A pre-teen adventure that hesitates on the threshold of an R.K. Narayan world.
Few writers have been able to convincingly occupy the pre-teen slot in Indian Writing in English. Balaji Venkataraman’s Flat-Track Bullies attempts just that.
Set in Chennai, the book tells the story of Ravi Venkatesan’s summer vacation, in his own voice. Ravi is a regular, middle-class boy; good grades, a Rajinikanth fan, with class-conscious, pushy parents who choose even his school friends for him. His vacation begins on a dull note, packed with a formidable schedule of tuitions and extra-curricular activities. However, Ravi makes other plans (‘I’m a good planner. Mind it!’) and with the help of his ‘real’ friends, proceeds to hoodwink his parents and teachers and do fun things instead.
Venkataraman rounds up a gang, throws in an inkling of romantic interest, promises rule-breaking and trouble-making, but never quite takes off. He uses his knowledge of the city to weave it into Ravi’s day-to-day adventures; a dare in a cemetery, fishing along the Buckingham canal, a run-in at an apartment, and so on. A day spent at a street festival, with serial lights, candy watches and street food is nicely sketched. However, apart from a game of marbles in the cemetery that leads to fisticuffs, little in the book hooks the reader, who is instead encouraged to enjoy the tone of the book and the thought-process of an 11-year-old.
Narrating a story in the first person is an ambitious attempt and one fraught with many risks. For one, it demands consistency not only in language, but also in perspective typical of a young boy. Venkataraman obviously finds it difficult to crouch all the way through, and often stretches into a ‘grown-up’ position. He uses Ravi’s voice to voice his opinions on everything, from numerology to sport, health, cricket, Facebook, honesty and much else. Only, he sometimes drops the screen and the reader can tell he’s a grown man talking in a boy’s voice.
There are some charming literary devices. The book is written as Ravi’s vacation diary. Ravi resorts to fruit names as substitutes to cursing: ‘Jumbo Jackfruits’. The layout, margined like a notebook, is pleasant on the eye. The chapters serve as timers for the story: ‘60 days to go’ and, as Ravi digs into his adventures, they turn into ‘Only 20 days left’.
However, the reader is left waiting for that promised adventure, even after the last page. Even the trouble Ravi gets into is lukewarm. That Ravi too doesn’t seem very affected by them is the book’s undoing. Nevertheless, Venkataramanan’s attempt opens up possibility. The street jargon, the Chennai references and the childhood anecdotes will resonate with many a reader. The inconsistency in tone or the often limp narrative arc does not completely take away that connect.
If only he had gone the distance, Bullies would have been a blockbuster. Venkataramanan boldly steps into the realm of R.K. Narayan, but hesitates at the threshold. There’s a world of adventure out there, and he chooses to remain tied to realism. That’s grown-up and not befitting an 11-year-old.