Tina Malhotra was born and raised in America. She goes to a school called Yarborough Academy, where an English teacher called Mr Moosewood has assigned her class an ‘existential project’. He is teaching them an honours class on existential philosophy, which is a French philosophical approach. It basically says that our lives, and all of existence, have no meaning or higher purpose, and that it is up to us to find a meaning for ourselves. Various classmates choose different kinds of projects. One girl decides to track the garbage produced by her household.
Tina decides to write an existential diary, in which she will try to find ‘true and authentic meaning’ for her life. She addresses her diary to Jean-Paul Sartre, a French intellectual and existential philosopher, in Keshani Kashyap’s Tina’s Mouth: An Existential Comic Diary.
You’re probably thinking this is pretty deep stuff for a teenager. And in some ways, Tina is an unusually thoughtful teenager. She stays away from high school cliques and has her own quirky style and interests. And she does think about things — you can see it in how she describes her family and friends. Not that she has a host of friends. Her best friend is Alex, another girl who doesn’t fit into any of the cliques. Most of all, Tina says, “I’m an alien (but my parents are Indian). But Tina’s ethnicity is not itself a big dilemma for her. She faces some racism, and a lot of silly questions about her culture, but for the most part she isn’t defined by her race, apart from things like having a crush on Krishna when she was younger or tagging along with her folks to parties thrown by other Indian families. She’s a wry observer of the NRI community and her wannabe socialite cousin — but she also joins in with the fun. She may be thoughtful and a bit of an outsider but she isn’t the typical sulky outsider teenager — ‘indeed there is no harm done in being a good sport,’ as she observes at one point.
Her problems, apart from finding her authentic self, are being in a school play where she has to act with an obnoxious boy who tries to kiss her, and the fact that she would rather be kissing a cool skater boy called Neil. Then, her friend Alex falls in love with a boy, joins a group of arty, fashionable kids and ditches Tina, claiming she is childish and inexperienced. Left with a void in her life, Tina slowly makes friends with other girls. She’s also observing family drama — her parents’ attempts to find a husband for her sister Anjali and her brother Rahul’s attempts to find a wife for himself. There is friction between their identities as people who grown up in America, their Indian heritage and their parent’s expectations — but again, there is this streak of reasonableness in the family that enables them to adapt to unforeseen developments even if they do not welcome them at first.
This spirit of going with the flow is a recurring theme in the book, and in a way it may be an existential attitude too, one of playing the cards you are dealt instead of obsessing over some ideal situation which never happens. Perhaps that is part of what Tina discovers as she uses her existential diary to make sense of life and of herself. Her dream boy, Neil, might turn out not to be boyfriend material, but at least he introduces her to the songs of Neil Young and as someone points out, ‘someone who likes Neil Young has to be essentially good’. Tina also learns to go beyond betrayal and make friends with Alex again — although there are other betrayals that may take longer to get over, like that of Hollis, a girl who hooks up with Neil even though she knows of Tina’s feelings.
All in all, this is a thoughtful, authentic book, funny and throughprovoking. There are some moments that seem to descend to high school coming-of-age cliché, but only a few. The art by Mari Akari, is graceful and lucid but it seems like an afterthought to Keshni Kashyap’s engaging, perfectly-paced prose narrative and realistic dialogue. There are some swear words but overall this is a book any high school student will enjoy and get a lot out of. And if it makes you listen to Neil Young or learn about Sartre, so much the better!