[Editor’s Note : Edited version of this piece was first published on Scroll.in]
Self is an emerging proposition. To discern and explore self through the looking glass of sexuality, desire, class and personal identity based on powerful experiences and influences at a young age, is a prodigious feat in today’s time.
Adolescence especially needs such references where everything around seems idiosyncratic and painful. There are young people who struggle with alternate sexual and gender orientation, and do not know what to do about it. I hope that more writers write about such things with sensitivity and humour, as it is clearly done in the two novels reviewed here, ‘Talking of Muskaan’ and ‘Slightly Burnt’.
Talking Of Muskaan by Himanjali Sankar’s is one such latest young adult novel that explores what happens when someone is trying to break free of heteronormative structures and is seeking acceptance. It is a delicate, intimate narrative of three teenagers – Aaliya, Prateek and Shubhojay. In the book, each narrate his/her story, the style used is that of small anecdotes by the speakers and focuses on an attempt to make sense of Muskaan and their opinions of the situation respectively.
Through these narratives, the author is speaking about isolation, class-political issues, biases and more. It is interesting to see how intimate relationships have a tremendous power to bring about a change in a person. One may perceive it as the process of becoming one’s own self while other may view it as a process of loosing one self in the whirlwind.
The book shifts narratives and steers clear of linear timeline and that is what keeps the reader enamoured. The themes of adolescence and the angst with in are touched upon brilliantly by the author. In our everyday life, we often come across conversations about class, and privilege; and how people belonging to a particular class tend to get away with anything; however, this novel reflects the cruelty of the world, that doesn’t leave uninjured anyone.
This book is as much about the casual cruelties we inflict on people who are not like us: whose sexuality, or class, or background is different from our own; as much as it is about the desire to feel rooted and understood by those close to us. The novel unfolds the delicate confessions of the young minds in a sensitive yet mannered way. The book is a great, nevertheless, I do wish that the author had unraveled the character of Muskaan a bit more.
On the other hand, we have the witty, snarky ‘Slightly Burnt’ by Payal Dhar, who has gotten into the skin of what it is to be an adolescent and having to come around all things adult. The book is about two friends – Komal and Sahil, and Komal narrates the story. Both of them go to a new age progressive school where there are no exams and students are encouraged to talk about their feelings, their secrets. Everything is hunky dory until Sahil comes out to his friend, and that’s when all the hell breaks loose.
Unlike many novels that deal with homosexuality either through angst or wisdom, the protagonist has taken a very organic route to understand and accept this fact about her friend. It is not written in the linear format and that is one of the things, which I loved about the book. It does not sentimentalize or romanticize teenage or adulthood.
Dhar has this uncanny ability to show things for what they are. If the characters are hurt, then the reader must feel it. If they are happy, the readers must rejoice in their moments. Slightly burnt is a fun read that does a fascinating job of describing the notions of normal, and abnormal, and the undercurrents of desire with details and grace that are nowhere close to being ordinary.
Growing-up and in contrast adulthood are dealt with delicately, without overstepping on any one aspect. The characters shine through the entire book. There is not a single line or situation which should not have been a part of the book.
What I loved most about both the books is the honesty with which they are written. These books are all about being you and carry on regardless of how life works out in the end. I firmly believe that everyone who has a teenager around must read and gift them these books.