Each year, for the last 10 years, when India’s bravest children land in the capital to receive the National Bravery Awards, a tall, bespectacled man follows their every step. Away from media attention and limelight, he can be usually found in a corner, talking to the children and their parents – furiously scribbling notes.
It’s easy to mistake him for a sleuth or a pesky journalist, but 55-year-old Rajnikant Shukla is none of these things. He is a simple teacher who teaches Hindi at a government school in Delhi, and who has made it his life’s mission to pen riveting, real-life stories of children who win the National Bravery Awards every year.
The idea to jot down stories of bravery award winners first occurred to Shukla while attending a Scouts & Guides function in early 2000’s. “The chief guest was narrating the story of a young scout who had saved Chacha Nehru’s life and inspired the Bravery Awards. Someone spoke about several award winners still being in Delhi, and I decided to track them down,” Shukla says.
Eventually, he found their stories so amazing and inspiring that he decided to jot them down in the form of stories. “Every year, at least 20 children win the National Bravery Award. But, what after that? Their stories are no lesser than stories of heroes we see in cinema halls. My stories are an attempt to bring alive their adventures through my words and archive them forever,” he adds.
“They come to the capital for 10 days. I keep myself free during that time so that I can as spend as much time with them as possible,” Shukla says. He can be found at almost every government function during the time, lingering in the background, trying to establish contact with every child.
Starting out with short stories in Hindi magazines in 2003, the writer got his first break when the editor of Sahara Samay, a Hindi newspaper, asked him to do a full page story on the winners.
In 2005, a leading Hindi publication house asked the author to compile all his stories into a book. Titled “Bahaduri Ki Prerat Ghatnayein” (tales of inspired bravery), the book came out in 2006 but hit a wall with the publishers.
Not one to be deterred, Shukla kept writing for big and small magazines. In 2013, his proposal of stories was selected from a list of 80 proposals by the Central Hindi Directorate.
Since then, there has been no looking back for the teacher-cum-writer, who has published 5 books so far. So how exactly does he go about writing these stories?
“I spend as much time with the children as I possibly can, and try to get to know them. I try to get inside their heads to understand what they were feeling at that exact moment. I speak to the parents; research the place where the child is from; cut newspaper clippings of the incident. Then, using my own imagination, I recreate the entire adventure,” Shukla says.
More than 150 stories later, the 55-year-old says he can’t help but feel awe and surprise, when he comes across stories of children, sometimes as young as 7 or 8 years old, risking their lives for someone else. “There is a certain selflessness to it. I’ll give you an example. This year, one of the bravery award winners is a 12-year-old girl from Maharashtra. Daughter of a construction worker and living in a slum, she saved a baby, as a house next to hers caught fire. As all the adults around her watched and wondered what to do, waiting for the cylinder to explode, she jumped in and saved the baby, putting her life in peril. If this isn’t bravery, what is? And if that is not a good story worth telling, I don’t know what is,” he says.