Thursday, 8 March 2018

#femmeMarch – Indian YA Books and the Class Divide

A couple of years ago, I happened to listen to Andaleeb Wajid (at St. Joseph’s College where I was teaching then) talk about her books and the writing process. I hadn’t yet read any of her books - her first, Kite Strings, was published in 2009 – but was very impressed by the author herself -  warm, articulate and approachable. Dressed in a black abaya, a pastel hijab and an amused smile, she described how she managed to fit her writing into her busy life, and still have time for social media and friends. She explained that she focuses on the teen reader, for whom there aren’t too many options, and that her characters were invariably Muslim. That interested me for most Indian books for teenagers hardly ever featured Muslim or Christian or Buddhist characters, except as sidekicks.

In the last nine years, Andaleeb has published fifteen books (that’s right!) with the latest, titled Twenty Nine Going On Thirty out this month. Most of them are written for the Young Adult reader (14-24 years) and feature romance and food. Lately, she has experimented with the horror genre, which she says she enjoys reading. She works with several different publishers including Juggernaut Books who are changing the way people read (For the first time ever, I read a book on my phone with the Juggernaut app 😊). A single publisher probably wouldn't be able to keep up with her amazing output.

That afternoon, I went away telling myself I would soon read a book by Andaleeb but I didn’t (My bad). Not until this week, that is. As part of my #femmeMarch reading, I was keeping an eye out for women writers – global, local, writing for adults, teens or children. And that’s how I finally picked up Andaleeb’s Asmara’s Summer and kept my promise to myself 😊.

Asmara, the protagonist and the first-person narrator, is a pampered teenager who has had a privileged upbringing. To her absolute mortification, she is expected to spend a month of her summer holidays with her grandparents who live in an area perceived as shabby, down-market and conservative. All these years, she has not even let on to her best friends that her grandparents live there! Asmara dreads her ‘summer from hell’ with no air-conditioning, no cool stuff to do, and no Wi-Fi. But, no worries, for it’s a romance, and so good things loom ahead, including a new BFF and a neighbor who is a handsome hunk.

The best part of the book for me is that it looks at class issues in the face, at how we resort to stereotypes about ‘those’ people and ‘their style’ of dressing and the food ‘they’ like to eat. Asmara moves to Tannery Road with all these narrow labels firmly in place and even sets up a new Instagram account to bitch about ‘the bling’ and the ‘loud glitzy colours’ used by people living ‘there’. But luckily, Asmara is a thinking person, and soon, uses her critical faculties to understand others and herself better.

What did not work for me is that the narrative doesn’t take the critical gaze far enough – while Asmara makes friends in the neighbourhood, she doesn’t dwell on what underlying social structures set this area apart from posher areas in Bangalore. How do they manage with intermittent water supply? Why are the schools and college in the neighbourhood not great places to study in? Why do the Tannery Road residents have to be helped by someone from a posh part of the city? The book is a quick and easy read and contents itself by merely scratching the surface of the classist times we live in.  

1 comment:

  1. Nice review. The unique thing about Andaleeb's writing is that the characters come across as real and their (the characters') emotions / feelings feel authentic. You have a point - that she scratches the surface of the issues that she addresses. In my opinion, Andaleeb, as reflected from her writing, is an intuitive person, is able to get into her characters' minds than be able to rationalize 'why' things are the way they are.

    PS: Some of her other books that I liked (actually I liked them all) - More Than Just Biryani and When she went away.