Saturday, December 13, 2014

Talking of Muskaan (and those who talk about her)

[Did this review for The Sunday Guardian]

“I’ve always liked the idea of breaking rules, doing stuff that raises eyebrows, but suddenly I wasn’t sure anymore. This wasn’t like the other delicious secrets that the gang shared – this was big. It was horrible.”

These words come from a normally poised 15-year-old whose world has just been shaken up by a close encounter with a friend. The “horrible” thing Aaliya has learnt is that her best friend Muskaan is homosexual, and that there may be a question mark about her own sexuality. But “I wasn’t sure anymore” is an equally important admission in a story about young people whose certainties and self-perceptions are constantly being challenged.

It is reasonable enough, given the marketing compulsions that demand the tagging of books, to describe Himanjali Sankar’s Talking of Muskaan as one of India’s first LGBT novels for young adults. The narrative, set over a six-month period and involving an urban, Anglicised group of Class X students – in an Archie comics-like world where two lovebirds might kiss in a secluded spot near a basketball court but not do much more – handles a delicate subject very well, ticking all the right boxes: showing how people who live outside the sexual mainstream are persecuted and made to feel like freaks; what peer pressure and the hegemony of adult prejudices, not to mention such judgements as the recent Supreme Court recriminalisation of homosexuality, can do to a young person already unsure of herself. We don’t get Muskaan’s story in her own voice – it is told in fragments, by three of her classmates – but we gather that she is increasingly isolated, thinking of herself as a creature of the ocean, perhaps now trapped in an aquarium with people gaping at her. (“When she told me about the bullying in the bus, she said that when they gave her a bad time she would zone out […] she imagined that she was underwater, in a soundless zone.”)

In another sense though, it is limiting to classify this as an LGBT book, much the same way as it is limiting to classify people by just their sexuality – what makes Talking of Muskaan effective is its awareness that there are many different ways of being an outsider or misfit (or “queer”). The three narrators have their own insecurities and kinks. There is Aaliya, thoughtful and open-minded and a natural candidate for understanding Muskaam’s problems, if it weren’t for the fact that her much-too-direct involvement with the situation has created self-doubt and guilt. There is Subho, the class topper, ordered and proper and scholarship-obsessed, conscious that being from a not very well-off family he has to work twice as hard as many other students; his politeness conceals the resentment he feels towards spoilt rich kids like Prateek, who can casually misplace a phone that costs four times as much as the combined monthly salary of Subho’s parents.

And there is Prateek himself – self-absorbed, quick to form judgements, living in a bubble built for him by his money-minded dad and uncle, but with a vulnerable, restless side too. Within the world of this story, he is the nominal antagonist – the person most likely to be intolerant or nasty towards “other” types of people – but I also thought him the most interesting character in a sense: beset by a persecution complex, reacting impulsively to little stimuli (whether it is the sudden thrill of happening to touch a girl’s fingers during a chemistry class or seeing a footprint on his jacket after a football game). In his personality more than in anyone else’s one can see the part played by family background and upbringing, by adults hidden behind the curtains, and conjecture that all those smart-phones may not have been adequate substitutes for emotional security.

Throughout this book, there is an eye for detail, for little observations about how people change in some ways while remaining unbending in others; for the complications that can attend rites of passage such as girls waxing together for the first time. And the many dimensions in a youngster’s personality – how defensiveness can mix with thoughtless cruelty, or how you might one minute be debating whether to wear hot pants or tracks to a dance class and then reflecting on Bram Stoker’s classic Dracula ( “sort of chilling and quite beautiful in parts”) the next. The writing glides a little close to stereotype at times – with the brainy Bengali underdog or the crass businessman who sneers at “homos” and says things like “Let us thank God for that. He is always looking after us. Always” in situations involving other people’s misfortunes – and I had a couple of tiny quibbles: would someone like Subho use the precious, Blyton-esque word “horrid”, for instance? But such things are noticeable only because most of the time the voices feel so authentic, from Aaliya’s introspecting to Prateek’s inarticulacy while talking about things that lie well outside his experience (where he is really just parroting ideas he has picked up from his parents).

“In those days we imagined ourselves as being kept in some kind of holding pen, waiting to be released into our lives,” goes one of the chapter epitaphs, taken from Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending. The line is very appropriate to this book about the tenuousness of being young. Even when these youngsters seem smart and self-sufficient and opinionated, one is reminded that in many ways they are not fully formed, they carry many potential futures inside them and things could easily go one way rather than another. And that it is the adult figures in their lives who so often prepare the ground for a lifetime of bigotry or closed-mindedness.


