Prime Edition

Talking of Muskaan

Himanjali Sankar

Duckbill

Pages: 154 Rs. 225

Gay, straight or crooked, can’t we all get along?

Himanjali Sankar’s YA novel does a splendid job of describing the trials and tribulations of a 14-year-old homosexual who comes out of the closet, writes Jai Arjun Singh.

JAI ARJUN SINGH  13th Dec 2014

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 judgments 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 Muskaan'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.

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 there is Prateek himself — self-absorbed, quick to form judgments, 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).

Himanjali Sankar.

"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.

 
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