Teen talk

Author Payal Dhar  

In Payal Dhar’s new book, “Slightly Burnt” (Bloomsbury India), her protagonist is 16, and facing all the problems that come with it— annoying siblings, interfering relatives, unobtainable crushes. That her best friend is gay only seems to make her own life more difficult. Dhar negotiates her way through the plot with a fresh, raw honesty, and charts her character’s growth as she comes to terms with an issue that never seemed important before.

Excerpts from an interview:

What brought about the idea of the book?

A few years ago, I used to write a column on YA (Young Adult) books and publishing for a magazine, “Books & More”. It was while writing and researching for one of those that it suddenly, really struck me how completely invisible LGBT kids were in our society. I mean, it’s not something that we don’t know – but thinking about the lack of diversity in YA writing in India really brought it home.

But for long it was just an idea that I’d write ‘some day’. It was my editor Himanjali Sankar, her elephant-like memory and dogged persistence that turned it into a book. One time I happened to mention it to her and subsequently, She started popping up in unlikely places asking if I’d got any nearer to writing it.

Komal's character is very well rounded, and the conflicts in her mind are very real, as is her voice.

Tell us a little about writing a 16-year-old first person narrative?

Mostly I borrowed shamelessly from my own teenage years — and at a later stage I took feedback from 16-year-olds to check if I’d got Komal’s voice right. Ashamed as I am to admit this, I still remember what it felt like to be 16. That mess of being sure that you know everything — and whatever you don’t you can look up on Google (at least, these days you can) — and yet second-guessing yourself all the time. My ‘secret’ for writing teenagers is admitting that adulthood isn’t much different – only, you have to do your laundry and pay your own bills.

So I tried to find some empathy, take away some power (your mum says no TV, that means no TV!) and add heaps of hope. Because that’s the other thing about being a teenager – you know you’re going to run the world someday.

The plot you chart out includes several subplots, and apart from homosexuality, you also address other issues and subjects…

You mean, how everyone has an obnoxious relative who doesn’t know where to draw the line?! Well, life is complicated, nothing is ever about one thing and one thing only. At a basic level, this is a story about a girl coming to terms with her friend’s ‘bigsSecret’ and in that its focus is fairly narrow. But along the way, Komal’s eyes open up to how the world wants us all to be ‘convenient’ and fit into these tailored slots that it has readied for us. About how there are these roles and rules that we are expected to fulfil – and if we don’t, we’re in trouble. For me, the biggest challenge was to make Komal realize that there’s a difference in what you really think and what you think you’re supposed to think.

Quite rightly, the book’s resolution isn't neat, instead, you've let some loose threads remain. Was this a conscious decision, since in real life, a neat resolution, especially considering the current scenario in the country with regards to LGBT rights, would be impossible?

I don’t want to give too much away, so I’ll just say that the aim was to have a believable ending. I doubt that would have changed even if the laws were kinder to people who don’t conform in our country, including LGBT people. YA stories are fun to write because you don’t have to wrap everything up neatly and put a bow on top, as you might want to for a younger readership. This is an audience that negotiates a difficult world – they can figure out this book too.

What kind of research, in terms of how teens address and negotiate with homosexuality, went into the book?

I wish I had a neat reply for you here, but I don’t. I was shooting in the dark for the most part. This isn’t a conversation that is easy to have with kids given our present circumstances. However, after writing the book, when I was looking for feedback and reviews, it was much easier to talk about. Apart from worrying about whether I had got Komal’s voice right, I took a call not to overthink matters.

Your editor, Himanjali Sankar, was writing her YA novel on homosexuality around the same time too?

Yes, that was weird at first and fun later on. We exchanged manuscripts and feedback — of course, it was her job to poke holes in my story, but she was kind enough to let me do the same to hers. Children’s publishing in India isn’t at a cut-throaty, back-stabby stage yet and people are usually willing to help if you ask for it. In fact, Sayoni Basu (of Duckbill, who published Himanjali’s book) took the time to read and give me feedback at an early stage as well.(maybe I arm-twisted her in a shadowy stairwell – who knows?!), feedback that had a significant role in how the story turned out. What was interesting was also how different Himanjali’s book and mine are – we had never discussed anything more than the broad plots in the beginning and even from that it was clear that the books would be very different. She took a call not to read my manuscript till she’d finished writing hers and it wasn’t without trepidation that I started to read hers, but it turned out that both “Talking of Muskaan” and “Slightly Burnt” are more than just ‘novels on homosexuality’.

How do you think the YA scene in the country is today? Do you think the potential is still untapped?

Yes, I do think it’s largely untapped but this could be changing in the next decade or so. When I was a kid, which was long time ago, there was no such thing as YA, and you automatically moved up from Enid Blyton to Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew and then straight on to adult fiction. This meant, if you were a voracious reader, you’d be reading adult fiction by the age of 14 or so. That’s so clearly not the case any more. Even at almost 40, I’m reading books meant for 14-year-olds, telling myself that it’s research!

Yes, a lot of what’s available – available easily, that is – are imports from the West, but the visibility of Indian writing for children and teenagers is increasing as well. There’s no longer that shadowy corner in the bookshops filled with a dozen CBT productions and a stack of Amar Chitra Kathas. Indian books are slowly moving up to take their place in the ‘regular’ shelves and this is a very recent happening.

What is also a quite recent shift is that some publishers are starting to take risks, moving away from the ‘safe’ topics for children. Of course, ‘some’ being the keyword here. But the greatest journeys begin with a single step, pardon the cliché.

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Printable version | Apr 22, 2021 2:11:23 AM |

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