Adults who spend a lot of time debating about the appropriateness of reading material for children are going to have a field day with this one. More about that later; for now, let’s focus on the fact that Manan takes a slightly different approach to one of those staples of YA fiction – yes, we mean the coming-of-age tale. Mohit Parikh’s debut novel reads more like literary fiction rather than a young adult one, and that isn’t necessarily a compliment. Nor is it a criticism. Well, it’s complicated.
It is the summer of 1998 and our fifteen-year-old protagonist, the eponymous Manan, thus far ignored by puberty, wakes up to find a single pubic hair on his self. Which brings him much relief, for it means he can now expect to catch up with the rest of the boys in X-A at school, possessors of hairy bodies and manly voices. For, despite his daily dose of chyawanprash, Manan, a class topper, ace debater and possessor of myriad random trivia, remains a diminutive 140 cm in height, weighing in at 35 kg – as we are reminded time and again. Till the lone new hair makes an appearance and changes Manan’s life overnight.
Only, it doesn’t. Not really. Now that puberty is knocking at his door, Manan is somewhat perplexed and not a little bit disturbed by the fact that any blatant change in his body, such as shooting up in height or the be-pimpling of his pristine cheeks, might attract unwanted attention. “Puberty should be as it is now, quiet, subdued, inside the pants,” he thinks. And spends most of the remaining two hundred-odd pages bemoaning the loss of innocence that these impending new developments will bring.
The stream-of-consciousness style of narration isn’t conducive to easy reading, and it is sometimes hard to separate Manan’s thoughts from what is really going on. The setting, though, is fantastic: deliciously 1990s, middle-class, small-town India, complete with Super Mario video games, teletext on TV and an emerging wonder called the internet.
Amid the ramblings inside Manan’s head, a few interesting storylines emerge. One is Manan’s exploration of pornography, now made easier thanks to the internet (oh, keep those eyebrows down, you overthinking adults!), his unrequited love for the mysterious Hriya, and his cousin Pinki Didi’s love story with Bhavesh Bhaiya. It would have felt a more complete story had all of these been taken to a conclusion, but only the last storyline gets any sort of resolution (if not for Pinki Didi, then at least for Manan).
While it’s good to see an Indian coming-of-age tale centring around a boy, there is a lot about the narrative that doesn’t ring true of a teenager’s perspective. However – and there are a lot of howevers because, as noted earlier, this novel is complicated – it is refreshing to see a different take on growing up. Most writers – and readers – recall puberty as a time of exciting changes, but what we’ve mostly conveniently forgotten is that it is also a time of numbing embarrassment and crushing confusion. However, that Manan’s overarching concern about the advent of puberty is the fear of losing the innocence of his childhood, his “purity” so to speak, is a little hard to digest. It gives a sense of an adult looking back on childhood rather than a child experiencing it. The novel might have felt more young-adult-y if at least we got to know a bit more about the mysterious Hriya. Also, the end was rather abrupt.
Final analysis: some of us wouldn’t call this a young adult novel at all. Just because a book features a teenage protagonist doesn’t make it YA. It is the voice/perspective of the narrator/narrative that matters more. This is a novel about an adult lamenting the loss of innocence that the end of childhood brings. However, whether to slot this in the YA shelf or not is a dilemma that people worried about fitting books into neat categories are welcome to stress over. Others might enjoy a quirky reminiscence of growing up in a small town in the 1990s, a time before mobile phones and Facebook.
By Payal Dhar
Author: Mohit Parikh
Illustrator: Urmila Shastry
Subject Category: Contemporary/Fiction/Young Adult
Tags: Teenager/Boys/Coming of Age/Puberty/End of Innocence/Small-town India