Archive for April, 2019

April 19, 2019

Swapna Dutta, Juneli’s First Term, Juneli at Avila’s, An Exciting Term

(I wrote most of this last year and for some reason abandoned it in draft form. Recently I read another series of girls’ school stories from India, and thought that before I wrote about them I should probably finish this. Expect that other piece soon or, judging by my current form, within the next year or so.)


We moved to Delhi (from a village in the north of England) when I was ten, and I lost a number of my old books in the move. I was, however, allowed a new book each weekend (which seemed riches at the time, even though I generally finished them in a couple of hours on the Saturday), and usually this was whichever (Armada edition) Chalet School story I could find in the local bookshop. Some adults would hear that I liked school stories and ask me if I’d read the Juneli stories, which had been serialised in Children’s World in the ’70s and ’80s. I hadn’t, and at this point in the mid-’90s they were out of print (in recent years they’ve become available as ebooks); and in any case, though I wouldn’t have articulated it that way at the time, I was a bit suspicious of the results of bodily transporting genres across continents. At least some of this was probably a prejudice against Indian fiction in general, coupled with that (by now well-worn) trope of readers brought up with the literature of the global north not thinking books with brown kids in them were quite real.

This was particularly baseless in the context of my own inter-continental move. In England, I’d attended a state school a short walk from my own house, far removed from the sorts of institutions I’d been reading about. In India, I was at a big private school, with much stricter rules about uniforms and an actual house system. Before I left the UK, I’d told a friend (and fellow school story reader) that I was going to a school with prefects, a house system and a head boy and girl and she was as entertained by this as I was—to both of us these seemed concepts out of fiction rather than real life. Because if Indian children of my generation (and that of my parents) and social circumstances (read: class, caste, etc) grew up reading English genre fiction because of the colonial history that made that fiction culturally available to us, we also grew up in educational institutions that were partly modelled on British ones. (And it’s probably irrelevant to this post [but nonetheless true] that those British institutions were themselves created in an imperial context and were shaped by that colonial history and those relations of power.)

The characters in Dutta’s Juneli books have read the same school stories as I have—and of course Dutta has herself. There’s a long tradition in the school story (as with some other forms of particularly trope-y genre fiction; detective fiction often does it too) of continually referring back to the genre within the plot; for example having the new girl, whose point of view the reader is most likely to share, come to boarding school for the first time and compare it to the schools she’s read of in fiction. (Antonia Forest has a particularly good version of this.) Juneli arrives at Avila’s with a head full of the Chalet School and Malory Towers, having inherited a huge trunk of girls’ own fiction from her mother—when she mentions these series titles, her friend Ritu points out the differences between their own setting, Brent-Dyer’s Austrian Tyrol and Blyton’s Cornwall, revealing that she too knows these books well. What the books insist on, however, is a sort of commonality of schoolgirl experience that transcends time and borders–this is something that Dutta herself suggests in the forewords to the ebook editions, claiming that while she based Avila’s on her own school, readers from a variety of backgrounds have found the characters and situations familiar, and “basically people–including schoolgirls–are the same everywhere”. This may well be true, but in this genre it’s particularly hard to disentangle the shared experience from the shared literature. Soon after Juneli joins the school, a classmate neatly maps the major characters from Malory Towers onto their classmates; the one who’s good at drawing (Ina/Belinda), the vain, spoiled one (Balbinder, whose peers even call her Gwendoline Mary after the Blyton character), and so on.

