Kavitha Mandana’s novel for middle readers, Trapped, is the story of a pair of twins – Arjun and Anandita – who have grown up trying to conceal the existence of a ghost third brother who only they can see. We meet them at a point in their lives when things with this brother, Amit, seem to be getting out of hand. Their mother is afraid that her twins are delusional, or why else would they still be talking to an imaginary brother at age sixteen? The twins themselves are struggling with conflicting emotional ties to friends and family, ghost sibling and parents. And a startling set of events reveals that the family is most likely living with more than one ghost. The author attempts to explore the inner worlds of her characters as they respond to this growing momentum in the plot.
Kavitha Mandana’s characters are pleasant and endearing. The bond between Anandita, Amit and Arjun is warm and affectionate, but also somewhat volatile. They are all emotionally vulnerable, easily offended and hurt by the taunts they throw at one another and acutely aware of the fact that their mother thinks they need psychiatric care. They love their parents, but they keep their secrets to themselves. The parents, for their part, are mostly worried and exhausted people. Their father is more tuned in to their lives than they suspect but their mother, a somewhat anxious character, teeters on the brink of nervous breakdown. The household equilibrium is held in place by the soothing presence of their help, Lingamma, and their puppy Flip. Beyond this, however, the characters possess little by way of depth. Perhaps because the narrative is spread over multiple points of view, a real sense of detail is sometimes missing. This is particularly evident in the case of the character of the mother, who is etched with great clarity in the second chapter, but who fades into the background for no apparent reason through the rest of the novel – absent as she is through the children’s late night vigils, their up-and-down social lives, as well as the resolution of the plot.
It is as though the novel cannot decide whether it wants to focus on its people or its story. This inconsistency creates a jagged effect in the narrative, where the plot slows down suddenly when it zooms in on a character’s inner world – Anandita’s budding romance with a cute bass guitarist, for example – and then speeds up when it wants to draw attention to the building suspense of the ghost plot point. A two hundred-page novel cannot perhaps afford such variation in pace and intensity.
Trapped is written in easy, lucid, and distinctly teenage-y prose. It also makes liberal use of circumstantial humour, especially in situations involving Flip the puppy, or the children’s awkward but well-intentioned father. The narrative voice is largely without judgement, especially when addressing the twins’ angst-ridden love lives. Their crushes generate a plethora of fluttery emotions in them, but Mandana takes care never to trivialise the children’s feelings of vulnerability and insecurity. Other than a few slightly annoying recurring phrases (the use of “non-existent” to describe Amit’s physical body, for example) and some scenes where Anandita’s voice becomes virtually indistinguishable from Arjun’s for its high-strung but diplomatic timbre, the novel comfortably inhabits the space between being humorous and tense.
The only real issue with Kavitha Mandana’s book has to do with the age-group it is aimed at. If we use language and content as parameters, we find that it is entirely suitable for children between about eleven and fourteen or fifteen. Though the protagonists themselves are sixteen, it contains no offensive language, nothing explicitly sexual, and no episode more intense than a quarrel between siblings, which is always quickly followed by a patch-up. It is not clear then why these characters need to be at the older end of the teenage spectrum. There is a hint of darkness around a few episodes – the ex-head boy of the children’s school and his history of drug use, the mother’s brush with depression, some hushed conversations about dead siblings, a set of dead quadruplets actually. It is brave of Mandana to bring these discussions into a book for middle readers since it is absolutely necessary for them to learn to strip words like “breakdown” and “rehab” of their stigma, but considering the sometimes childish tone and attitude of the young people in the novel towards these episodes, it is perhaps more apt to think of them as only about thirteen or fourteen themselves.
The resolution of Trapped falls flatter than expected. It lets the plot down and leaves several questions unanswered, not least because the boundaries and rules of the ghost-human interface are never clearly demarcated. However, the book does give us a sensitive and believable picture of how siblings can shape our realities, and helps us understand the ways in which love, hurt, resentment and joy colour our images of those we grow up with.
By Dakshayini Suresh
Author: Kavitha Mandana
Penguin Books, 2016
Subject Category: Contemporary/Fiction