It has become fashionable for literary pundits and their ilk to debate on the merits – or lack thereof – of young adult fiction and whether we, ‘old’ adults, are worthy of reading and enjoying it, and if so, why. Opinion is divided between those who think that contemporary YA writing is the best thing since tabbed browsing and those who scoff at the very term for being nothing more than a spiffy marketing gimmick. Be that as it may, there is one thing we are sure of: readers will read anything that they like, even if it is yet another story of teenage angst and ‘discovering’ oneself. Which is not to say that No. 9 on the Shade Card can be easily filed away under that description.

The title of the book refers to the fact that our unnamed narrator is a trifle dusky for conservative Indian tastes obsessed with fairness. She notches up a dreaded number 9 on the ‘fairness’ card rather than a coveted 3 or 4. Her gravest ‘crimes’ – mostly in the eyes of her grandmother – are, apart from being the wrong colour, she has short hair, loves sport and being outdoors. All of these are big crosses in the important boxes of Ajji’s ‘how girls should be’ check-list.

Despite the laurels she wins for athletics and being quite a star in school, at home it is an uphill battle all the way. First, there is Ajji’s disapproval of her early morning training and running practice. What is the need for girls to run around in shorts, that too in the sun, and that too when one is already so dark, because, you know, who will marry her?! Thus, a once-doting grandmother has now turned into an alien, constantly belittling her and slapping homemade gunk on her face to make her fairer. Then there is Pa, who has never had any time for his children. And while the mother doesn’t have much of a role in the book, it appears that she is so worried about not ruffling any feathers, that she isn’t likely to speak up for her daughter, openly praise her or celebrate her successes.

The book starts slow and a little unconvincingly, but picks up pace rapidly. A know-it-all best friend, an erratic and lovesick brother going through his “gadha (donkey) phase”, an impending sports scholarship of immense importance, a bunch of local boys harassing the early-morning athletes at the park, Ajji falling ill – all ingredients you’d expect to find in a YA novel. No spoilers here, but the results are not what you’d expect.

YA fiction loves to focus on warring siblings. While it’s fun and understandable to an extent, one would think that brothers and sisters are not meant to get along. No. 9 is an uplifting change in that department. You witness Murali and his sister’s journey from barely concealed hostility to realizing that they are – surprise, surprise – allies. The way this awareness dawns and how they start to stick up for each other to find empathy and support is heart-warming. That said, the narrator’s propensity to refer to Murali as “dear brother” – clearly meant to be sarcastic – gets grating after the first fifteen trillion times.

It is also commendable that Mandana has acknowledged how girls are often made to feel unsafe outdoors. But the resolution to some local older boys harassing the girls at practice is surprisingly filmy. In one word: brothers. They start tagging along to ‘protect’ their sisters; ‘rakhi brothers’ for those who don’t have ‘real’ ones! For a book that is refreshing on so many counts, one feels let down that it falls back on this paternalistic formula. I don’t have an answer on how it could have been done differently, but to reinforce the idea that girls needs brothers to protect them is problematic on many counts.

There are many good things about Kavitha Mandana’s first YA novel, including that sports stories featuring girls are rare and No. 9 fills that gap commendably. Second, sexual harassment faced by young women is a subject often glossed over in teenage fiction. This book looks at it head-on, even though it is tackled in a far from satisfactory manner. Finally, the focus on relationships between siblings and its evolution from hostility to empathy and camaraderie is heartening. Some of the resolutions are somewhat simplistic, but you’re willing to forgive that given the larger scheme of things.

No. 9 on the Shade Card is a nicely brought out book, nothing spectacular to look at, but well worth reading. Despite the title, this is not so much a story about skin colour. It is more about empathy, which we could all do with a little more of in our lives.

By Payal Dhar

Author: Kavitha Mandana
164 pages
Rs 195.00
ISBN: 978-8129129321
Rupa Publications, 2013
Subject category: Contemporary/Fiction/Young Adult
Age-group: 13+

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