A glimpse into the changing face of young adult fiction in India
by Payal Dhar
Growing up in the 1980s and 1990s, the stories we read were all very much feel-good and cuddly. Children in sleepy little villages in faraway places solved improbably simplistic mysteries and had unimaginable adventures, stopping only to devour their delicious picnic lunches. Their lives were uncomplicated, things always turned out happy, there was little bloodshed, and there were definitely no shades of grey. In the name of Indian literature, we had tonnes of mythology and fables, some ‘inspiring’ biographies, plus a smattering of contemporary fiction that was woefully didactic, traditional and stereotyped. There wasn’t even any such thing as ‘young adult fiction’, so once you grew out of the Enid Blytons and Amar Chitra Kathas, you flirted with Nancy Drews and Hardy Boys (considered ‘older’ as there was talk of boyfriends and girlfriends), and then jumped straight to books for adults.
Zip forward in time to the present day and we find the landscape has changed radically. To begin with, ‘young adult’ has come into existence—whether we call it a genre or a marketing strategy is besides the point. What it has done is to fill a lacuna that we hadn’t even realized existed. It is difficult to pinpoint when the turnaround came—though the popularity of Harry Potter might have given it a nudge—because there wasn’t a book like Judy Blume’s Forever in India, a book that rattled many cages in the US in the 1970s. Forever was a young adult novel that talked of teenage sexuality in a forthright manner, enough to horrify and anger the gatekeepers of children’s fiction, and bans and righteous objections followed. There hasn’t been a book like Forever in India. Yet.
But the sea-change is obvious when you consider the variety of books being produced for youngsters compared to just ten or fifteen years ago and the themes they’ve been exploring. Starting off with that cornerstone of YA fiction—coming-age-stories—some of the most entertaining ones you could read are Niveditha Subramaniam and Sowmya Rajendran’s Mayil Will Not Be Quiet and Mostly Madly Mayil. Even though they straddle the middle-grade and YA levels, this hilarious yet poignant take on growing up in post-liberalization India hits the nail on its head. There are plenty of others, of course, but Mohit Parikh’s Manan deserves a special mention because of its perspective, one of a boy lamenting the loss of the innocence of childhood.
Even though that fantastically edgy book that will shake up YA publishing and its readership, and change both for ever, is yet to be written and published in India, YA fiction has begun to push at the boundaries. Books are increasingly talking about the more gruesome realities of the world from a teenage perspective.
The award-winning Paro Anand’s No Guns at My Son’s Funeral and Weed are both based in Kashmir, and tell stories about children whose lives have been touched by the violence perpetrated by adults, without taking sides in the conflict. Ranjit Lal’s The Battle for No. 19 is set in the middle of the 1984 riots, when a group of schoolgirls witness the brutal murder of their Sikh driver at the hands of a mob and must take refuge in an empty house. Swati Sengupta’s Guns on My Red Earth plays out in the Maoist heartland of West Bengal, while Siddhartha Sarma’s historical novel The Grasshopper’s Run, set in Nagaland during World War II, also talks to youngsters about the complexities of war and conflict.
The one thing that we as a society are extremely diffident about is teenage sexuality, and this is reflected in the slim pickings in this area. Books featuring LGBTQIA protagonists and themes are very common in the West, but in India thus far there are just the two books talking about it directly: Himanjali Sankar’s Talking of Muskaan and my own Slightly Burnt. Perhaps it isn’t surprising that despite pussyfooting around sexuality, YA romances—straight romances, that is—are quite commonplace. Andaleeb Wajid’s Tamanna trilogy, a time-travelling teenage love story, and Nandini Bajpai’s Starcursed, a love story based in the twelfth century stand out particularly.
It would be beyond the scope of this article to minutely examine the inroads that Indian YA has made, but one must mention a very important book by Ranjit Lal. Smitten is a young adult novel centred on the subject of sexual abuse. An alarmingly large number of children face abuse in their lives and have little to no means of redressal. That fiction is beginning to acknowledge it is a very big step. The fact that there is just the one book so far also tells a story about how far we still have to go.