Part of the reason the Juneli books are satisfying as school stories is because they are so familiar, hitting every trope. In the first book there are guides, midnight revelries, a subplot in which Juneli is Falsely Accused, a daring rescue in which our heroine saves the life of another girl, and a version of the plot of (Elsie Oxenham’s) The Girls of the Hamlet Club, in which a group of girls, left out of other school activities, form a club of their own and eventually have to step in and save the school after the cast of the school play falls sick. I’m not accusing Dutta of being derivative here, so much as suggesting that the genre is often built on a series of set pieces that are instantly recognisable to fans. The second book in the series has an undeserving head girl elected on the basis of her popularity–another plotline I’m sure I’ve read before, but the only instance I can remember is in one of the Naughtiest Girl in the School sequels (by Anne Digby), published long after these stories. It’s only through Juneli’s interference that the misguided headgirl doesn’t re-enact another existing plotline (see: EBD’s New Chalet School, EJO’s The Two Form Captains), where the Bad Girl is off doing something fun and disobedient and is thus not on hand to go to the bedside of a dying parent. The third book has the entire school move to an ancient fort at the last minute and thus provides a fantastic setting for an adventure story involving disinherited young women, cryptic directions that lead to treasure, and a gang of thieves. There are even hilarious domestic science mishaps of the sort that, in Brent-Dyer, are inevitably in a chapter titled “A Little Cookery”.

campfireUnfortunately, the books inherit some of the less pleasant parts of the genre as well. I have read a lot of British girls’ school stories about the camp fire movement (thanks, Elsie Oxenham), and I’m made really uncomfortable by the romanticised/fetishised version of Native American cultures that seems to underpin them–I don’t know how central this was to the American movement, or if it was exaggerated as an embarrassing side effect of its adoption by British writers. (There’s nothing about British school stories’ portrayal of American history that isn’t bizarre to me–there’s a moment in Brent-Dyer’s Rivals of the Chalet School in which the girls decide to play at being the Ku Klux Klan and somehow fans of the genre have just ignored this and gone about our daily ways.) It’s possible that Dutta’s portrayal (in Juneli at Avila’s) of an episode in which Juneli and her fellow girl guides put on “beads and coloured feathers,” and act out bits of Hiawatha is a nod to that tradition. On the other hand, I know very little about Guides in India in the 70s; it wouldn’t surprise me to hear that they thought dressing up as “Red Indians” and prancing about was a fun way to spend time. I started reading school stories in the early 1990s and at that point (unless my childhood was extremely unusual) the idea that parodying other cultures was in poor taste was pretty mainstream, and it’s even more unpleasant to read now.

In addition, there’s the apparent willingness to mock characters for their weight or lack of athletic ability (in school stories as in life, the two are often unfairly conflated). This is all realistic enough–girls at school are as capable of cruelty and bullying as anyone else–but when in all other respects Juneli herself is treated as ideal (good, honourable, kind, etc), her willingness to participate in things like fat shaming suggests that the book itself endorses (or at least thinks nothing of) this behaviour.

Which is to say, reading these books was like reading any other school story–familiar, entertaining, and often jarring with the reminder that my values are not those of the genre’s earliest authors. In a series so relatively recent, I wish that this were not still the case.

April 16, 2019

Bali Rai, City of Ghosts

I have a post about Bali Rai’s City of Ghosts on the Children’s Literature in Newcastle blog, as a way of commemorating the centenary of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. Alongside the book (and since I finished it), I’ve also been reading Kim A Wagner’s book on the incident; it’s published as Amritsar 1919 outside India, but here it’s only Jallianwala Bagh, which I think speaks to the sort of mythic resonance that it has within how Indians (at least, Indians from my part of the country) tell our history.

Rai’s book was published in the UK in 2009–I don’t know if it was ever actively linked to the 90th anniversary of the massacre. Nevertheless, I feel that questions of how the empire is remembered have been so much more prominent over the last few years (Brexit, Rhodes Must Fall, multiple rounds of the was-Churchill-bad wars) that reading it now may be quite different from reading it a decade ago. The centenary has taken place amid a number of calls to the British government to issue an official apology for what is now, at least, widely acknowledged as a horrific event (it’d be nice to be able to be shocked that the public at the time did the equivalent of a racist GoFundMe [to steal the term from my friend Vajra] to support Dyer, but then this happened this week and I’m not surprised at all.). I’m unconvinced that an apology is worth much–as I say in the blog post linked above, I’m suspicious of attempts to cordon off particular aspects of imperial violence and mark them as uniquely awful, when doing so serves to render all the other imperial violence (i.e. all of empire) relatively benevolent (on twitter I linked to Tom Bentley’s thoughts on this, which are good). I’m also suspicious of how these arguments constantly quote Churchill and work to suggest that he wasn’t a big fan of large scale violence on nonwhite colonial subjects.

