Most books for young adults (and I’m including American and British ones here, since there just aren’t enough Indian YA books yet to be able to draw any broad conclusions about them) cover some predictable themes – young love, broken homes, the death (or disease or disability) of a parent or sibling, the desperate teen need to fit in and the angst of the outsider, the demands of peer pressure, the search for identity, and flirtations with danger in all its forms, be it reckless or promiscuous behaviour, self-harm, drink and drugs. Similarly, plots follow a well-worn, predictable, but still enjoyable, pattern – a crisis occurs, which leads to the protagonist going off the rails of a well-ordered life for a bit, until some sort of epiphany happens and the said protagonist ‘grows up’ and gets his or her life back on track somewhat.

Andaleeb Wajid’s new YA book, When She Went Away, is a little different. It picks a fairly unusual theme – that of a parent walking away from her family. Yes, her family. While there are any number of YA stories centring around parental abandonment, it is this fact – that it is the mom doing the abandoning – that piques the reader’s interest right off the bat. The timing of the abandonment is crucial too. It is two months before her daughter Maria’s tenth grade board exams. So is the reason she has chosen to walk away from her husband and two teenage children – she wants to be with another man.

With the crisis introduced in the first page, Wajid is free to plunge straight into the unravelling of Maria’s life. Maria’s Abbu is mostly furious, more upset that his wife has left him for someone else than that she has left at all. Completely unused to dealing with the house or the kids on his own, he chooses to neglect them while he comes to grips with his anger and hurt. Maria becomes withdrawn and morose, her younger brother Saud turns surly and anti-social.

Five months later, a new school term begins, bringing with it Kabir the ‘Basketball Guy’, one of the new kids in class, who seems to have a thing for Maria. Can Kabir and Maria’s mutual attraction help Maria emerge from her dark cocoon of self-pity and gloom? And will Maria succeed in her quest to track her mother down?

It would seem as if all the elements for a crackerjack YA book are in place, and they are. Unfortunately, however, the book fails to live up to the promise. For one, the plot is rendered in a flat, linear monotone that never soars in exhilaration or explodes into rage or sizzles with drama or tugs at the heartstrings. Even when the text states, in so many words, that someone is yelling in anger, their anger – or hurt – doesn’t touch the reader. Sadly, Wajid’s writing, while readable, does not sparkle.

Secondly, most of the characters’ emotions are skimmed over, and never explored in enough depth or nuance to make the reader feel for them, whether we are talking about Maria’s hurt and sorrow, her mood swings with Kabir, her lack of self-esteem in the wake of the abandonment, or Ammi’s reasons for abandoning her children. It is not that these are not mentioned, they are – but only as bald statements of fact, leaving no silences between the words for the reader to poke around in and interpret things for himself. The sibling relationship between Maria and Saud, which the two have to warily renegotiate in the aftermath of their shared calamity, could have been a strong parallel story, but their interactions end up only appearing intermittently, and disjointedly, through the book.

Thirdly, characters who play cameo roles but are vital to Maria’s story are not fleshed out in enough detail to make them credible. Characters like Ammi’s paramour, Dr Shehriyar Ali, for instance, or the family’s neighbour Sharmila (who is painted as somewhat disreputable because she lives alone, entertains regularly, and goes to parties), who is Ammi’s only real friend. I would have liked to see Sharmila’s stereotyping shattered, at least in Maria’s mind. I would have liked to see her become, in Ammi’s absence, the strong, warm, free-thinking adult female whom the young girl forms an unlikely bond with. But sadly, that kind of growing up doesn’t happen for Maria.

When She Went Away is not a bad book, and many among its intended audience may even enjoy it. As I’ve mentioned before, Wajid must be credited for her choice of theme. But it is a bit of a shame that she fritters away the very real opportunity of giving her young readers three strong, stereotype-busting female characters – Maria, Ammi and Sharmila – and/or a thoughtful, reflective story that stays with them well after they’re done reading it.

By Arundhati Roshan B.

Author: Andaleeb Wajid
240 pages
Rs 295.00
ISBN: 978-93-83331-23-9
Duckbill Books, 2015
Subject Category: Contemporary/Fiction/Young Adult
Age-group: 13+

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