Thursday, May 21, 2015

Catchers in the rye - about a boy named Manan and a girl named Ela

[Did this piece – a composite review of two fine Young Adult novels – for Open magazine]

“He closes his eyes and finds today’s date floating towards him. Shimmering in the darkness, swiveling – like the text on the Windows 95 screensaver. […] All his life’s problems are in the past.”

“The day I turned thirteen was the day I wanted to die. The day the blackness fell on me so sharp and exact it took the shape of a monster bird that dug its claws in my shoulder and never left.”

The first of those quotes is from the opening paragraph of Mohit Parikh’s Manan; the second begins Sampurna Chattarji’s Ela: The Girl Who Entered the Unknown. If you tried to identify the general mood of the books from these lines, you’d think the former would be affirmative, the latter dark. In fact, it turns out to be almost the reverse – but rather than use limiting descriptors, perhaps it is better just to say that here are two very sensitive and engaging Young Adult publications, part of a growing landscape of such titles in Indian English writing. Both these books – broadly aimed at readers in the 13-to-18 age bracket – employ stream-of-consciousness to express the turmoil in a youngster’s mind: the conversations with oneself, the tendency to flit from one thought to the next. They are similar also in that each begins with an incident that leads to renewed self-awareness, or a rethinking of one’s place in the world.

Ela’s situation is the more dramatic of the two: at her own birthday party she learns, in the worst possible way – a nasty little boy and his gloating mother being the catalysts – that she was adopted. Her parents, who now suddenly feel like strangers, had never told her; they were going to, they plead, they didn’t mean for it to happen like this – but a large hole has opened beneath Ela’s feet. Her voice is that of a poised, eloquent teenager, mature beyond her years, but she was clearly unprepared to deal with this, and emotional trauma gives way to physical illness.

The 15-year-old protagonist of Manan isn’t so poised or self-confident to begin with, but that could be about to change. The big event in Manan’s life, the thing that will leave “April 23, 1998” seared on his mind, is that a hair has sprouted on his balls: puberty, too long delayed, may finally be rapping at his door. Surely this means he will catch up with his taller, better-built, more hirsute classmates, and adults will no longer look disbelieving when they learn he is in the 10th grade?

Manan. The name has “a man” in it, and much of this story is about a boy’s preoccupation with achieving that desired but also scary state of being, with all the things it implies. (“He is a man. A man, a male, masculine. […] He has seen Shrey and Kshitij make comments about girls from Girl’s Polytechnic College and he has not scolded them […] He has even uttered an expletive – a phrase for a non-existent male body part – and it has felt good.”) But the name also suggests a life of the mind, and the book places us firmly inside his head, where contrary feelings jostle hotly with each other for space. Unlike Ela, this narrative is in the third person, but it is very much the subjective third person, closely allied to Manan’s consciousness. In one passage he imagines his brain as a gooey, florescent lump that can be extracted from his skull – by untangling the threads that comprise it – then dry-cleaned and put back inside.

Place and period are important in Parikh’s novel. There are little details that many people who grew up in 1990s middle-class India will recognise, such as the Mario Bros video games (the ones I played were on an unwieldy, jukebox-shaped thing in a corner of a nearby video parlour), or the advent of this mysterious new creature called the internet, delicate and precious in those days because even just “logging on” could be such an adventure: the dial-up, the clanging bells, the knowledge that the whole thing would disconnect if someone happened to call on the landline you were using (or if there was a cross-connection – which happened often to the phone in my room).

But I could also relate to Manan in terms that are independent of time and setting, such as the theme of an introverted boy grappling with this coming-of-age business. What happens when you already feel so mature inside – wiser, more evolved than many of the adults around you – that growing up seems redundant in some ways; and yet you also know there are nebulous things still to be negotiated: physical changes, sexual awareness. And throughout, the fear that growing up might mean becoming preoccupied with “boring” stuff like electricity bills and bank accounts and office ledgers. It may mean the end of the particular forms of romanticizing that are youth’s privilege, as when Manan thinks about the girl he loves (or thinks he loves). What if he spoils her life by entering it, he wonders.

