Indian Young Adult books take on the holy grail of society, the family

For a long time, the family in Indian children’s literature had been represented in a fairly traditional manner — mother, father and children, perhaps with the addition of sundry grandparents. In the more simplistic depictions, each member functions within their prescribed gender role, and as long as they do so, all’s right with the world. In some of the more nuanced stories, families are acknowledged to be complex, but they all seem to bumble along in a sort of chaotic contentedness. But this isn’t necessarily true of real life. In reality, families are messy and complicated even if you come from a ‘happy’ home; sometimes they aren’t easy to define; and sometimes society doesn’t even acknowledge them.

So, while families have played a sterling supporting role in stories, rarely have they had their very sanctity questioned, at least not in Indian fiction. This, though, seems set to change, and two young adult books have spearheaded this revolution, if one might call it that: Rupa Gulab’s Daddy Come Lately and Andaleeb Wajid’s When She Went Away.

In Daddy Come Lately, a father she thought was dead suddenly comes into young Priya’s life. Not just that, the unthinkable happens — a hint of romance blossoms between her mother and her suddenly-returned father. How much can a teenager bear?! At the very other end of the scale is When She Went Away. Sixteen-year-old Maria’s mother suddenly leaves her family and disappears, with only a note on the fridge as a goodbye. It puts her life, and that of her father and brother, in disarray. How can a mother just leave?

Both these books force the reader to think about parents differently — not as selfless entities, but as complex human beings with their own pasts, with unfulfilled fantasies, and with desires that are separate from their everyday lives. Though almost every young adult book is about teenagers finding themselves, few have acknowledged that sometimes adults, including parents, might be lost too, that they may crave a different life.

Stories don’t have to be based around the central notion of the family for them to question it or understand it. Kavita Mandana’s No.9 on the Shade Card is an example of how an author weaves a complex picture of modern family life into a coming-of-age story: an absentee father, a mother who tries to keep the peace, a pair of siblings who reconnect, and a grandmother who had forgotten about her own dreams.

Whether real life or fiction, we also tend to take the definition of ‘family’ for granted. But not all families are about mummies and daddies, as Ranjit Lal reminds us in Our Nana Was a Nutcase. This novel redefines the family — by making it about four siblings, their grandfather and his partner. And by that I don’t mean a business partner. In my own A Shadow in Eternity, Maya’s parents separate and then divorce over the course of the series, and she eventually goes to live with two foster-fathers (of course, being set in an alternate universe made it easy to bring that about). When she asks her mentor whether you have to be related to be family, he tells her, “You do. You relate through love and responsibility, and a commitment to take care of each other.”

Some young adult novels I enjoyed reading

Daddy Come Lately by Rupa Gulab (Duckbill)

No.9 on the Shade Card by Kavita Mandana (Rupa/Red Turtle)

Our Nana was a Nutcase by Ranjit Lal (Rupa/Red Turtle)

Shadow in Eternity series by Payal Dhar (Young Zubaan)

When She Went Away by Andaleeb Wajid (Duckbill)

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