Chhimi Tenduf-La’s Panther is set in Sri Lanka, amidst a fictionalized – but strikingly real – conflict between its Tamil and Sinhalese populations. It tells the story of Prabu, once a displaced refugee, then a trainee rebel fighter, but always a cricketing genius, who gains admission into an elite international school expecting that life will finally play fair. But in a society that is sharply demarcated along racial lines and his dark skin that screams his Tamil heritage, will it oblige?

The story dips back and forth between the present and the past. The present story is in the third person, but the flashbacks feature an intriguing mix of first- and second-person narratives. An unidentified observer (‘I’) watches Prabu’s story unfold and he (it becomes clear at the end who this is) addresses Prabu directly (‘you’). Writing in the second person is not easy to pull off without sounding ridiculous, and the author deserves credit for his sleight of hand here. The second-person narrative seems symbolic of the turmoil in Prabu’s life, the grief, confusion, terror, rage, and his inability to speak of his traumatic past.

The author’s note says that the conflict is fictionalized, but it is very similar to what we already know of Sri Lanka’s past: the war between the rebel separatists, the Tigers, and the army. Prabu loses his home and family to the conflict, and is taken under the wing of a seemingly-kindly man called Tarzan Subramaniam, who, under the guise of helping him, takes him to a training camp for young rebels called Panthers.

The Panthers have only one agenda – revenge in the eye-for-an-eye, tooth-for-a-tooth mode, especially revenge for losing their children to collateral damage from the army’s bombing. Prabu’s genius with the bat leads them to form a ghastly plan to avenge these deaths. Thus, what seemed to be his salvation, slowly turns out to be a new hell. The training gradually takes hold and so does bloodlust, till Prabu starts believing in his mission.

Another fateful twist results in the Panthers being caught. Prabhu is sent to a rehabilitation camp, from where the Mother Nelson Mahatma International College is the next step. Prabu is taken under the wing of Indika Jayanetti, the school’s ‘superstar’ cricketer, and even worms his way into the affections of his family. Prabu’s life changes, but change is not always what it’s cracked up to be.

Panther weaves its way through the ups and downs of adolescence, with the past, present and future intermingling in frightening ways. It is funny, clever and fresh. As a protagonist, though, Prabu comes off as a bit of an idiot, and his naiveté can be annoying at times, especially his blind spot regarding Indika. The end also left a bit to be desired because of an unexpected twist.

It would not be accurate to call Panther a young adult novel. It is, rather, a dark, often disturbing, and complex book that is mostly about the terrible things that grown-ups do and the repercussions they have on children. Does that, then, mean this is not a book for children?

We could argue about what is ‘meant’ for youngsters and what is not till the cows come home, but there will never be a definitive answer. Should there be any topic or broad theme that is inappropriate for teenage consumption? My answer is NO, but with a caveat: there are some subjects that need careful handling – not the same as censorship or pretending they don’t exist. And one of these is violence, especially sexual violence, and even more so when the teenager is directly involved in it.

Rape is alluded to in a roundabout manner in Panther, but it is certainly not out of place in the setting and especially given the tone of the book. It is indirect enough that one is not sure whether teenage readers will get it, but it might be a red flag for certain adults who buy books for kids.

This is a no-holds-barred account of growing up as a minority in a time of conflict, and for that reason not pleasant all the time. It might be a tough book for teenagers – not in the sense of being too difficult to understand literally, but in being difficult to process. But the good thing about such a book is that it sets the stage for opening up conversations about racism, about privilege, about violence and exploitation – things that affect all of us, but most of us remain clueless about as we are privileged.

By Payal Dhar

Author: Chhimi Tenduf-La
272 pages
Rs 299.00
ISBN: 978-9351772200
HarperCollins, 2015
Subject Category: Contemporary/Fiction
Age-group: 13+

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