YAL in India - Gender as an Issue
Traditional and cultural constraints have made the development of a modern ‘young adult literature’ difficult in India, hence the very applicability of the term is debatable in the Indian context. As a consequence, gender as an issue in books for children in English in India was not considered particularly significant until very recently. However, there are certain notable works that strongly foreground girls, portray them in non-stereotypical terms or raise pertinent gender issues. These books that have made—or are making—a cautious but determined foray into the Indian market form the focus of this article.
One can begin with Swapna Dutta’s Juneli at St Avila’s, initially serialised in the Children’s World magazine (published by the Children’s Book Trust) and instantly popular as an Indian offshoot of the popular boarding school genre of the west.1 Juneli learns to adjust in unfamiliar environs, make new friends, challenge random bullies, and eventually grows to view her school as a home away from home. Although this series was somewhat imitative and derivative, its lucid, accessible style endeared it to many an adolescent reader.
Bubla Basu’s trilogy dealing with the travails of six teenagers is diametrically opposite in its treatment. It pitchforks the reader into a world of contemporary adolescent issues, ranging from drinking and smoking to squabbling parents. It Happened that Year, the first of the trilogy, delineates friendships between the sexes with great sensitivity and was among the first few books that dared to venture into this hitherto taboo domain.2 Unfortunately, the work is weighed down by a heavy didacticism in that the dilemmas faced by the six protagonists are always resolved by an adult figure, Auntie Bulan, with a fair amount of lecturing and moralising in the process. Although it is a commendable effort to explore the complex world of adolescents, Basu’s work is largely repetitive and predictable.
The Wrong Side of my Bed by Poojitha Prasad also uses the school as a backdrop.3 A very promising offering by a 14-year-old writer, it engagingly straddles the worlds of Indian and American schoolgirls, whereby the identity of Anita Nair, the protagonist, is exchanged with that of an American girl in a magical swap. Although fantasy and the supernatural are the core elements of the book, it nevertheless offers a brief glimpse into the concerns of Indian and American teenagers.
Anjali Banerjee’s Maya Running that similarly explores the juxtaposition of cultures is a delightful addition to the young adult genre in India.4 Maya, the only brown-skinned teenager in her school in Canada, has to confront issues of her Indian birth and heritage when her cousin, Pinky, arrives from India. Banerjee skillfully—and humorously— delineates the turmoil of an Indian adolescent in a foreign culture and her attempts to reconcile these conflicting worlds. This work is another welcome entry into the forbidden world of boy-girl relationships, Maya’s attempts to save her boyfriend from her cousin’s clutches verging on the hilarious.
A mélange of young adult concerns can be seen in Deeptha Khanna’s The Year I Turned 16.5 Written in a diary format, it attempts to tackle the issue of boyfriends, gender roles, teenage ambitions, friendships, child abuse, community traits, and parental fears and aspirations in a somewhat convoluted brew. The effort is quite commendable and, indeed, pioneering in many ways. However, while the light, informal style is reminiscent of Meg Cabot, it does not really replicate the delightful sensitivity and irreverent humour of her Princess Diaries series.6 Nevertheless, the concerns of the protagonist, Vinita, will touch many an adolescent heart.
Another notable work is Deepa Agarwal’s Not Just Girls in which teenage girl protagonists from both sides of the urban-rural divide are shown confronting, challenging and making sense of their worlds.7 So, on the one hand, there are city girls putting together a football team against all odds or managing alone in an unfriendly urban landscape while, on the other, there is a girl from a mountain village who gets treatment for her ailing grandmother under difficult circumstances or another who is forced into a child marriage. Agarwal’s forthcoming title Rajula and the Sorcery of Dreams is a retelling of the popular ballad Rajula-Malushahi from the Kumaon region of Uttarakhand, and showcases a young girl’s rebellion against her dominating father. Rajula, who cannot accept her father’s marriage plans for her, faces incredible danger and displays great presence of mind as she travels over mountains and forests to reach her lover Malushahi and ask him to come and claim her as his bride.
