In recent years, Young Adult fiction in India has been making significant inroads into erstwhile taboo areas and, in Talking of Muskaan, Himanjali Sankar tackles one such, headfirst. When best friends Aaliya and Muskaan kiss each other on the lips, in a tree house, they react very differently. While both girls enjoy the immediate experience, prickly Aaliya soon recoils with horror, fearing that and wondering if she is bisexual. Muskaan, on the other hand, is elated: she always knew she was gay and the kiss, quite simply, made her happy, and it is one of the few times in the course of the book that she smiles.
The happiness does not last, as Aaliya begins to – quite bitchily – shun her. Muskaan in turn withdraws from their ‘gang’, deeply upset by and resentful of their insistence on her taking part in their ‘girlie’ activities and Aaliya’s rejection.
What happens during the next five months is recounted by Muskaan’s three friends: Aaliya, Prateek and Subhojoy. Aaliya, Muskaan’s erstwhile best friend, distances herself from the girl; she is prickly, self-centred, insecure about her own sexuality, and bitchily sarcastic as any self-respecting teen. Prateek is the stereotypical rich kid who plays golf and polo and is hugely affronted when Muskaan declines to go out with him. Subhojoy, whose family struggles to make ends meet, is single-minded in his pursuit of academic excellence. Surrounded by much wealthier kids, he is also something of a pariah, and oddly finds himself making friends with Muskaan (who is his chief academic rival), as she withdraws further and deeper into herself. There is also sweet Rashika, the gang’s ‘Mother Teresa’ and Srinjini, who unlike poor Muskaan, is happy to have her arms and legs waxed.
The news seeps out and Muskaan withdraws further into herself as she is teased, bullied and finally loudly and publicly humiliated. And when she takes matters into her own hands, Aaliya and Subhojoy realize that they are to blame, directly or indirectly, for what Muskaan has done. Aaliya through her cold rejection, and Subhojoy more indirectly and inadvertently through actions that backfire on Muskaan.
At the heart of the novel, of course, is the issue of homosexuality and how traumatic it is for a teenager to realize and come to terms with the fact that he or she may be ‘differently’ made. And more so, since it has been declared by the wise adults of this world as being something ‘criminal’. But it’s also about what isolation can do and how dangerous it can be to be a bottled-up loner in these tumultuous, topsy-turvy years of one’s life, where everything is felt and experienced so intensely and psychedelically.
The prickliness, self-centredness, defensiveness, sarcasm and aggression of young teens, especially in their relationships with each other, is crisply brought out by Sankar’s tart, staccato-style and crew-cut prose. What is surprising is that even best friends do not hesitate to unsheathe their claws against each other: in the final analysis, it’s every kid for him or herself. The blind, weld-strong loyalty that chaddi-buddies once shared seems to have gone out of the window. A reflection of our times, perhaps, since teens today have extremely independent and inward-looking mindsets. But mercifully, at least Aaliya and Subhojoy do realize what they’ve done and feel appalled about it. Only Prateek, who is also to blame, remains foolishly oblivious.
The families of the children play a peripheral and rather formal role and are kept at a distance from the reader by the narrators. As the story is narrated in the first person by the three protagonists, there is, inevitably, more telling than showing. But what Sankar gets across marvellously is the sometimes infuriating and exasperating unpredictability of the teenage mindset and response – where logical thinking does not hold centre stage and reactions are rather like bouncing a ball on a pebbly surface and wondering which way it will go.
In a country bursting at the seams with 1.2 billion people, where basic ‘sex education’ in schools is shushed sanctimoniously by medieval powers that be, such books are invaluable and may there be many, many more of them in the pipeline.
By Ranjit Lal
Author: Himanjali Sankar
Subject category: Contemporary/Young Adult