Coming-of-age Tale Books

Life is a typewriter: Review of Siddhartha Vaidyanathan’s ‘What’s Wrong with You, Karthik?’

If you are someone who grew up in the 80s and 90s in South India, in a typical privileged caste Tamil household, this book is like hurtling through platform 9 and 3/4 into the land of bustling nostalgia. This might technically be a coming-of-age novel, but for me, it was a study of human frailty and our magnificent capacity for forgiveness, captured with a tenderness that is now rare in literature.

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Where this book converges with other coming-of-age tales are in its moments of angst — centred around belonging, friendship, identity, sexuality and language — particular to boyhood. But where it diverges is in Siddhartha Vaidyanathan’s willingness to explore the moments of monotony, of sameness, that define the angst.

We meet the protagonist Karthik as he is about to step into a new school, the palpably stricter St. George’s Boys’ High School, and discover its ruthless layers. As Karthik navigates this world, fighting his loneliness, the confusing dynamics of loyalty in new friendships, and the demands of an unforgiving syllabus, he also discovers an unexpected ability in himself to slide past tight corners. To think that there is so much going on in the life of a 12-year-old boy is both revelatory and oddly reaffirming.

Despite this detailed landscape of school life painted by Vaidyanathan, it is Karthik’s home life that is the real canvas of the book, especially Karthik’s relationship with his grandfather. It is where the more subtle power structures in relationships — as against the more open, boisterous ones in school — come into play.

My favourite bit is the grandfather’s deep connection with his Remington Monarch typewriter, the repository of all words, old and new, that much later, also becomes the receptacle of Karthik’s grief. Much like the novel itself that leaves you not with a neatly tied-up end but with the possibility of multiple futures contained within every word.

What’s Wrong with You, Karthik?; Siddhartha Vaidyanathan, Picador India, ₹599

The reviewer edits an art magazine.

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Printable version | Jan 18, 2021 3:42:58 AM |

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