The title of Paro Anand’s exposition on terrorism in Kashmir, No Guns at my Son’s Funeral is, in fact, the plea of a teenage girl, Shazia, whose brother, Aftab, is drawn into the clutches of a terrorist, Akram, and exchanges his childhood innocence for blood and tragedy.8 This is the boldest intrusion, by far, into the world of love and relationships in its delineation of the affair between Shazia and Akram that culminates in a child born out of wedlock. And it is the unwed mother who vows to eschew violence for the sake of her child, thereby infusing a strong note of hope into an otherwise bleak scenario.
Let us now turn to three recent, significant works by Ranjit Lal. The first is The Battle for No. 19, an intense portrayal of the anti-Sikh riots in Delhi in 1984.9 A group of schoolgirls, caught in the middle of mindless communal violence, seeks refuge in an abandoned house and fights to keep savage human marauders at bay. This gender-sensitive book maps the emotional journey of the girls, who must draw on unknown reserves of courage and ingenuity to survive, and of Puja, their leader, in particular. Puja, already deeply troubled by her uneasy relationship with her father, must battle fear, self-doubt and overwhelming odds in a personal Odyssey.
Equally noteworthy is Lal’s Faces in the Water that deals with the issue of female infanticide.10 Fifteen-year-old Gurmi Diwanchand, the only son of very rich parents, discovers an unspeakable truth about his family—that his sisters (and female cousins) were drowned in the family well at birth. The narrative proceeds in what might, at first, appear to be a slightly bizarre fashion, in that Gurmi gets to know all his sisters and cousins through a form of cyber magic. This poignant and sensitive novel ends with Gurmi attempting a form of redemption—he saves his new twin sisters from their family-prescribed fate. Faces in the Water powerfully drives home the Indian society’s lust for male children and the price that girls have to pay, as a result.
Lal’s third book, titled Smitten, that is to be published by Young Zubaan in October 2011, is another hugely topical and pioneering narrative, dealing with the issue of child abuse in a searing, brutally frank manner. Akhila, the 15-year-old female protagonist, is trapped in a poignant world where her father whom she loves dearly also physically abuses her every night. It is her close friend, Samir, who, with his sensitivity and support, helps her face the trauma with dignity and stoicism. Ranjit’s conclusion that is startling yet eminently satisfying also underscores the relationship of trust which has grown between the two friends, a bond that was born in a context of violence but that then becomes the ultimate challenge to it.
Puffin India published two anthologies in the same year (2007)—Favourite Stories for Girls and Favourite Stories for Boys.11 Incidentally, the pastel shades in the former supposedly appeal to girls and the darker shades in the latter to boys. It is the collection for boys, though, that holds more interest for our purpose. There is not just a focus on male sensitivity (Ranjit Lal’s ‘Owlet’) but also an interesting contribution by Paro Anand, ‘Bullies’, that talks of a pampered only son surrounded by unwanted sisters who are routinely forced to sacrifice their interests for him. Ironically, though, it is one of the sisters who rescues the boy from an ongoing dilemma of bullying at school. There is another significant story by Anand, ‘Babloo’s Bhabhi’, published in a collection of her stories, I’m Not Butter Chicken. In this, Babloo, frustrated at the treatment meted out to his sister-in-law (bhabhi), a typically oppressed wife, takes on his older brother, Dinu, and physically restrains him from beating her up. He thus becomes ‘a man’.12
Other significant gendered works include Rupa Gulab’s Chip of the Old Blockhead, where the adolescent Priya confronts radical changes in her life by making forays into an adult world of double standards, marital estrangement and divorce, while simultaneously attempting to build a relationship with her father;13 Maya Chandrasekharan’s Summer Job that deals with the experiences of a group of teenagers during their summer stint at a magazine;14 and a series called A Princess’s Diary published by Scholastic India that belongs to the genre of historical fiction but examines the teenage experiences of Indian women historical figures, an example being Subhadra Sen Gupta’s Jodh Bai— Diary of a Rajput Princess.15
I would also like to mention my book, Harsha Vardhana, in this context.16 History remembers Harsha as the powerful king of Thanesar and Kanauj who ruled over almost all of north India in the 7th century CE. I have contested the usual gender-blind delineation of Harsha’s reign by focusing on his younger sister, Rajyashri, through whom he actually acquired the throne of Kanauj that set him on the path to paramountcy—a fact that is almost always eclipsed in textbooks and other historical accounts of the time.
