Uma, Not-So-Perfect. A perfectly captivating title, calculated to raise a lot of expectations. So does it live up to its promise? Penned by fourteen-year-old Yamini Prashanth and a DC/Mango Books offering, this is the tale of Uma, an eleven-year-old precocious girl whose life experiences a drastic shift when her family moves from India to London. Clinging to her “to-do list” of “fun, friendship and fitting-in”, she is inevitably forced to negotiate the rocky terrain of friendships and enmities in a school peopled by English students, and learn to adjust to a new life that is physically and figuratively distant from the one back home. This theme of migration and the resultant emotional landscape is an oft-repeated premise in children’s stories, particularly of the school story genre, and one that offers great potential in terms of plot. In the hands of a skillful writer, it can sparkle with humour, excitement and pathos, inexorably pulling the reader into the varied skeins of the tale. Prashanth does show considerable promise but is unable to do adequate justice to the dictates of the plot. The narrative, consequently, meanders at points and labours at others, rendering the book an average, Not-So-Interesting work.
Where Prashanth comes into her own, however, is in her competent sketch of Uma’s personality, ranging from her temper tantrums to her general self-absorption – aspects that ring true every time. Here is a girl who wants her own way in everything and will stop at nothing to get it; even resorting, with consummate ease, to lies, manipulation and pretence as a means to her end. This is, therefore, a refreshingly realistic persona who stays sharply clear of cloying sweetness or unmitigated nastiness. Uma is often precocious and annoying but, perhaps, this is Prashanth’s intention – and she achieves this effect successfully.
Uma’s correspondence with her friends in India via emails provides equally delightful vignettes into their personalities and pursuits, and carries the story forward in a far more interesting manner than straightforward prose. These missives, navigating a range of emotions from nostalgic wistfulness to humour to overt pride, completely capture the reader’s attention in much the same way as the engrossing delineation of the initially turbulent but eventually fulfilling relationship between Uma and her sister Sitara. At the end of this coming-of-age tale, Uma has grown in more ways than one and is an altogether different personality from the one that had embarked on a new life on London’s shores.
What must be pointed out, though, is that Prashanth is let down by extremely incompetent editing. This ranges from somewhat minor gaffes (as in, for instance, “hard work” being hyphenated or used as a single word throughout the book) to considerably more serious ones. There are several examples of the latter, perhaps too many to enumerate here, but it is possible to highlight a few for the purpose of elucidation. One of the problems, in this regard, is the issue of character delineation and the glaring inconsistencies thereof. How Sitara, who is reluctant about the family’s move, suddenly and inexplicably transforms and wholeheartedly adopts to life in London is a case in point. So, too, is that of Uma’s parents who seem to veer between two extremes – somewhat implausible helplessness in the face of Uma’s refusal to study for her entrance examination to severe disciplining methods at a later stage, which involves forbidding her to star in a school play. Competent editing could have softened these rough edges and patched the sundry holes in the narrative to make the book a truly worthwhile read. Unfortunately for Prashanth, the book, denied recourse to this, remains a somewhat raw offering.
Uma, Not-So-Perfect is buttressed by illustrations that are in eye-catching colour but are a trifle cutesy, if one may be allowed to use the word. This might, however, constitute part of the effort to attract readers of ten years and above, the pastel shades on the cover perhaps intended to stereotype it as a book for girls. It is, undoubtedly, a story about girls. The token male figures, Uma’s father and brother, are shadowy figures whose role is on the tale’s periphery. In addition, although most of the action is set in the coeducational school that Uma attends, the boys in it remain similarly insubstantial characters who do not affect the main plot – or Uma’s life – in any way.
Prashanth is not a debut writer by any means. Despite her age, she has also penned two other books, making this offering the third feather in her cap. She definitely shows promise and one hopes that she is able to hone her writing abilities even further and produce a book someday that has more potential and depth than Uma, Not-So-Perfect.
By Devika Rangachari
Author: Yamini Prashanth
Illustrator: Soumya Menon
Publisher: Mango Books, 2016
Subject Category: Contemporary/Fiction