the Puffin History of India volume 1 and 2, and The Puffin History of the World, volume 1 and 2. Depending on what interests them, they could read more on various topics. I feel memoirs generate the most interest. Red Scarf Girl by Ji-li Jiang is one of the best introductions to the Cultural Revolution in China. I am Malala by Malala Yousafzai can provide an introduction to Afghanistan and to views on education.
In the Indian context, there are several books on the freedom movement. Queen of Ice by Devika Rangachari focuses on Queen Didda of Kashmir, and there are other books on kings and personalities. There are a number of recent books in the category of historical fiction, but I have not read them yet. To have value, historical fiction must have an authentic background. There is a lot of matter on the internet, but this is not written by experts and is often incorrect.
We would love to learn from you some historical tidbits, which you have not covered in your books.
This is a difficult question, as such tidbits are innumerable! However, I have given a number of talks in schools on various aspects of history, which I have not covered in my books. Topics for these have included young kings, animal deities, and the history of food.
Writing is your passion. What is your advice to budding writers? How do they polish their skills and how do you think parents and schools can help the aspirants shine?
Budding writers must read widely and write whenever they have the time. Parents and schools should help them to get a strong foundation in language, and to be analytical and thoughtful. These are the qualities required of a writer.
Youngsters should not rush into publishing books based on Google searches, something that is happening today. They should first try to improve both their knowledge and skills.
What does your personal library look like? What are your favourite genres? Your favorite book of the year? Your to-read list?
My library extends all over the house. There are books in my work room, and in every other room, including on the staircase and landing. I also have eBooks on Kindle. Generally, I buy non-fiction of all kinds, though I also like reading light books. My favourite genres are history, philosophy, and literary fiction. I have read a number of new books this year, but right now the one that comes to mind is The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa. Though even this cannot match my old favourites.
Which author(s) is/ are your inspiration? What do you like about their writing? What books of theirs would you recommend to young readers/ older readers?
My main inspiration has always been my mother Nergis Dalal, who was a well-known writer. I admired the ease with which she wrote, and her knowledge. I feel inspired by my all-time favourite authors, Hermann Hesse and Thomas Mann. Their books, particularly The Glass Bead Game and The Magic Mountain have influenced my life and writing. I recommend their books to everyone, young and old.
Who among the several personalities you have written about in India at 70 is your favourite?
Rukmini Devi Arundale stands out for me. She is a romantic, a writer, theosophist and educationist, who revolutionised dance in India. Moreover she is the one who laid the foundations for animal welfare. She refused the post of president of India.
Tell us more about your next book, which you are writing on the Upanishads.
The book on the Upanishads is 95 per cent complete. It talks about 108 Upanishads and the topics discussed in them.
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