To conclude, Sheba Karim’s Skunk Girl, a bitter-sweet story about a teenage Pakistani girl in a small town in New York, is a recent and welcome addition to the genre of young adult fiction.17 The trials of teenage girlhood coupled with Nina’s realisation that there is a powerful cultural difference between her and her American friends is handled with gentle humour. Nina’s recognition of and eventual reconciliation with the conservative cultural mores of her community is tackled with refreshing humour and rendered eminently believable. Ultimately, she embarks on the path that her sister points her towards—that of self-determination, which is to be her true identity.
I would like to conclude with an interesting observation. When one surveys children’s books written by Indians settled abroad and sometimes published by foreign publishing houses, one notices their routinely gender-sensitive themes: stories that are set in India but that invariably raise gender issues or have very strong female protagonists. One can cite Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s Victory Song that deals with a young girl rescuing her father during the Independence movement in India,18 or Pratima Mitchell’s Indian Summer that juxtaposes two girls from opposite ends of the social spectrum and examines opposing social attitudes towards them, in this regard.19 Is this because of the relatively unfettered publishing mores available to these writers abroad, is it more acceptable for non-resident Indians to be raising these issues in their books, or is it just a reflection of the growing interest in gender issues in Indian children’s literature on the whole?
1. See Swapna Dutta (1992) Juneli’s First Term, New Delhi: Indus (an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers India Pvt. Ltd.), Juneli at St. Avila’s (1992) New Delhi: Indus and An Exciting Term (1992) New Delhi: Indus.
2. Bubla Basu (1998) It Happened That Year, Mumbai: Navneet Publications (India) Ltd.
3. Poojitha Prasad (2004) Wrong Side of the Bed, New Delhi: Rupa and Co.
4. Anjali Banerjee (2005) Maya Running, New Delhi: Puffin Books.
5. Deeptha Khanna (2006) The Year I Turned 16, New Delhi: Puffin Books.
6. See Meg Cabot (2001) The Princess Diaries, U.S.A.: HarperCollins Children’s Books.
7. Deepa Agarwal (2003) Not Just Girls, New Delhi: Rupa and Co.
8. Paro Anand (2005) No Guns at my Son’s Funeral, New Delhi: Roli Books.
9. Ranjit Lal (2007) The Battle for No.19, New Delhi: Puffin Books.
10. Ranjit Lal (2010) Faces in the Water, New Delhi: Puffin Books.
11. Favourite Stories for Girls (2007), New Delhi: Puffin Books; Favourite Stories for Boys (2007), New Delhi: Puffin Books.
12. Paro Anand (2003) I’m Not Butter Chicken, Delhi: IndiaInk.
13. Rupa Gulab (2006), Chip of the Old Blockhead, New Delhi: Rupa & Co.
14. Maya Chandrasekharan Summer Job, New Delhi: Scholastic India.
15. Subhadra Sen Gupta (2003) Jodh Bai—Diary of a Rajput Princess, India: Scholastic India.
16. Devika Rangachari (2009) Harsha Vardhana, New Delhi: Scholastic India.
17. Sheba Karim (2011) Skunk Girl, New Delhi: Penguin Young Adult.
18. Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni (2007) Victory Song, India: Puffin Books.
19. Pratima Mitchell (2009) Indian Summer, U.K.: Walker Books.