It’s an intriguing title, even if it seems a bit lost on the cover, and sets up an expectation of pacey, perky writing, very with it and fun, and you’re bang on target. Rupa Gulab spins a good yarn, competently and quickly.
Fifteen-year-old Anu and her older sister Diya live happy lives with their reasonably cool parents and a ministering angel-type cook, Parvati Didi. The two girls love each other, but seem to be poles apart, at least in Anu’s despairing eyes. While Diya is all chic and smart and has a boyfriend in the US, Anu has hair that sticks out like a certain godman’s and the boy she secretly harbours in her heart has eyes only for Diya. Besides she, Anu, is always getting in trouble in school: for her below par academic performance, for her above-herself tongue-in-cheekiness and more. To make matters worse, a schoolfriend, Sai, seems to have got unaccountably attached to her and she simply cannot shake him off. But this is normal, by Anu’s standards, so life is pretty hunky-dory, and although she wishes she could be less of the black sheep, she’s pretty okay with Diya being the golden one.
Then arrives Aunty Madhu and she, in classic cliché terms, throws the spanner in Anu’s works. (This is very early in the story.) Using a voice scarier than T. Rex (the school principal) had ever used, she sits Anu down and tells her: “It’s about time someone told you the truth. That girl is not your sister, understand?” Anu nods dumbly. She understands. As Rupa Gulab writes so tellingly: “I was an unknown orphan and a godman was the only person who looked like he belonged to the same gene pool as me.”
Her reaction to this piece of news influences the way the story goes. And when she confronts her parents, she discovers it is Diya who is adopted. This information drives a huge wedge between the sisters, and it seems the family is falling apart. No amount of superstitious incense-burning by Parvati Didi improves matters. There’s a total breakdown of communication as anger and hurt take over, leading to guilt and self-recrimination. The only person with whom Anu can really talk and who helps her make sense of the situation is her detention room teacher, Athena Rozario.
Meanwhile, T. Rex starts taking sudden and unwelcome interest in Anu’s studies, drawing her out and helping her discover an interest in history. Diya starts to act funny, and she even starts preying on Arjun, the boy Anu secretly longs for.
Of course, it all ends well, but not before some serious issues are confronted and dealt with. It presents a reasonably palpable picture of how the knowledge of adoption can affect relationships. In fact, the more Anu wants to show her sympathy for her parents by being ‘good’, the more they ignore her in their efforts to mollify Diya. And that’s where Rupa Gulab scores – with a deft touch. The narrative never loses its lightness even when raking up deep emotions and ideas. It also touches upon some things that would make pretty useful insights for adults, especially parents and teachers.
For instance, the way parents blame friends for things their children do. When Diya turns to her friend Samira for help during the family crisis, her parents are uncomfortable because they think Samira and her mum are sort of dodgy: “Dad wrinkled his nose as I spoke. I had a feeling he’d do that even if I’d told him Samira’s mum was Mother Teresa and her dad was a judge at the Supreme Court. ‘She’s a bad influence on Diya,’ he sighed. I thought that remark was so not fair. I mean, what’s with parents? They always blame your friends when you do bad things, like you don’t have a backbone at all.”
Or the comment about Hindi short stories in textbooks: “Like, why don’t we have a few modern stories at least? Sure, writers like Premchand make my hair stand on end sometimes and I have huge respect for him, but I really would get better marks in Hindi if some of the stories were more modern and relatable. At least I’d be engaged.” The first person narrative allows for statements like this without giving it a prescriptive tone, although there are other times when the voice of political correctness is heard loud and clear.
There are moments when the plot seems a little forced, and sometimes Athena Rozario seems stilted. For someone as ‘wild’ as Anu, her closeness to Athena happens too quickly, even though this aspect has been given time to develop. There’s something still incomplete about the growth of this relationship, but it’s nothing that can’t be excused in the overall scheme of the book. The angst over being adopted, the neglect of the biological child, the guilt of parents – all these come up naturally and realistically without excessive moroseness. That makes the book good for younger and older readers.
My one gripe, and it’s very personal, is the font used for the text. Blame it on my poor eyesight, but sans serif fonts just don’t work for paperbacks. True and time-tested serif fonts make the book look better and, more importantly, help us read easier.
by Sandhya Rao
Author: Rupa Gulab
Duckbill Books, 2016
Subject Category: Contemporary/Fiction
Tags: Adoption/Family/Sisters/School/Romance/Growing Up/Humour