From the extremely sensitive and seeing Sowmya Rajendran, famous for works like Bhimrao Ambedkar: The Boy Who Asked Why (Tulika Books) and Mayil Will Not Be Quite (Tulika Books), comes another fascinating children’s picture book ‘The Weightlifting Princess’ illustrated by Debasmita Dasgupta and published by Pratham Books. This is a short, engaging and sharp commentary on femme agency intertwined with a growing child’s need to dream, discover and develop their life’s aspirations.
Princess Nila, as the title would suggest, takes the center-stage in this dramatic and lush plot – leading us along her journey of competing at the Surya Championship, a local weightlifting event in her Kingdom. Nila is demonstrated as a humorous, dedicated, beautiful and independent person who is constantly, consequently, redefining these adjectives in the story. Humorous, for Nila, is lifting her father, The King, as a child; dedicated is her imagination for Taibar – the snow clad land with best sports school in all her kingdom; beautiful is Nila’s golden brown skin that is also described as “the color of sunset” ; independent is the Nila in the climax which I leave for you to explore.
In creating Nila, Sowmya Rajendran has succeeded in engaging multiple realities beyond what is being primarily sold: femme agency; they have brought to us a fierce, restless, and brimming child, who is extremely competitive, has a unibrow and muscular arms, and is very conscious of her interpersonal relationships. In today’s society that is increasingly grappling with conversations on body positivity, race, class, caste and power dynamics in the everyday – such a real figure of a ‘Princess’, also a role model to many younger children, is a thoughtful strategy in introducing the younger generation to newer and more inclusive social norms. Nila is not an outsider, Nila is not struggling for power, and Nila is not marginalized as we understand her, but Nila is determined to be comfortable in her skin (and muscles!) and invest all of her energy into her dreams while negotiating with her family. It is a simple story, definitely, of a Princess who has enough and wants more – thus allowing younger girls, who are often conditioned to shy away from their professional aspirations, to continue aspiring.
Debasmita Dasgupta’s detailed and absolutely mesmerizing illustrations complement the story excellently, leaving us readers feeling like we gulped a ball of four pm sun. The illustrations are high on Indian motifs and prints, dripping in yellows, red, and blues, and may have you wishing you were a child again – just so you grew up seeing more honest presentations of Indian and Femme bodies in Literature.
While Sowmya has ensured that the story has very little to disagree with, it is also interesting to note that, perhaps, Nila got it all a little too easy. To evoke Monarchy, in consequence the State, in the current times is a tricky shot. Which Kingdom does Nila belong to? Who are its people, and do they all look like royalty as presented in the book? What kind of Princess is Nila – the traditional kind or the Mulan kind? Do Nila’s parents never oppose or disagree with her aspirations? These are some gaps, which if addressed – can make Nila the new favorite Princess of the children of India. For, Nila is, in all other ways, a champion already.
In conclusion, all we are saying is: if you have younger children in your family, especially femme, read this book with them and see how many times they smile to themselves. I know the child in me was grinning happily by the end of it!