  1. Hi,
    It was a pleasure to read such an insightful and thorough book review.
    My I know how I can contact you for getting my novel reviewed? My recently released novel is titled Lemon Girl. It follows the journey of a girl who gets raped, and then is blamed for it too. The novel raises a cry against the mentality of victim-blaming.
    However, despite being based on a serious issue, the book maintains a balance between poignancy and entertainment and is positive and motivating.
    I'd love to have it reviewed at your esteemed blog.

  2. I disagree with this review. You've used a lot of big, important, academic words to describe what is essentially a very simplistic novel. As a teen reader, I was annoyed at the stereotypes the novel is full if, and at the shallow, unidimensional characters. The novel is a timely release. It can be lauded as an important book just because it followed the supreme court judgement like a tail. I think there is a need for books that discuss homosexuality, but this one has not done it well. There is no authenticity to the YA voices. It stings to be portrayed like this. Please don't pass it off in your deeply literary tone as a deeply literary book. Your analytic adult voice is covering up for the fact that this is really a teen book. Its audience is not impressed. We would prefer to be handled with greater subtlety.

    1. I disagree with this comment. Also, can't do anything about the fact that I read and reviewed it as an adult rather than as a teen - that is one of the inbuilt hazards (if you choose to see it that way) of the criticism process. Thanks though for suggesting that I have been "academic" and "deeply literary" - many people who know me would chuckle long and hard at those words being applied to my work.

    2. You disagree with my disagreement! Well said. I have no qualms with your responding as an adult, but I am suggesting that while from your point of view, this book seems to be an insightful portrayal of teenage, it isn't as mind blowing to a YA reader. Adults who are looking to find gritty, socially relevant depictions of today's teens will certainly be impressed with the novel. The usual cardboard cut-out characters are sufficient for this purpose. But it is also the duty of any responsible reviewer to take a more balanced stance, and to register that the target audience of the novel will not be nearly as wowed by this simplistic portrayal of their emotional lives (unless the book is actually aimed at thoughtful adults, in which case, it shouldn't be posturing as YA writing). I repeat, we are nuanced human beings. Same as adults, don't you know? We are real people. I would appreciate it if the author didn't use us as little pawns so that she might prove a point. And I would equally appreciate it if you throw up your hands and declare that you are not capable of exercising a little imagination and adopting, even for a second, the perspective of a young reader who has seen these cliches in action all too many times.
      As for your deeply literary style, I am referring to the liberal use of the language of literary analysis in describing a novel that isn't really worthy of it. I do not care who you are, and whether or not I have gauged your personality correctly. I am responding to what I see as self-importance and a lack of balance -- in your writing, your emphatic praise of what is actually a very ordinary book hiding behind its thematic significance.

    3. Actually, Anonymous, it might work equally well if YOU were willing to accept that your age, personal situation and experiences don't automatically make you the final arbiter of this book's worth - that there might be others, even of a similar profile to yours, who might disagree with your assessment. And thinking about it, perhaps I should have been more elaborate in my last comment: even if I have no direct experience of being a 16-year-old homosexual, I certainly do know what it feels like to be an outsider, cut off from things, subject to various hegemonies - and to a large degree what I focussed on in the review was not Muskaan's very specific situation but also the issues facing her friends. It was absolutely not my intention to be patronising towards young people - not sure where you got that from.

      I am referring to the liberal use of the language of literary analysis in describing a novel that isn't really worthy of it

      Like I said - YOU don't think the book is worthy of such analysis. I do, which is why I did the review. (I had the option not to.)

    4. I am not claiming to be the final arbiter, but I do care a lot about my opinions. I suppose we have both taken equally rigid stances and are refusing to budge. You're right, you chose to do the review, and how you go about doing it is up to you. My problem is probably the fact that I am frustrated with what YA literature/visual media do to popular perceptions of teenage. Taking issue with you will achieve nothing. The point I was hoping to make, is that books like this will be called groundbreaking. Really, it isn't, not as far as I can see. But there's nothing I can do sitting here. But I can't change a culture. So I engage in dialogues that sometimes turn a little nasty, like this one.

    5. Understood. My final word on this: I hope you see that I did not call the book "groundbreaking".