The idea of history as a dynamic and constantly evolving creative narrative rather than dates and dreary textbook stuff is one that is exciting especially for the younger reader raised on a diet of lengthy timelines and rote learning. History as a tool for storytelling as well as a fun, engaging and learning experience is an idea that novelist Anu Kumar has explored in many of her books for younger readers including her 9-part Mythquest series, biographies of famous Indian leaders, politicians and achievers, as well as the extremely fun and adventure-filled Atisa stories.
In the Mythquest series, Anu Kumar takes the base idea from Indian mythology, and weaves a wonderful tale around the birds, beasts and demons of legends who are usually the peripheral characters in the great Indian epics. In her retellings, these characters are given creative agency in terms of back stories and their creation myths. Their association with the major Hindu deities, their powers and boons that render them god-like in their strength, wisdom and goodness and chronicling their adventures much like superhero tales rather than the sombre quasi-religious works. The author’s stories are retellings that incorporate drama, adventure and high action, making these characters interesting for the younger reader and rendering them larger than life as the stuff of a very homegrown kind of fantasy and fairy tale.
Similarly, Kumar presents great Indian lives like the Mahatma, Sarojini Naidu, Subhas Chandra Bose among others in an interesting manner, picking an anecdotal style and chronicling their lives, philosophy, teachings, speeches and achievements in a manner that makes it appealing as well as accessible to tweens with short attention spans. The books with their quirky illustrations, short chapters and activity sections give learning a fun dimension.
It is this approach to history, myth and legend that Kumar perfects with her Atisa series. She introduces the teenage Atisa from Tawang Valley and his oft unpredictable and occasionally rickety time machine as the surprise element in the jigsaw of the past. She then quickly reworks clever little tales spanning historical epochs. From ancient Greece to 7th-century Central Asia, from the courts of ancient Pataliputra to the lush beauty of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, Atisa becomes a participant in the events that unfold, bringing with him dollops of adventure and humour, science and time travel and an assembly of crazy inventors, legendary explorers, whimsical queens, despotic rulers, conniving henchmen, pirates and scallywags, scientists and poets, soldiers and mechanics, warriors and brave princesses who make each turn of the pages of history an absolutely edge-of-the seat experience.
The first book, Atisa and the Seven Wonders sees Atisa following the steps of Daedelus and his son Icarus across the seven marvels of the ancient world even as they are being built or unveiled for the first time, meeting the characters who played a part in their construction and the kings and queens who lived during the time along with a whole lot of thrills as their presence is not so well received everywhere. The second book, Adventures with Hiuen Tsang sees Atisa racing against time and the many dreaded villains in order to save the great Chinese traveller Hieun Tsang.
The third book, In Search of Kalidasa chronicles Atisa’s adventures in the Gupta court as he searches for some vital scrolls and investigates the disappearance of the great poet Kalidasa. This fantastic historical landscape as well as the characters of Atisa, his friends and his wonderful little patchworked time machine are brought to life by Priya Kurien’s quirky and extremely fun illustrations.
The scope of Kumar’s work is large in the three parts of the Atisa series and her narrative though unwieldy in parts, still holds one’s interest as the intrepid Atisa boards his curious flying machine designed by the mythical Greek inventor Daedelus and takes off on his adventure across time and back into the ancient history of the world.
The trajectory of lesser known characters, mysterious disappearances/deaths and legends of the time become spaces in which Kumar slips into the historical narrative and tells stories about the events that actually transpired with Atisa playing the unlikely hero who helps turn the wheels of time. He is the boy adventurer, the time-travelling detective and a saviour of historical figures who find themselves in a spot of trouble. From Kalidasa to Hiuen Tsang and Daedalus, they all owe our brave hero a lot of gratitude and in fact result in him becoming a recipient of some rare and extremely valuable gifts by the end of each adventure.
One can only wish studying history had been this much fun back in school and thank the writer for putting the story back into history.