Bangalore, or Bengaluru as it is today, has a few parts that have remained untouched over the years. The cantonment areas from a colonial past still have the trees, the pavements and the lifestyle of a Bangalore that it isn’t today. One of these unchanged areas is Shivajinagar and its neighbouring environs of Mosque Road and Tannery Road. Characterised by narrow lanes crowded with small shops and unfashionably pedestrian homes with regular folks, Tannery Road and its residents make for an unlikely setting for a book.
It is in this little nook of Bengaluru that author Andaleeb Wajid has set the story of Asmara’s particularly eventful summer. Summer holiday stories hold the promise of untold fun. And when such stories are set in an Indian summer, they are redolent with images of lazy days, luscious mangoes and the expectation of adventure.
But teenagers in college can’t be expected to stick to the script, can they? Asmara and her friends are introduced to us as very hip, trendy young things in a fashion-forward and, presumably, intellectual environment of college. Our first encounter with Asmara is of her delivering a perfect social set-down to a presumptuous college dude who’d dared to not love her. At this point, I must admit I was ready to start hating the character and the next fifty-odd pages did nothing to dispel this feeling.
Asmara’s summer is completely destroyed when her parents break the news to her that she will not be spending time with her brother and newborn nephew in Canada but actually in… OMG, OMG, wait for it!… Tannery Road. Adding insult to injury, she is told that she will be staying with her grandparents who are fairly traditional and conservative in attitude. In one fell swoop, the college-going, trend-setting, jeans-wearing teen is dropped into a salwar-wearing, chore-doing, steeped-in-tradition situation. And she hates it, of course!
Loneliness, a sense of having been robbed of her holiday, and feeling stifled by what she views as restrictive rules in her grandparents’ home, Asmara retreats into a sullen, often badly-behaved, mode. Acting on mean-girl impulses, she starts writing social media posts about her “tacky” surroundings, including the bright stores and garish clothes that do not make the cut, except as disco balls!
As Asmara settles into a summer of monotony that is broken by the marvellous meals her grandma cooks for her, stolen wi-fi in her solitary terrace room and glimpses of the cute neighbour next door, she discovers an odd friendship with Rukhsana, a girl she would certainly not have termed “cool”. Slowly, Asmara’s life starts to include chores, responsibility, consideration and a sense of awareness of the world beyond her cocooned, privileged existence.
To provide a plot to this coming-of-age-story, we are taken through a series of misadventures (where Asmara discovers her neighbourhood and the funny aunties who live there), a few laugh-out-loud moments (when she takes pictures and posts them online under a pseudonym), and the mandatory boyfriend (without the seriousness of love, because then it would be an adult book, and not a YA one). Towards the rather breathless end, Asmara, in a fit of empathy with her new friend (and the cute brother), rescues her from an unwanted marriage proposal and helps her find a path for herself.
Andaleeb Wajid writes with a very sure sense of the milieu in which she has placed her heroine. Her deft ability to bring out different shades of character keeps Asmara refreshingly real too. Sulky, over-privileged heroines rarely make friends, but, funnily enough, Asmara is nice. She is conflicted, yes (aren’t we all?), but she has a conscience and an innate sense of fairness that prevents her from hurting those around her. Or at least not too much! Asmara blooms through the pages, going from a one-note-smarty-pants to a complex, and eventually, likeable character with a sense of purpose running through her. The supporting cast of grandparents and friends are nice, though one would have liked to know just a little bit more about the grandparents who clearly love Asmara dearly. The ending and climax are rushed and forced to fit, but in a world where anything can and does happen, reality is often just as strange as fiction.
I liked the book for its strong message of doing the right thing, even if inconvenient, a progressive heroine working for change from within the system, and with it all, a sense of youth, freshness and hope that runs through the narrative. Finally, this is a story about Asmara finding her voice. The romance, thankfully, is secondary, as are the adventures. The true adventure lies in the discovery of who Asmara actually is. And, in that, her summer is a success.
By Hema Vaidyanathan
Author: Andaleeb Wajid
Illustrator: Abhishek Choudhury
Penguin Books, 2016
Subject Category: Contemporary/Fiction/Young Adult