Unless all the stories inside are by the same favourite author (think Enid Blyton or Ruskin Bond), anthologies are unreliable things, best approached with some wariness. Sudden shifts in the quality of writing, plotting and storytelling, from the sublime to the cringe-worthy (and vice-versa), are par for the course as you progress through the book, making for a not-entirely-satisfying reader experience. Themed anthologies are often even less enjoyable, given that contributors may not have submitted their best stories, going instead with the ones that best suit the theme. You get my drift – anthologies, in short, are iffy.
But occasionally, very occasionally, one comes along that bucks the trend. Like Wisdom Tree’s schooldays anthology, Whispers in the Classroom, Voices on the Field. Edited by Richa Jha (picture book passionista and now publisher, and often writer, at Pickle Yolk Books), and illustrated by the inimitable Priya Kuriyan, this collection of thirty-one stories by some of India’s best children’s writers is, simply put, a damn good read. Leaving aside the clunky (and frankly terrible) title, this anthology is one large, delicious mash-up of chalk-dust nostalgia – sad, heartwarming, hopeful, funny, nightmare-inducing and uplifting by turns.
Thirty-one is a lot of stories for one anthology to carry (at 350 pages, the book is of a size and heft ideal for knocking a child over the head with), but it also means that the range is staggering. From speculative fiction – a boy falls in with sewer rats and has an epiphany about how to neutralise adult tyranny (Anil Menon), a group of kids from the future fall back into a twenty-first century school – or do they? (Payal Dhar) – to the supernatural – what boarding school worth its salt doesn’t have a resident ghost or two, and Deepa Agarwal and Trisha Ray capitalise on it, the latter in an altogether gory fashion – to fictionalised biography – the moving story of Olympic javelin silver medallist Fatima Whitbread (Paro Anand) – to history-based fiction – a little gem of a story set in nineteenth-century Bengal, when girls began to go to school for the first time (Subhadra Sen Gupta) – to a fun story around a rather chaotic school play tracing the history of the Indian national flag (Kavitha Mandana), and a Tughlaq-ian debate that turns into a love story (Poile Sengupta), a veritable feast of experiences is laid out for the young reader to pick at.
Of course, all these are in addition to the main meat of the anthology – stories that gently tease apart the tempestuous emotions that accompany standard-issue coming-of-age pains. Stories about the struggle to fit in, for instance (Bulbul Sharma), or learning to be the bigger person (Anupa Lal), or dealing with your parents’ divorce (Swapna Dutta), or discovering that teachers are human (Santhini Govindan), or finding the courage to tackle a learning disability (Anjali Raghbeer, Mridula Koshy), or digging deep and shifting the lens of stereotype to not just see but also accept the ‘other’ (Devika Rangachari, Chatura Rao, Ranjit Lal), or the cataclysmic consequences of losing a parent (Richa Jha) or uniquely twenty-first century concerns, such as the evil machinations of the social networking hydra (Jyoti Singh Visvanath).
What makes this anthology really remarkable, though, is the number of male writers it features. Rather unfortunately, not as many men write for children in India as women do, robbing the genre (sexist as this may sound) of an important, and entertaining, set of concerns, apart from a refreshingly different style, verve, approach, and perspective. It is rare for a pair of unwashed briefs – and torn ones at that – to take centre-stage in a woman writer’s story, for instance, but in the absolutely delightful ‘The Lucky Spare’ by Kenny Basumatary, they do, and with swag. Jerry Pinto does his typical breaking-your-heart-while-making- you-laugh thing in the lovely ‘May the Best Man Win’, featuring a boy who has recently lost his mum. Arun Krishnan’s snap-crackle-pop writing in ‘A Most Powerful Man’, about a reverse-immigrant (aka returned-NRI) teen in Mumbai is a treat, as heartwarming as it is tongue-in-cheek. You will feel your skin crawl with shame and self-loathing as you recognise yourself in Gautam Benegal’s tightly-written ‘The Invitation’, a story about the seemingly unbridgeable chasm of class and economic difference.
There are very many wonderful stories in this collection, but for me, personally, the stand-out stories, in no particular order, were Samina Mishra’s ‘Looking Through Glass’, a candid, matter-of-fact, wonderfully-nuanced story about stereotyping, in this case of a Muslim girl from the not-so-swank neighbourhood of Delhi’s Okhla; Vandana Singh’s ‘The Question’, a beautiful – and beautifully-imagined – story about drawing strength and courage from those that were once beloved, even after they are no longer with us; and Adithi Rao’s ‘Alif’, a gentle, gentle story about many important things, one of them about the circumstances that persuade the hidebound, inflexible Bade Ustadji of a madrasa to finally begin to give a little around the edges.
At the end of the thirty-one stories, another lovely treat awaits – hugely talented illustrator-writer Priya Kuriyan’s chuckle-a-panel school-themed comic, a memoir of her own Army-brat schooldays, which spanned twelve years and, by her own admission, some thirteen different schools across the country.
Some decades ago, when we were growing up, anthologies like Animal Stories for Girls, Adventure Stories for Boys, Ten o’clock Tales used to be a thing, and every circulating library had dozens of variants. Then they sort of disappeared, and have never really made a comeback. With Whispers in the Classroom, Richa Jha and Wisdom Tree have done a stellar job of bringing the joy of a good anthology back to young (and old) readers, with a near-flawless collection of great Indian school stories. Thanks, guys!
By Arundhati Roshan B
Illustrator: Priya Kuriyan
Wisdom Tree, 2012
Subject Category: Contemporary/Fiction/Anthology