Here’s the truth. Ranjit Lal has written some wonderful stories for children and young adults. He is a specialist in this genre, of long standing, and his heart-warming stories about trees and birds and animals rank among the best stories available by Indian writers/naturalists for children.
Here’s also the truth. There are books in which Lal does not find his touch. The book under review – Faces in the Water – is one of them.
The plot, in brief outline, goes thus: The Diwanchand family prides itself on consistently producing male heirs. The secret to this selective breeding (and the general good health of the family) is rumoured to be the magical waters of an old well on the Diwanchand ancestral property. One summer, fifteen-year-old Gurmeet Diwanchand is forced to live on the farm while his home in the city is being renovated. Determined to find the magical well, which he has been warned to stay away from, Gurmi goes exploring, and stumbles upon a devastating secret – looking up at him from the waters of the well are three girls, all different ages. They are Gurmi’s ghost-sisters – his parents’ daughters – who were tossed into the well at birth for no reason other than that they were the wrong sex. As he gets to know them and love them, through a phantasmagorical set of events, Gurmi becomes determined to ensure, with the help of his ghost-sisters and his ghost-cousins (yup, there are several more where the first three came from), that such a horrific thing never happens again. Will Gurmi succeed?
Here are the good things about Faces in the Water (FITW): It puts on the table the unusual subject (at least as far as Indian YA is concerned ) of female infanticide, instantly opening up a space for writers to explore other, more taboo themes in their own YA novels, which is always a good thing. It features adults from a regular, educated (the girl-killing aunt is a gynaecologist!) middle-class family as the perpetrators of the crime, instead of resorting to the ‘stuff happens, but only in other families’ trope. It uses humour, lightness and hotch-potch fantasy to make the subject more palatable…
Wait. That stuck in the craw. Female infanticide is a terrible, terrible thing. Why the heck should it be made ‘palatable’, even to young adults? We all know that teenagers are capable of handling, even enjoying, with aggravating sanguinity, dystopian worlds where children are expected to kill children to survive (The Hunger Games), or where a deadly virus turns adults into feral predators of healthy children (The Enemy by Charlie Higson). Surely they can handle a spot of girl-child killing?
I don’t mean to be facetious. There is of course a difference between (so far) hypothetical situations like The Hunger Games, and a grisly real-world problem like female infanticide. But that’s precisely why it should be showcased even more ruthlessly. Instead, FITW gives us this:
– Gurmi never struggles with feelings of shock, horror, depression, survivor’s guilt (except in one throwaway line), or complete parent-loathing once he has discovered their transgressions. When his mom calls to check on him a couple of days later, these are his thoughts. “I didn’t know whether to be cold and aloof, or sarcastic, or what. In the end I just went into default mode I guess and was completely normal. (Because, if she found out that I knew) … she might panic and go and tattle to Papa (…) and they’d probably drop me headfirst into the well.” (!!!) Sure, teenagers can be self-obsessed, and are often guided by self-interest, but aren’t they also (and should they not be portrayed as) idealistic, and therefore prone to fury, or despair, when a world they believe in is shattered?
– The murdered sisters are so forgiving of their parents – yes, they killed us/allowed us to be killed, but they are our parents after all and we shouldn’t wish them ill (wait, what?!) – that they keep the waters of the well clean and life-sustaining for them. Older sister Mohini explains away the fact that she feels no anger towards their parents thus: “When you are that tiny (as they all were when they were thrown into the well), there really is no good or evil that you know of; you’re absolutely clean, like a fresh page.” Right. But the readers of the book are not tiny – what message is this sending out to them?
– The parents eventually get around to regretting their actions, but ONLY because the ghost-sisters conjure up for them scenes of the kind of domestic bliss that might have been – they comb the pregnant mom’s hair, hand her cups of tea, help her cook delicious meals that find approval with demanding, patriarchal dad, hold killer dad’s hand affectionately – aaaarggghhh! As if all these are pleasures only daughters can provide; and worse, as if THOSE are the reasons why daughters should not be murdered!
– At the end of the book, the mom births a pair of twin girls, whom Gurmi rescues from the well. The parents and evil gynaecologist aunt are confronted, and they all instantly reform. The aunt goes on to manage a home for abandoned baby girls, Gurmi’s parents live a blissful life with him and his baby sisters, haunted by nothing more than a picture of their ghost-daughters, which appears mysteriously on their bedroom wall. Because of course that’s exactly the kind of comeuppance such villains deserve. And precisely the kind of ‘forgiveness and light’ resolution this dark subject demands.
Then, there are plot holes aplenty in the book. For example, if the aunt is a qualified gynaecologist, surely she can tell from an ultrasound the sex of the baby well before it is delivered? Why wait until the baby is full-term to kill it then? Also, Gurmi ends up spending some eight months at the farm, and school or lessons are (almost never) talked about. At fifteen, he should be in Grade Ten – shouldn’t the pressure of the boards, on top of his cataclysmic discovery, tell on him somewhere? The funny part is, there is enough talk about Mohini’s anxiety about her Class Twelve board results! (Yes, you read that right. She is a ghost who takes board exams and is a whiz on her computer. Oh, and at cooking, too, because, seriously, how can a girl only be good at computers?)
Here’s the thing. Lal’s work is in many ways path-breaking – in Smitten, he tackles child sexual abuse; in The Battle For No 19, he uses as his backdrop the bloodlust of the 1984 anti-Sikh riots in Delhi. Plus, his writing is always excellent, if a little dated – even in FITW, some of the idyllic ‘happy family’ scenes he writes will cause the reader to tear up.
But overall, there are too many problematic things about FITW. Unfortunately, simply taking on a disturbing subject is not enough to exonerate a book from its many real flaws.
FACES IN THE WATER
Author: Ranjit Lal
Subject Category: Contemporary/Fiction/Young Adult