With Salman Khan’s hit-and-run case being in the news these days, this is perhaps an opportune time to explore themes relating to the privileges that the rich can help themselves to at the expense of their not-so-fortunate fellow beings. Subhadra Sen Gupta’s The Secret Diary of the World’s Worst Friend explores not just what being a friend means, questioning how far one would go to prove one’s loyalty, but also how taking one’s social advantages for granted can sometimes be as serious as life and death.
Akash Narain, age sixteen, glorious conqueror of the Class Ten boards, has everything going for him: good friends, a school where he excels, and a slightly weird but basically okay family. He has his future mapped out: the science stream in Class Eleven, then IIT or some such, followed by a glittering career at a leading IT firm. In the short term, though, his father has other plans: he gets Akash an all-expenses paid scholarship at Aryan Academy, Delhi’s most exclusive school.
Akash reluctantly agrees to be torn away from his beloved alma mater, Kasturba Vidyalaya, and give Aryan Academy a try. On the one hand, he loves not being packed into a class of forty, the films supplementing lessons, the four-course cafeteria menus, the auditorium and gym, and the classrooms with reading corners. On the other, he is unsure what to make of his classmates, the “better class of people” that his father so wants him to mix with. However, given his academic superiority, Akash soon settles in, sort of, and even makes a friend or two.
To his surprise, he finds himself in the cross hairs of Shaurya Dewal, the leader of the school’s “cool clique”, and not in the way he might have assumed. For Shaurya seems to be seeking friendship, not a target to torment. But, of course, all is not as it seems and very soon Akash finds himself confronting a troubling question – what really does being a friend mean? Even as Akash struggles with his relationship with Shaurya, matters take a sudden drastic turn. Now, it’s not just his own future that’s on the line; in fact, there are lives and livelihoods at stake.
The Secret Diary of the World’s Worst Friend has a timely and complex plot at its heart, but is still a somewhat disappointing read overall. This is surprising because if there is a veterans’ club in Indian children’s literature, Subhadra Sen Gupta is certainly a member. She has written about three dozen books, spanning historical fiction, school stories, mysteries, biographies and much more, and in 2014, the Sahitya Akademi honoured her with the Bal Sahitya Puraskar for her contribution to children’s literature. Thus, the bar was set high for The Secret Diary of the World’s Worst Friend, as it would be for any other book penned by Sen Gupta. Why, then, does this one fail to deliver?
To begin with, there is an oversimplification of the whole class question. The depiction of all that is not ‘middle class’ as bad is problematic. This ‘middle-class people = solid and respectable’ and ‘rich people = cruel, clueless morons’ binary makes for a disturbing thread throughout the novel. Akash, barely minutes into his new school, pontificates, “It suddenly occurred to me that these kids probably knew nothing about their own country.” Which is a stupendously judgemental and patronizing statement from a sixteen-year-old. As if “drinking lassi” and “getting bitten by giant mosquitoes” are the true measures of your Indianness, while “watching the French Open at Roland Garros” or “the snow in Switzerland” makes you an ignorant and lesser being somehow.
Similarly, the depiction of Akash’s old school, the government-aided Kasturba Vidyalaya as the modest, respectable temple of education for the honest masses, and the snooty, expensive Aryan Academy, with its projectors-in-every-classroom and desserts-at-lunch, a den of evil where rich people send their kids to learn how to take advantage of their privilege is facile. It glosses over the complexities of both India’s socio-economic set-up and the education system.
There is no doubt that we have a generation of kids growing up in air-conditioned comfort, ensconced in their bubble of entitlement, blissfully unaware of the battles most of their contemporaries have to overcome just to get basic education, not to mention food and shelter. It is also true that there are some excellent government schools churning out solid future citizens. And there is little doubt that, like Akash’s father, most of us do subscribe to the “better class of people” concept. The book promises an exploration of all these issues, but does not deliver. Worse, it reduces them to black-and-white scenarios.
The cover is completely misleading, promising a middle-grade diary adventure rather than a serious young adult novel. Akash’s voice also doesn’t stand out – the odd interspersing of “kinda” and “hafta” does not convince one of a teenager talking. Overall, a rather unsatisfactory read from a stellar author.
By Payal Dhar
Author: Subhadra Sen Gupta
Penguin Books, 2014
Subject Category: Contemporary/Fiction