I haven’t had the experience of being a teenage schoolgirl, but judging from Shabnam Minwalla’s novels, it sounds like it would be a lot of fun. Hers is a world of eccentric teachers and interesting class projects, annoying class monitors and naughty pranks, friends to love and enemies to defeat, and of course, the ever-looming awful wonderful day when school life will have to be left behind for good. This novel too is set in such a world, but with one intriguing twist: it includes a ghost. Specifically, a British Raj-era schoolgirl ghost by the name of Emily Sandhurst.
Every ghost has a reason to be a ghost, and I found poor Emily’s reason – her desperate need to know the outcome of a certain prize contest – both darkly comic and completely plausible. The story gets going when Emily discovers that Lara Pinto, a Model High schoolgirl and heroine of the story, is able to see her. Until then, Lara Pinto is an ordinary kid whose biggest problems are Delna Forbes, the class monitor, and the evil moral science teacher Mrs Rangachari. Her parents work in Abu Dhabi and she lives with her grandmother Sylvia, owner of the cake-shop Sweet Temptations. Lara’s best friends are Mallika Rao, “a carefree girl with a mop of glossy curls, a button nose and an impish smile”, and Sunaina “Sensible Sunu” Mitha, “tall, with a serene oval face and long hair tied in a thick plait” and whose family has “loads and loads of money”. Lara comes to terms with her unwelcome ability and adds the long-dead Emily to her posse.
Emily, true to her ghostly nature, trades in information. She informs Lara (who in turn informs her friends) that Mrs Rangachari and her villainous sidekicks – Mr. Zagose and Miss Zubeida Zanwar – are plotting to discredit the school and its formidable principal, Madam Dolly Divecha. In return, Emily wants Lara and her friends to find out who had won the prize contest held at Model High a hundred years earlier. The rest of the story is about how the good gals triumph over the bad ones.
The story’s telling is light-hearted for the most part, but there are dark undercurrents. Lara’s world is India as it is, not what it should be. For example, the story touches upon Mrs Rangachari’s prejudice towards Anglo-Indians. It’s hard to ignore the absence of “low-caste” surnames (the one exception is Kamble, who turns out to be the school watchman). And forget about the happy joint family of Malgudi Days. Lara’s true family consists of her friends and a few treasured possessions.
I recognized the schoolgirls of Model High; I have nieces just like them. These kids are ostensibly Indian, but the truth is, they know next to nothing about their land or its many cultures. The books they like to read, the movies they like to watch, the music they like to hear, their jokes, their notions of what’s cool, beautiful, acceptable, modern, et cetera, are all shaped by “the” West. The schoolgirls in Minwalla’s novel don’t read the novels of Indian authors like Minwalla; their imaginations are filled with Harry Potter and Twilight. If they have spiritual questions, the answers are to be found in Judy Blume’s It’s Me Margaret, not the works of Vivekananda, Kabir, Tulsidas or the Tirukkural. Try this thought experiment. Imagine all the Indian characters were, say, Nigerian. And imagine all the western references were, say, to India and Indian things. What would we think of the kids and their world then?
Like I said, Minwalla’s novel shows India as it is, not how it should be. There is no one to blame. There is nothing to blame. It’s just how things are. And none of this makes our kids inauthentic; authenticity is a meaningless concept. But for me, it did make the kids in Model High somewhat pathetic. I identified with the schoolgirls of Model High, because growing up, my friends and I weren’t all that different from them.
My comments aren’t meant as a criticism of Minwalla’s world-building or her writing. Indeed, Model High is exactly the kind of work needed to get our kids to read more Indian authors. The story accurately depicts an interesting and attractive world that Indian English-speaking urban kids will recognize as their own. Minwalla’s writing is often laugh-out-loud funny and spotted with the kind of wordplay kids adore. Lara Pinto is very likeable, as are her friends, but for me, the unfortunate Emily Sandhurst stole the show. Minwalla’s fiendish plotting kept me guessing all the way till the end. And best of all, I found the ending both surprising and poignant. This novel stars seventh standard students, but I think it could be enjoyed by slightly older kids as well.
By Anil Menon
Author: Shabnam Minwalla
Illustrator: Svabhu Kohli
Scholastic India, 2015
Subject Category: Contemporary/Fiction