By Neha Kirpal
The Girl Who Went to the Stars and Other Extraordinary Lives (Penguin Books) by Ishita Jain and Naomi Kundu is a collection of incredible stories about 50 inspiring Indian women from various fields and walks of life, who left an indelible mark in the world through their passion, courage and strength.
The authors, Ishita Jain and Naomi Kundu, are both graduates of the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad. They were classmates, roommates and the closest of friends. We spoke to them about the idea behind the book, the women who inspire them and the impact they hope their book will have.
How did you come up with the idea of writing this book?
Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls by Elena Favilli and Francesca Cavallo came out in 2017. It raised a very obvious question—why do we accept just fairytales about princesses being saved by princes when we have stories of real-life heroines out there? This book started a movement and inspired kids and adults alike. We felt that we needed a book like this in our own local Indian context. Both of us are feminists with a deep love for reading, writing and drawing, and so we took the plunge and wrote our very own book!
The subjective list of 50 remarkable (and some relatively unknown) women featured in the book comprise artists, freedom fighters, sportspersons, singers, entrepreneurs, and so on. What were your criteria for selecting them?
When we started writing this book, we asked ourselves this question many times—how do we really judge impact and narrow down to a compilation of only 50 women? Is it winning medals and accolades? Is it being the first to do something? Or is it just relentlessly going after what you want and, in doing so, setting an example for thousands of others? Our wonderful editor, Niyati Dhuldhoya, always had the same response whenever we were stuck at decision making—this is your book. So what we have here is no definitive list, but a deeply personal and subjective one. Our affinities and interests are obvious in the stories that we have chosen.
Our shortlist contains a lot of historical women, not only because there are some truly remarkable women whose stories are still relevant, but because it was easier to gauge what they had accomplished over their lifetime. We also wanted to make sure that we covered a wide gamut of professions—from an astronaut to a train driver. Every job had its own struggle when it came to being a woman. We wanted to cover a lot of stories that we thought were fantastic, but just hadn’t had a chance to be heard as much as some of the others.
Among the persons featured in the book, which ones inspire you the most and why?
Our favourite life stories include Janaki Ammal, a quiet and hard working botanist who changed the way India ate; Amrita Devi who gave her life just to protect the natural beauty around her; Surekha Yadav who was the first female train driver; Harshini Kanhekar who sat in a classroom full of boys just to fulfill her dreams of being a firefighter; and Sudha Chandran dancing her heart out despite having lost her leg! The stories in this book all have something spectacular that made them who they were.
What impact do you hope this book will have on how women are perceived and brought up in our country?
Compared to men, women in our country have always had to struggle for basic rights. It is important to acknowledge the battles fought by so many women, which make our present-day lives easier. We hope that these stories bring to light the fact that some people have always had to fight hard for things that may seem like a given, today.
This being a children’s book, targeted especially at ages six and above, we are determined to have an influence on boys and girls this young, where it is probably most key. There will come a day when we do not have to talk exclusively about women’s stories but we are still working hard to see that day. And so for now, we hope that these lesser heard stories are told again and again.
What have you learnt on your journey as budding writers and illustrators?
Treat people nicely. Working hard, and doing the same thing over and over till you perfect your skill, is of great value when you are starting out. Only once you develop a strong foundation do you have the ability to express your own ideas clearly. In this day and age where the internet is omnipresent, do not worry about social media and design trends. Things are truly not what they seem. Remember your own values, interests and develop more and more work that is truthful to yourself.