As for the book itself, I think my main feeling was that I wanted it to go further and be the full-on angry indictment that it could have been. Given its audience, I’m not sure how far it could have gone, though. I got curious and read as many online reviews of the book as I could find, some from ten years ago and others more recent, and while they were all complimentary none of them suggested a possibility of deep engagement. Several iterations of “I’d never heard of this awful event!” (fair enough, sorry about the history curriculum); at least one that was uncomfortable with the fact that the book seems to endorse Udham Singh’s doing a murder; one, memorably, that sought to compliment Rai by comparing his presentation of India to Kim, by Rudyard Kipling (who famously called Dyer the “man who saved India” and supported his actions during the massacre. I love Kipling’s prose but if there was ever a time this comparison was inappropriate …). I’m suspicious of narratives of progress, and I don’t know that the relative prominence of imperial history in the public discourse over the last few years has actually led to an increased public understanding of it (most of the time, all it seems to mean is that people say offensive things more often and with more media coverage). Would the dramatic indictment I craved be more likely to be written in the current climate? I’m not sure. I’m currently doing some work on contemporary British children’s books and how they imagine/memorialise/ negotiate the imperial past, and I suspect I’ll be coming back to City of Ghosts to think about it more.

April 9, 2019

Aditi Krishnakumar, The Magicians of Madh

The Magicians of Madh is set in the sort of independent city state you see in quite a lot of fantasy, and so is immediately familiar. Krishnakumar knows you know this. Madh is full of hooded and cloaked figures, improbable architecture, competing and tax-avoidant temples, and more than the usual quantity of supernatural beings. The city’s skyline is dominated by the Academy (not actually the tallest building), where young people study magic and alchemy, as well as maths and philosophy. The assassins who roam the streets have, pragmatically, unionised. It’s all rather Terry Pratchett, and that is generally a good thing.

Strange events are taking place across the city; evidence of powerful magic but with no trace of who the practitioner/s might be. Teenage genius Meenakshi, along with her more practical foster brother Kalban, undertakes to find out what, who, and why.

I’d assumed from the back cover, and the fact that the book is squarely aimed at a middle-grade readership, that the Academy was a magic school, a setting that I thoroughly enjoy. For a while after the book opened, I found myself slightly disappointed that I wasn’t getting all the educational scenes I’d hoped for—and then I realised that what I was actually reading was magic university.

There’s space here for another call back to Terry Pratchett, but it wasn’t the one that felt most immediate to me. I have no way of knowing whether Krishnakumar has read Diana Wynne Jones’s Year of the Griffin, but some of that book’s (and to some extent Dark Lord of Derkholm’s, which it follows) sense of university life unfolding in the plot’s background, of deep immersion in personal projects, academic rivalries, earnest and ridiculous debate, awkward relationships with irascible supervisors,  and university social life (there’s even a Disembodied Voice Society, which I love), is present here as well, and is genuinely charming when it happens. (Also there are griffins.) The city in the background can sometimes be a bit of a gimmick taken too far (In other cities people would run away from danger! In Madh they run towards it! In other cities you’d look conspicuous all hooded and cloaked! Here you pass unnoticed!); the university is less of a genre parody and more a space in which people live and interact, and possibly even work.

