Title: The Incredible Life of Birsa Munda: The Great Revolutionary Leader
Author: Swati Sengupta
Illustrator: Devashish Verma
Publisher: Talking Cub (2023); Imprint of Speaking Tiger
Pages: 120 pages
Recommended Age: 10 years+
As a child, I was not much interested in history. And therefore, the only history I was exposed to came from the very insipid NCERT books. According to what I remember from the books, we won our independence because of the non-violence movement. While revolutionaries who used violent means like Bagha Jatin, Binoy, Badal, Dinesh, Khudiram Bose, Bhagat Singh, Chandrashekhar Azad and others like them were mentioned in passing. Most of their stories I knew were due to short films and movies on the silver screen.
But not Birsa Munda.
Having been to Ranchi and having stayed in Purulia for almost a year, the name of Birsa Munda was not alien to me. But what an eye opener this book was for me. I realised the extent of influence Birsa Munda had not only on the people during his time, but beyond that on the subsequent reforms and policies around land-rights and ownership. And continues to inspire people even now!
What an inspiring read this book was!
The writer tells a captivating story of a young boy who grew up in extreme poverty and hopelessness, and of his eventual rise as a leader known as Bhagwan Birsa. He not only united all the Mundas, who referred to themselves as Birsaites, but instilled a sense of fear in the British so deep, that they had to gather all their forces to try and capture him.
The book starts slowly describing through the young boy’s perspective the injustice the tribals faced both in the hands of the local zamindars and the British. As the book paces ahead, we get a peek into the changing views of the very sharp and intelligent Birsa Munda, as he starts to understand the politics and how the zamindars, the British and alas even the missionaries couldn’t really care about their hopelessness.
There was something special about Birsa even as a young boy. Why else would it be, that when all the other students sat quiet, the young boy, well aware of land rights and taxes, spoke up and criticised Dr. Nottrott’s view on the Munda struggle? He knew fully well, this would only mean the end to the education he so enjoyed. Not only his education, but even the square meal he was getting at school would now be a distant dream. It would mean going back to the days of dreaming of the smell of sweet white rice as it cooked in an open pot. But then, that was Birsa Munda. The courage to speak the truth even when he knew what it would lead to — a very bleak future.
The writing is evocative. We feel the injustice that Birsa and all the other Mundas face. Yet, it is not dramatic. Like a good biography, it sticks to stating the facts without judgment — and does it in a manner that makes for easy reading for kids. The book is well-researched and uses existing texts, as well as folk songs, to narrate the tale of Bhagwan Birsa, the legendary trail-blazer, in the revolutionary history of our Indian freedom struggle.
I read this book with my 9-year-old. At the end of each chapter, the writer asks a question that is explored in more details in the next chapter. These questions worked as catalysts for my kid to ask similar questions that are sadly relevant even today.
For me, this story highlights the struggles of the marginalized and the oppressed. For Birsa Munda that was against colonialism and imperialism. As I read this story, I understood his legacy. The legacy that goes beyond the reforms he was able to bring. It is the legacy that has inspired generations of people from the tribal communities for – autonomy, for their rights and above all, for their dignity.
Mainstream narratives have long neglected and ignored these experiences, and my thanks to writers like Swati for shedding light on this part of Indian history too.
There are other books in The Incredible Life of series from Talking Cub as well for 10 years and above.
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Disclaimer: Mandira is part of the #kbcReviewerSquad and received this book as a review copy from the publisher. She is the author of the award winning book Children of the Hidden Land.