Untold tales of valour

Ilina Singh talks about her book, a collection of stories of women from different eras, weaving them through the theme of leadership
Ilina Singh
Ilina Singh

CHENNAI: India’s history is rich with stories of outstanding gallantry. Our history shapes the collective experience of our society and empowers the generations to come. In her second book, The Gutsy Girls Who Led India, Ilina Singh brings to the spotlight ten female warriors from different regions of India. A history enthusiast, Ilina believes that because “fundamental human impulses and desires are timeless, it’s educational to see how the greatest minds have solved the big questions”. She finds it heartening to hear stories of leadership across many fields, and has developed a nine-step leadership framework to encourage children to embrace the skill.

In conversation with CE, Ilina delves into her research process, her inspiration behind writing the book, and her journey with leadership.

Excerpts:

 What inspired you to write The Gutsy Girls Who Led India ?

I came up with the idea of India’s first book on leadership for children through my personal experiences. Applying to colleges in my final year at school was an eye-opening experience. While Indian education focussed on academic performance only, most American colleges asked me to write a short essay outlining my leadership experience.

I discovered that leadership is one of the most valued qualities globally. As I studied leadership formally at Berkeley last year, I saw how well-researched this subject is.

Also, I noticed that while most bookshops had a section on leadership books for adults, we have hardly any resources for children. I wanted to correct that gap since we now know that leaders are not just born but can be made.

Is there a particular story or personality in the book that you feel a personal connection with?

They are all magnificent personalities and I chose them since they exemplify different facets of leadership. Yet, Queen Didda, the most unlikely and complex leader is also someone I’d love to meet to know better. She overcame a physical disability — she could not walk well and had to be carried as she led on the battlefield. I’d also love to see Queen Abakka’s fire-tipped arrows in action as they set fire to enemy ships. Then there is the captivating beauty and wit of Hazrat Mahal and the fierce bravery of Lakshmibai. A dinner with all ten of them would be such an amazing affair.

The book includes activities for children and young adults. How did you develop these activities, and what do you hope they achieve?

I wanted my young readers to use the book as a guide to exploring their own leadership goals and styles. The activities are gentle nudges to make the reader explore their very personal leadership journey. I know that activities were enjoyed by children and parents alike in my first book, so I’ve taken care to retain them.

The blend of poetry and prose in this book is an exciting aspect. Were there any leaders whose stories were particularly difficult or rewarding to translate into poetry?

You know, my brain is wired to think in verse. I can probably make a poem from newspaper articles, or stock market reports for the day. It’s just an odd blessing which I roll with. I did have to be respectful of the eminent leaders I was paying tribute to, so I took care to choose the right tone of voice. However, working on the poetry for all the leaders was delightful.

What was your research process like?

This book’s research took the most time because I chose leaders across different centuries and geographies. I have included “present-day” references to the cities and states the leaders originally lived in and have a mini-map with each chapter. For example, Gaidinliu, the Naga leader, was born in present-day Manipur. Both Nagaland and Manipur became formal Indian states after independence. There are surprisingly well preserved accounts of the lives of these leaders. The oldest leader — Queen Didda of Kashmir — is referenced in the historic “Rajatarangini” written by Kalhana in the 12th century CE in Sanskrit. I bought the English translation — the thickest book I own — and read through her story several times to understand her better.

You designed the portrait illustrations in the book as well. What style and technique did you employ for that?

I used watercolour as a medium to bring alive the leaders’ personalities. In cases like Queen Didda, where no images of the leader exist, I used my imagination to create the portraits.

What do you hope young girls take away from book?

I hope every young reader puts down the book wiser about their personal leadership potential and is inspired to make a dent in the world. Leaders are made, not born; we can kickstart our leadership journey and make a difference.

Your debut book highlighted women in science and your latest focuses on women warriors. Are you planning on future projects highlighting “gutsy girls” in other fields?

That’s an interesting thought, isn’t it? I’ve been busy managing academics and independent living at Berkeley, far from home. After STEM and leadership, what could young girls conquer next? I’m using my summer break to research the question and will share it once I have an answer.

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