Literary Review

The age beyond innocence

Like Smoke; Paro Anand.  

Delhi’s dusty streets are at their most potent under the summer sun, and so, when a particularly exhausting journey ends at Paro Anand’s farmhouse, its feels like you’ve reached a safe haven. I take in the jumble of lush greens, the soothing stillness and the surprisingly cool porch. A glass of chilled water later, the author begins with a story.

“I was at a bookstore recently, and there was a woman with her child in the children’s section. The boy must have been five or six. He’d pick out a book and bring it to his mother, and every time she’d ask him, very seriously, if he thought the book was ‘age-appropriate’. Each time, he looked baffled and said no.” As the stack of rejected books grew taller, Anand remembers the boy’s enthusiasm dampening further.

The question of what makes for an ‘age-appropriate’ book is tricky, not just for that five-year-old, but for Anand herself. Known primarily for her Young Adult (YA) and children’s books, Anand wonders at the need for the YA tag in the first place. “I’ve been told that I’m undervaluing my books by calling them Young Adult fiction. There’s a widely accepted opinion that anything that isn’t General Fiction isn’t real writing.” At the same time, the label does allow for easier slotting by publishers and bookstores, and also, to an extent, marks out more clearly books that aim to speak to young adult readers.

Often mistaken as a genre, the YA tag is in fact a proposed age range, and refers to books that are intended for readers between the ages of 15 and 20. This age range is actually quite fluid, and a 12-year-old could very well pick up YA fiction and find herself entirely immersed. “A common mistake would be to think that everything that features a teen protagonist is YA. A good example would be The Kite Runner, which does have a young boy as its protagonist, but isn’t really YA,” says Anand, adding that there is a distinct difference between writing about teens and writing for teens.

The idea of slotting books into the YA category is still fairly new in India. When No Guns at my Son’s Funeral, arguably Anand’s best-known book, was published in 2005, the tag was almost entirely absent, and her book was marketed, she remembers, as children’s fiction. “When I was growing up, we didn’t have this division at all, and my own reading choices weren’t closely monitored, so I’d pick up anything that looked interesting to me,” she says. She thinks this is really what all children do, and so, with different reading levels and interests, the right book finds the right child.

But as far as a certain approach and writing style is concerned, Anand believes there is definitely a need for more young-adult fiction. “Teenagers today are exposed to a lot of information, on almost every subject. You can’t shield them from it anymore. And in a world that bombards them with conflicting, confusing ideas, they need books that speak to them on those very subjects, but do so in a voice they can relate to, and is accessible to them.”

This is exactly what Anand does, tackling issues head-on, without mincing words. Her most recent collection of stories, Like Smoke, is a kind of cross-sectional view of this fact. “You can’t shield children from stories of violence, sex or death. Instead, you can show them how to handle these issues, how to identify right from wrong. Nothing does that as well as books.” The stories in Like Smoke are real, unflinching examinations of very real topics — death, riots, abuse, love, abandonment.

“I noticed how little there was about the 1984 riots in fiction for children, so I wrote a story on it, trying to understand what happened from a young person’s point of view.” Similarly, Anand has also confronted issues of terrorism, minorities and communalism, trying to probe at learned hatred, picked up by children through stray comments they don’t understand but are quick to internalise. “Books can start a conversation around these ideas, challenge them, break stereotypes.”

The gritty subject matter makes objections from affronted parents and teachers inevitable. “One of the objections that came for No Guns at my Son’s Funeral was from a school where they were uncomfortable about the book’s 15-year-old child,” Anand remembers. She was asked to change the girl’s age to 18, so she would at least not be a minor. “I’ve noticed this often; while death is still all right, sex is not.”

Things, though, are changing, and Anand says that with new books on topics like homosexuality, sexual abuse and more, the possibilities are increasing. “There are still taboos. I remember Ranjit Lal having to change the character of a sexual abuser in his book from the father of the girl to her stepfather, to make things more digestible.”

Apart from the issues they tackle, the appeal that Anand’s books hold also lies in the way they are written. “I am constantly talking to (young people), spending time with them, and to a certain extent, that makes it easier for me to understand their motivations, their actions and reactions.” The other part is, of course, pure intuition. “I let the story guide me. This might sound cheesy, but it’s true. I write from my heart, not my head.”

This is why, sometimes, Anand finds herself reworking her plots and examining their motivations. It is important to sound not just accessible, but also real. “In ‘For Batter or Worse’, from Like Smoke, I write about a fat girl in love with a cute boy from her class. He doesn’t love her back. Now, I knew it wasn’t because of her weight but I couldn’t figure out why he didn’t love her. So I haven’t spelled it out. He just doesn’t, like it is sometimes in life. Maybe the answer will come to me some day.”

The idea, Anand says, is to make sure that in a book meant for young adults, the message isn’t overbearing; that the book doesn’t preach, or pretend.

“Every story has a message, but it should be hidden inside the story.” This crowd, she knows, is tough to please. “I’ve read some YA authors who try too hard to sound young, using language they think teens will identify with. It doesn’t work.”

For her own work, Anand doesn’t set any rules except one. “I just make sure that all my books and stories end on a note of hope. Things don’t have to end in a happily-ever-after, but I want them to contain a seed of hope, the possibility of things becoming better.”

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Printable version | Nov 26, 2021 12:06:07 PM |

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