My Name is Gulab: How this children's book tells the empowering story of a manual scavenger's daughter

Written and illustrated by Sagar Kolwankar and published by Tulika Publishers, this book tells the story of a student who has an idea to solve the problem of manual scavenging — and what comes next
The device that helps | (Pic: Sagar Kolwankar)
The device that helps | (Pic: Sagar Kolwankar)

Passerbys would crinkle their nose whenever they would pass by the nalla (an open gutter of sorts) near Lokmanya Nagar in Thane, Mumbai but not the residents of the slum near it. In fact, the children from the slum, one of whom was Sagar Kolwankar, would play near it and when in the josh of their game the ball would ultimately land in the nalla, they'd nonchalantly jump into it, pick it up and get their head back in the game. It was completely normal. What was also 'normal' for Sagar as a child was the infusion of caste discrimination in everyday banter like 'Oh, you can't eat from my tiffin box'. At the age of 29, Sagar recalls all these experiences he was subjected to and distills it into his third book, My Name is Gulab.  

How the story begins...
Every story Sagar, who is also an illustrator, pens is triggered by a photograph he happens to come across in the newspaper. His first children's book with Tulika Publishers as an illustrator was I Will Save My Land by Rinchin, the writer and social activist and then came Red, written and illustrated by Sagar, about the Aleppo bombings. Going by the titles, one can clearly see that this Mumbaikar does not shy away from talking about difficult subjects. "It is not just about a beautiful story, but about what stories can do and the power they have," he says.

An illustration from the book 

But back to Gulab. The photograph that triggered Sagar's memory to write My Name is Gulab was of a manual scavenger inside a drain cleaning the muck. "And the thought that got me started was what if the man had a young daughter? Would she go through the same amount of discrimination that he does?" shares the writer who prefers to be referred to as a storyteller.    

Sagar tells us that the story, which he started writing about a year back, was much more traumatic at first and he had to work hard with the publishers to make it more palatable for his readers. The Gulab that we know from the book is more optimistic and action-oriented because she has decided to use technology to solve the problem of manual scavenging — by coming up with a device that cleans the drains without human intervention. "Gulab is a tad miffed because machines are already solving so many problems, so why hasn't anything been devised to solve the problem of cleaning filthy drains, she wonders often," informs Sagar who is also the author of No Bullying with Scholastic India and a few other books.

Sagar Kolwankar

The pursuit of a machine is how he has managed to encapsulate hope in the story, through the imaginative device that Gulab presents on Science Day at her school. A resounding round of applause that she receives for this makeshift machine is uplifting, but there are also some kids in the corner who have a frown on their face. "That's to depict that there will always be people who will say, 'You always play the caste card', because that is also the reality of today's circumstances," points out Sagar who works as a Product Designer with MyGate.  

Today’s characters. Tomorrow's world
Gulab's father works hard to provide an education for his daughter and is very encouraging of her pursuits. What is also noteworthy is at no point in the story are the duo typecast in the role of the oppressed because these are the people of today. Yes, the father clears the gutters and is from a particular caste, but they are flesh and blood characters with dreams and aspirations of their own. "Though her idea is pure imagination, it wins. What needs to be stressed upon here is that it's the thought that counts," says Sagar. And it's from the thoughts that change begins, right?

The machine

Sagar affirms and adds, "That's indeed what brings about change. I am willing to change but I don't have all the answers. Doesn't mean we stop asking questions all together!" That's also one of the reasons why he doesn't hesitate to take on difficult subjects in his books. "If we motivate children from a tender age, their mindset could change. With my work too, I try to view social subjects through a child's eye," he explains and adds that it was only during the fourth draft of the story that it became what it is today.

Back in time
Remember those painted posters of films from ages ago? It is these very Bollywood 16x10 posters that Sagar used to see as a child that motivated him to walk down the creative path, even though his parents hoped that he would become a Computer Engineer. He went on to pursue his Master's in Design Communication from IDC School of Design. "Writing and illustrations help me keep my creative side alive," Sagar says with a smile.

Related Stories

No stories found.