Firdaus Kanga’s Trying to Grow begins with a father likening his son’s teeth to glass windows. “You can look through them, see?” he says casually to the man sitting next to him on a bus. This is followed by a funny little episode involving a visit to a holy man for a miracle cure. Within the first 20 or so pages of this book we know two things: one, that narrator-protagonist Daryus Kotwal suffers from a serious physical abnormality; and two, that he can be droll about it, and about life in general.
Daryus, nicknamed Brit (not because of his Parsee family’s affinity for the former colonial masters but because his bones are extremely brittle), is a stand-in for the author; Kanga’s book, first published in 1990 and recently reprinted by Penguin India, is a partly autobiographical account of his coming of age in 1970s Bombay and his struggle with the rare condition known as osteogenesis imperfecta. This meant multiple fractures before he was five years old, atrophying limbs, perpetual wheelchair confinement (even though the disease burnt itself out by the time he reached adulthood) and never growing beyond four feet. The story was subsequently turned into a BBC film in which he played the lead role. I haven’t seen the film, but I can’t think of many other books that are so moving and effortlessly funny at the same time.
Kanga’s fluid writing style and sense of humour bring to life a rich cast of characters, beginning with the family Kotwal, who are never less than believable, multidimensional people even as they live up to every endearing Parsee stereotype (such as the ability to talk – or holler – unselfconsciously about things that would be taboo in most Indian households; Brit and his sister Dolly address their parents by their first names, use the occasional cuss word in front of them and discuss sex openly). Exasperation and affection jostle for space in Brit’s relationships with Dolly and with his parents Sam and Sera. From his part-time teacher Madame Manekshaw he learns the valuable lesson that “it’s what you learn that counts, not what you study” and also that “precious things are brittle”. Later, his friendship (though it briefly promises to become something more) with the smart Cyrus and with Cyrus’s girlfriend Amy puts him on the road to understanding what it means to grow up.
It’s an understanding that doesn’t come easily. Though Trying to Grow unfolds as a series of episodes in Brit's life – roughly between the age of eight and his early twenties – the chapters don’t have convenient headings that establish the time period in which they are set: it's only through close reading and extrapolation that one discovers how old he is at any given point. This is appropriate, for a major theme here is lack of development, the overall effect that of a lengthy sequence of events blurring into each other while the protagonist at their centre remains frozen in time: Brit in his wheelchair, motionless, while all around him his family and friends grow up, marry, move elsewhere, get exciting jobs, travel the world, grow old, die. (It’s a bit like watching a crowd scene in fast-forward, with people scuttling about busily, but with a single stationary element in the middle of the frame.)
Accordingly, the process of growing is more complex for Brit – and the yardsticks much less defined – than for “normal” people whose bodies undergo obvious changes with time and whose lives proceed in orderly stages from school to college to office and so on. On the book’s opening page someone mistakes Brit for a child of four when he is really eight, and this sort of thing continues for most of his life, even though he is in many senses more developed mentally than most others of his age. This complicates his relationships too.
All of this probably makes Trying to Grow sound very sombre, for which I apologise. It’s a lighthearted, warm book, full of riotous throwaway descriptions (“Mrs Dinshaw wept in words, like someone from a comic strip. ‘Boo-hoo!’ she sobbed, ‘Boo-hoo-hoo!’ ”), affectionate glimpses of 1970s Bombay and insights into the Parsee community (needless to say, everything mustn't be taken at face value: I’m not sure if they really use the phrase “he hadn’t even reach the vulture’s belly...” in the same way that people who cremate their dead say “his ashes hadn’t even cooled...”!) There’s also a running joke about the idea of karma: more than once, Brit must contend with sanctimonious “sympathy” founded on the idea that his condition is a punishment for sins committed in a past life. (One of the funniest exchanges in the book sees him countering the remarks of the karma-talkers by holding himself up as a representation of the Bhagwad Gita's lesson that the body is merely a raiment for the soul.)
The ruder aspects of Brit’s narration reminded me of Jaanvar, the memorable hero of Indra Sinha's Animal's People. Comparisons between the two books mustn't be taken far – they are very different in tone – but both narrators have enormous vitality, and there’s nothing martyred or self-pitying about them. This means that we can see them first as human beings with the insecurities, even baser desires that we all have, and only then as people whose physical limitations make them "different".
In Brit’s case, we only gradually learn about the real implications of his condition – what it means for him on a day-to-day basis, and how debilitating it must be for him as well as for those he depends on. An example of this is his offhand remark, made more than three-fourths of the way through the book, that he never sat on a toilet seat because "I was too small, too terrified of falling in; at home, I had a special ring that fitted on". Another book might have taken care to underline an everyday inconvenience such as this, to present it upfront, but this one treats it as a conversational aside. Even though Trying to Grow does fleetingly lead us into the dark corners of a world where not being able to reach the top of a cupboard for something you urgently need can become an all-consuming problem, a testament to total helplessness, the book's defining quality remains its brightness of spirit. At the end when Brit says "I liked the way I looked", you believe him.
P.S. For a fictional representation of osteogenesis imperfecta – and a character who responds to his condition with much less humour than Brit does – see Elijah/Mr Glass in M Night Shyamalan’s film Unbreakable (post here).