Jan/Feb 2010  •   Reviews & Interviews

Two YA Novels Set in India

Review by Niranjana Iyer

The Strike.
Anand Mahadevan.
TSAR Publications. 2006. 224 pp.
ISBN 1894770307.

The Loudest Firecracker.
Arun Krishnan.
Tranquebar. 2009. 182 pp.
ISBN 8189975447.

The main thing about Indian YA novels is that they didn't exist until recently. I grew up in eighties India on Anne of Green Gables and Meg Murray and Holden Caulfield and Ged. (To clarify: I spoke two Indian languages, but read exclusively in English—a not-uncommon phenomenon amongst urban middle-class Indians.) If there did exist novels featuring protagonists with four syllable names who ate tamarind chutney sandwiches, they were meticulously hidden; I never came across books that were set in my world. Ever.

Twenty years later, the drought finally seems to be easing; two YA novels with Indian settings recently arrived in my mailbox. Of course these novels are a drop in the ocean of boarding school vampires, but still, the next round's on me.

The Strike by India-born, Toronto-based Anand Mahadevan combines a setting of great specificity—the world of high-caste South Indian Brahmins—with a universal coming-of-age tale. Twelve-year-old Hari lives in Nagpur in North India, and is growing curious about girls, the taste of fish, and the cultural divide between his family and that
of the locals. When he accidentally sets off events leading to his grandmother's death, Hari is caught in that no-man's land between childhood and adulthood where he is young enough to be powerless, but old enough to understand his culpability. The first half of the novel is beautifully paced, with Hari gradually realizing that adults sometimes break the rules of fair-play without incurring penalties.

Every year, Hari and his mother take a train to Madras in South India to spend the winter holidays with his grandparents. During the journey, news of a much-beloved actor-turned-politician death arrives, and mourners on the train want the world to stop functioning in acknowledgement of their grief and rage. They hence decide to prevent
the train from completing the journey by lying upon the train tracks (Such spontaneous demonstrations are common in the great Indian democratic circus, I add.) Hari is in the wrong place at a dangerous time, and matters take their course.

Now, the political landscape of this region is vastly complicated, peppered with movie stars and their mistresses, atheists and casteists, and much more. Mahadevan's potted history of Tamil politics bogs the narrative down a bit—I felt it would neither satisfy those looking for a meaningful analysis nor the reader who just wanted to get on with the story. One of the chief issues in a book so firmly located in a particular culture concerns the desired audience—i.e., where will the reader meet the author? Mahadevan's usage of Indian (Tamil language) words in his novel is another case in point. One of terms he uses is eccil, a purity-associated reference to saliva. It's a word most (Indians) would not understand, and one that the author chooses not to explain. In a subsequent scene, however, Mahadevan mentions that a dosa (or dosai) is a sourdough crepe griddled in peanut oil. Google dosa, and you'll get over two million hits; eccil is a LOT more obscure. I'm hard pressed to account for Mahadevan's seeming arbitrariness in such matters of translation. The Strike is published by a Canadian small press and surely intended for a general North American audience as much as an Indian one, and I fear the Tamil words will daunt many readers—a pity indeed, because The Strike is a fine novel, with vivid, insightful prose that captures with finesse a child's eye-view of an increasingly unpredictable universe.

Arun Krishnan is an India-born, New York based writer, and his book The Loudest Firecracker features a young displaced south Indian Brahmin boy whose antics spark off tragedy. Yes, enough similarities between the two books for a graduate thesis right there.

Siddharth moves from Bombay to near-by Poona when his father, a Bollywood film director, decides to leave commercial cinema for art. The move from a megacity to a smaller town coincides with the family's move down the economic and social ladder, and Siddharth struggles to cope with the changes. When he's inadvertently sucked into local Hindu/Muslim politics, the results are devastating for his family.

Krishnan sometimes gets it all wrong—Siddharth, looking at a returned test paper, remarks that his teacher "seemed to have a difference of opinion with him on most answers. She also seemed to be from a household where there was absolutely no shortage of red ink." Wodehouse-inspired wit from a nine-year-old old? Really? But while
Krishnan's writing isn't as accomplished as Mahadevan's, the book has many charming moments, and there is something endearing about both the protagonist and the (occasionally clunky) prose.

Reading this book, I came bang up against the question of the writer's literary landscape. All along his novel, Krishnan tampers with reality—using fake lyrics in well-known songs (Boney M's "Daddy Cool," and, if you must know, a childhood favorite), inventing a new flavor for Maggi instant noodles, changing the names of characters in Hindu myths and so on. Perhaps he wants to demonstrate that the memories which shape our reality are not to be trusted, that history is as much a function of our imagination as fact, but I am, on the whole, less than convinced by my argument. These distortions, to my mind, actually detract from Krishnan's greatest strength as a writer—his ability to capture the Indian generation whose childhood was bookended by Indira Gandhi's death (1984) and the rise of cable television (around 1990). Brand names, television programs, cricket matches, school exams, pop stars—Krishnan has the preoccupations and pleasures of that time down to a nicety; I would have killed for this book when I was thirteen.

As is pretty evident: for all my cavilling, I am delighted with both these books. May they be the progenitors of a large and disorderly tribe of Indian YA novels.


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