Review: Dear Mrs. Naidu

By : Bijal Vachharajani  / 2015

The first thing that strikes you about Mathangi Subramanian’s book, Dear Mrs. Naidu, is its cover. Rendered in black-and-white by Shruti Shyam, the cover shows vignettes from the book: a woman filling water in a pot, a teacher writing on a blackboard, a boy sipping tea. The protagonist stands out in colour – brown-skinned, neatly oiled hair – sitting on a chatai and writing letters to freedom fighter Sarojini Naidu.

As a classroom assignment, Sarojini starts pouring her heart out to her namesake, in the form of letters. We begin to discover that Sarojini is all of twelve, and from what the government calls the “economically weaker background”. Life for the Bangalore-based tweenager is not easy – whether it’s her best friend Amir moving up in life and shifting to a private school, or living in an informal settlement, or studying in a government school with crumbling walls. She’s further dejected when her mother, under the Right to Education Act, tries to get her admission in the same private school that Amir goes to, only to be rejected and asked for a bribe.

Taking inspiration and help from the people around her – her new friend Deepti who lives at a construction site, a human rights lawyer called Vimala Madam and of course Mrs Naidu herself – Sarojini decides to take matters into her own hands and change things. Rather than get admission in the private school, Sarojini is determined to make her government school better. The odds are stacked against her. There’s the apathetic headmaster who couldn’t care less; the mothers who are neck deep in house work; and even a councillor, who wears a nightie and takes better care of her nails than her constituency (fabulous character that one).

Mathangi Subramanian takes us to the bleaker side of urban life, where toddlers play precariously in construction sites, hoardings are recycled to become roofs for houses and into the hallways of decrepit government schools. These are settings that we are all familiar with, but often choose to turn our eyes away from. There’s a clear demarcation of the haves and the have-nots, and Sarojini is painfully aware of it. But even against this gloomy backdrop, Subramanian’s narrative offers hope and optimism with her characters’ actions and thoughts.

The story challenges the classic Indian fatalistic streak, instead compelling Sarojini and her friends to understand that their actions, however small or big, could lead to social change. It’s refreshing to have a female protagonist like Sarojini, who doesn’t need to be bitten by a mutant spider or be dunked into radioactive waste to be an everyday sort of hero.

As a teacher and policy analyst, the author has done extensive work with children in India and the USA, and it shows in the book. Her characters, especially the children, are very real. They are feisty, witty, and extremely clever. They sometimes hurt each other unwittingly, but then are also resilient kids. The adults are viewed from a child’s lens, making some of them appear stubborn, and others like Vimala Madam as an evil genius.

There’s a short history lesson tucked into the pages of Dear Mrs. Naidu, about Sarojini Naidu and her life. And a crash course on the RTE Act and child rights. There’s plenty of food for thought in here, but mostly Dear Mrs. Naidu works because it’s an endearing story about a girl who wants to change her world and won’t let small things like the government come in her way. For that, the twelve-year-old Sarojini deserves to go down in literary history.

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