Himanjali Sankar, Talking of Muskaan/ Payal Dhar, Slightly Burnt

This was a bit uncomfortable to write, and I’m not even sure how objective I can be (one author’s a friend, both books were edited by friends), but there you go.

(Published column here)

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A couple of weeks ago saw the anniversary of December 2013’s Supreme Court decision overturning the Delhi High Court’s ruling that Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code was unconstitutional. It felt like an important occasion, particularly since I was at the time reading two recent YA novels, both of which structured themselves in part around that moment in our recent history.

Himanjali Sankar’s Talking of Muskaan has been heralded as India’s first queer YA novel. The action opens on the day after the Supreme Court ruling, which is also the day after the title character has attempted to kill herself. The narrative then shifts to a few months earlier, and through the voices of three of Muskaan’s teenaged classmates (best friend Aaliya, clever-but-poor Shubhojoy, spoilt, rich Prateek) we piece together the events leading up to this moment.

Komal, the narrator of Payal Dhar’s Slightly Burnt, is another teenager who is shocked to discover that her best friend Sahil is gay. Even as she is absorbing this new information, the news about Section 377 breaks, forcing her to confront the levels of intolerance that still exist around non-normative sexualities among her friends and family.

Komal’s initial reaction to Sahil’s coming out is far from ideal—and perhaps this is realistic. She feels uncomfortable with his sexuality, resentful of his lack of normalcy, betrayed because he is not who she thought he was. So shaken is she that she must go to the school counsellor for advice on how to process things. Dhar doesn’t entirely indulge her in her discomfort—the counsellor gently, and the internet less gently, remind her that Sahil is probably suffering more than she is.

But this doesn’t change the fact that Komal’s discomfort, and the process by which she overcomes it, are the story of Slightly Burnt. Sahil probably is going through a lot, but we don’t see it directly. Sankar’s book too is talking of, about, around but never by, or to, Muskaan.

Dhar and Sankar’s choice of (mostly) heterosexual narrators makes sense in a way, and the references to Article 377 form a part of this. We’re reminded over and over that all non-heteronormative sexualities (it’s to both books’ credit that they do not erase bisexual, transgender, or other queer identities) are the subject of ignorance and prejudice, and that people need to be educated about them or risk causing unimaginable harm to vulnerable people. Komal’s change of heart comes when she reads up on LGBT suicide rates; Aaliya’s comes after her best friend nearly dies. There’s a sense in which the reader too is being educated along with the characters.

Both books, for all that they adopt the idiom of contemporary YA, are very much in the tradition of the teenage “problem novels” of the ‘70s and ‘80s, which brought their protagonists face to face with a social issue, and over the course of their pages educated, unpicked said issue, and generally promoted tolerance. In a country where the sex lives of consenting adults can be criminalized and queer youth must constantly be reminded that they are “unnatural”, education and tolerance can only be a good thing. And yet.

As an (admittedly very lucky) young adult, I didn’t think of my own feelings as a burning social problem. I looked for myself in poetry, in romance, in tensions simmering under the radar; not in novels that explained me and the harmlessness of my tastes to the world. Both of these books assume a heterosexual reader who needs to be educated past her prejudice and reflexive (both books seem to assume that this is inevitable) disgust, not a queer teenager trying to find herself in fiction.

“At some point it has to stop being about you,” says Usha, Komal’s counsellor. Perhaps as long as this law exists that point cannot be reached. For now, queer readers will have to resign ourselves to reading books about, not for us.

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