There might be a reason for that (and note that this is a mystery story, and anything mentioned here may have relevance to the solution). The Academy is enchanted, in a very particular way, so that how it appears to each person is constantly changing, and no one has ever seen what the building itself looks like. Most often, as the characters creep through its corridors, it seems to look rather dungeonlike—dramatic and medieval and rather too dark. It’s giving its students the sort of portentous, pseudo-medieval setting they expect, as well as the one we expect—as the book does in its broader descriptions of Madh, it’s working with, building on and undercutting its audience’s expectations of what this sort of setting looks like, and what sort of genre this is.

And then events transpire so that we do see the Academy’s true form. It’s only described briefly; the characters find themselves in a room whose “floor was tiled in polished stone and the walls and ceiling painted a pale neutral cream.” Not much there, but shortly after Kalban describes the experience as seeing the Academy while it “looked like a government building designed by an architect in the middle of a minimalist phase.” I love this. For multiple reasons: I like the sort of building this seems to suggest; I like that Madh is the sort of world that might plausibly have minimalist government buildings; and I love how familiar, how immediate, and how Indian such a building feels to me.

Calling it “Indian” feels important given that all my references to other works thus far have been British ones–the names are Indic (Meenakshi, Chitralekha, Paras, Nalini), but is there more to it than that? Fantasy (or at least a certain sort of fantasy) in India faces something of a challenge when it attempts to build worlds that draw on the national past. (I can’t let that sentence pass without noting that medievalist European fantasy has been weaponised by Nazis more than once, including very recently, so the problem is not unique to us.) So much of Indian history, myth, folklore has been co-opted into a Hinduist narrative that a story that tries to use those things risks being co-opted in similar ways.

I don’t know whether Krishnakumar is actively trying to negotiate this situation, but if she is she comes up with some appealing solutions. Madh has its elements of Hindu mythology—a “Celestial Dancer” (Krishnakumar chooses not to say “Apsara,” but she’s not hiding what Chitralekha is—or for that matter her superiors Rambha and Urvashi) is one of the major characters, dividing her time between trying to solve the mystery alongside Meenakshi and irritating Kalban. It’s probably more a case of shared sources than a deliberate allusion, but the name of the neighbouring kingdom, Melucha, kept reminding me of Amish Tripathi’s Immortals of Meluha–fittingly, as Melucha seems a more traditional mythic kingdom.

And then we have the academy, and its blocky minimal-ness and suddenly I’m at home in a completely different way. I’ve spent most of my life in a country many of whose public institutions were built in the mid-twentieth century, and whose architecture reflects that moment. I’m suspicious of schools that want me to notice that they look like Hogwarts; I like a medieval castle in its place, but I’m suspicious of what about its old-ness I’m being asked to admire. Madh is–fundamentally–a post medievalist world, one into which government buildings just fit naturally. There may be some of the trappings of medievalism in its material culture (why are people wandering about with bows and arrows?), and Kalban in particular may be used to a court full of intrigue and assassination (I’d love to read fantasy set in Melucha, but I’m glad it’s offscreen in this story); but it’s no accident that the book’s appendices consist of a chart depicting the structure and hierarchies of Madh’s bureaucracy where many other fantasies would have family trees and glossaries. It seems the India I want from Indian fantasy is a post-independence one.

I realise that Krishnakumar probably did not set out to create a Nehruvian alternative to mythological fantasy, and I’m okay with that knowledge.

My feelings about buildings and bureaucracy aside, I’m not completely sold on this book. A couple of years ago I complained about another Indian fantasy that was aimed at middle-grade readers that it felt incomplete, as if there’d been several more chapters of backstory and worldbuilding. There’s a similar feeling of incompleteness about this book, and it has a bigger effect on me when I read. I describe the book above as a sort of mystery/detective novel–there are lots of small background details that turn out to have a real bearing on the solution. But in order to participate in the working out of the solution we need a basic understanding of how the world and its magic work and we don’t, quite. I have no idea whether Krishnakumar plans to write more books set in this world; if she does the main attraction for me would be that gradually I might come to understand this world better.