BENGALURU: Released almost simultaneously, Payal Dhar’s Slightly Burnt ((Bloomsbury India)) and Talking of Muskaan ((Duckbill)) by Himanjali Sankar have brought issues of gender and sexuality to the forefront of young adult literature. Whilst homosexuality has been increasingly explored in international books for teens, Dhar and Sankar are the first authors to bring the topic into the centre of a novel written for the Indian market. Set against the backdrop of the landmark December 2013 verdict on Section 377, both books are strongly rooted in the current context, yet manage to navigate the delicate line between topicality and good storytelling with an ease that sets them apart from the vast majority of fiction for young people.
While much will inevitably be made of the exploration of homosexuality in books for young adults, what is most interesting is the fact that the novels themselves are not personal accounts of ‘coming out’, but instead insights into the reactions and behaviour of the people around an LGBT teen.
In that sense, both novels hold up a mirror to society, sketching out characters that cover a full spectrum of opinion, whilst allowing the reader to take their own position.
In Talking of Muskaan, we hear the protagonist’s story through her friends and classmates, as she fights for her life in a hospital, while in Slightly Burned, it’s Sahil’s friend Komal who narrates his story.
This at first seems to create an unnecessary distance between the reader and the individuals who are at the heart of the story, but on another level it’s an effective way of allowing homophobia, and not homosexuality, to be explored as an issue.
Using December 12 2013 as a pivotal point in the plot, Dhar is able to bring out the range of responses that the reintroduction of Section 377 evoked.
In Komal’s living room, we witness the reactions of a family to the news, as it breaks live on television. From Neeli Maasi and her comment on, ‘those people’, to the outrage of Komal’s brother Vikram and the relative indifference of their father, who feels it’s not ‘for people like us’, Slightly Burnt gives us a cross-section of viewpoints.
In Talking of Muskaan, the day that the 2009 high court verdict was overturned, we witness a more wide-ranging conversation between a mother and daughter, as they discuss the implications of the judgement.
What’s notable is that both authors give their characters credibility and context, rooting each response in personal experiences, rather than succumbing to the temptation to use them as mouthpieces for political standpoints. So though Aaliya is undoubtedly unkind to Muskaan when she asks, “You know that you’re a criminal?” this comes in the context of her confusion about her own feelings.
Similarly, Komal, struggling to understand why she feels differently towards her best friend now that she’s aware of his sexuality, is able to rationalise the logic behind her response, eventually concluding that she just wants Sahil to be ‘convenient’.
This realisation should resonate with a generation of young readers constantly struggling with the expectations of those around them, in a variety of contexts.
Both novels manage to avoid any form of sensationalism, instead exploring gender and sexuality in their broadest sense.
In Slightly Burnt , we see the dubious reactions female cricket enthusiast Maitreyi evokes, while Vikram is consistently encouraged to take more of an interest in team sports. Komal struggles with, ‘the fashion gender divide’ while wearing impractical heels to a family wedding, simultaneously worrying about rogue aunties trying to ‘marry her off’.
The scene in Talking of Muskaan in which Muskaan’s friends gently encourage her to wax is an extended exploration of the role gender plays in shaping our behaviour, raising interesting questions about the logic of rigid stereotypes.
While it’s certainly noteworthy that LGBT themes have taken centre stage in these novels, between them, they touch upon topics as diverse as exam stress, sibling relationships, the dynamics of friendship and bullying, body image and parental pressure. Perhaps this is why both books are so successful.
They’ve taken pertinent and difficult questions, but, much like real life, not allowed those issues to become all embracing, instead placing them in the context of an everyday existence characterised by diverse pleasures and pains.