If he marries her they might fight. They might become ordinary. They might have to talk about festivals and constipation and plumbing. Instead, he can be at a distance, like a line that is parallel. Going along with her, looking out for her forever, but never intersecting. Like how sages are. In that poem, Upagupta does not accept the invitation of a dancing girl who is young and beautiful and whose house would be comfortable in the rough night. Instead he chooses to sleep in dust and promises to come to her when the time is ripe. A year later, when the dancing girl suffers from smallpox and is abandoned by the villagers, the young man offers her water to drink and balms her wounds with sandal paste. Aren’t such men the greatest?
This idealising also goes hand in hand with his suspicion that sex is inherently dirty, that people who have experienced it are “fallen” in some way. As the internet leads him from abstracted, detached awareness to full-blooded understanding of the graphicness of the act, a repulsed fascination arises: how to trust or respect the grown-ups he sees around him, with the knowledge that that is what they do in private? These thoughts are further complicated by his having to serve as go-between (I was reminded of LP Hartley’s coming-of-age novel of that title) for his sister and her boyfriend.

Manan is part of a generation of young people who suddenly had to deal with the outside world coming at them through a computer screen, assailing them with more information than their minds were ready to process. For Ela, on the other hand, born and raised in a time when cyber-space is taken for granted, it becomes a way of returning to normal life. “And then the whole wide world I’d stayed away from came rushing back in and I remembered that miracle called the internet, I remembered there was a way to get in touch, privately, they called it email, the medicines had made me a moron, how could I have forgotten…” 

Here and elsewhere, Ela speaks in a breathless rush, some sentences flowing on for up to two pages; so skilful is Chattarji’s writing that even everyday incidents are given an edge, and we are always aware of how precarious this girl’s state of mind is. The marketing machinery may peg this as a story about How to Deal with Finding Out You were Adopted, but as with any really good book Ela is not restricted by its ostensible subject. It is as much about discovering the possibilities of the world – and yourself – beyond the certainties you have been raised with. 

Though Ela’s reactions seem over the top at first, gradually we see why she feels hard done by. At one point she mentions that her school had taught its students to be respectful and sympathetic towards less fortunate children; that they had visited schools for the poor, donated clothes and books. Even in doing these “noble” things, Ela intuitively realised that they, the privileged lot, would never truly think of these poor children as equals. And now she knows that she might easily have been in those straits herself, if her adoptive parents hadn’t “rescued” her. How does a 13-year-old deal with such a seismic shift in her sense of being?

One way of doing this is to turn to the world of the imagination. (“Reading is like dancing for the brain!”) Ela starts to heal herself through story-telling followed by story-sharing, and the help of a classmate with whom she has an unknowable, almost telepathic bond. And here one can note that while both Manan and Ela have rich inner lives, they are put to different ends and have different effects. The make-belief world Ela immerses herself into has its dangers (and the peril of complete submersion) but in the end it saves her. For Manan, on the other hand, the life of the mind becomes stifling. Fantasy can be liberating, or it can become a cul-de-sac, depending on the sort of young person – or young reader – you are.

It is hard to do interior monologue well even in short doses, much less sustain it over the course of a whole book, yet there are few missteps in these two narratives. Chattarji is the more assured and fluent writer, but there is something very appealing about the occasional rawness of Parikh’s prose. Some passages in Manan feel clumsy (“He freezes. The world freezes too, ceases to exist; present only: an onlooker looking on. Then the world resumes, as a blur, as a noise, as a something that has happened to enable the happening of this: she crossing the road, him watching her, she unaware of him”), but on the whole this tremulous vulnerability works very well for the story. A visual equivalent for it may be found in one of the drawings (by Urmila Shastry) in the book, Manan’s body depicted as an assortment of giant ice-cubes slithering off a bicycle. Though come to think of it, that image could represent any young person at the crossroads, trying to find the balance between fitting neatly into an icebox – becoming “square” – and melting in a puddle on the road.


[Here is a review of another YA book, Musharraf Ali Farooqi's Tik-Tik, the Master of Time]

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