Do ‘young adults’ – humans between the ages of sixteen and twenty-five, according to Wikipedia – really need a literary genre of their own? Didn’t all of us ‘old adults’ (even those who read most voraciously) grow up pretty okay despite moving seamlessly from children’s books (say, William, The Hardy Boys, The Three Investigators ) to fat ‘adult’ books with mature intellectual and emotional content – forbidden love in The Thorn Birds, the social and political impact of the American Civil War in Gone with the Wind, race relations in To Kill a Mockingbird – all of which we were devouring at ages fourteen and fifteen?
The questions are moot. Maybe we grew up okay because, unlike now, no one in the seventies and eighties – least of all our parents – thought of teenagers as needing special and/or delicate handling. If we had anger and angst and rebellion issues, which we did, we were expected to suck it up and toe the parental line anyway. The constant refrain was “Oh, stop snivelling and grow up!” And we did. Our reading kept pace. We never felt the lack of books that spoke in our voices. Even our bible of teen angst, The Catcher in the Rye, was written for adults, not adolescents.
Things have changed since then. Today, everyone from advertisers to school counsellors is constantly reminding us that young people are important, influential, different, and yes, deserving of a whole literary genre unto themselves. Young Adult (YA) lit has established itself as the flavour of the twenty-first century, appealing not just to its target market but also to full-grown adults (yours truly included). One important reason is that the world today’s teenagers inhabit is so overwhelmingly – and scarily – different from the one that we grew up in that parents (and other well-meaning adults) are mostly clueless about how to guide young people through it without coming across as out-of-touch or draconian. On the other side, without firm parental boundaries to pen them in, teenagers are themselves adrift, relying on friends and other sources (at times, far more questionable) for answers.
The power of a good, sensitively-written YA book is that it helps start conversations between the two sides, and also boldly goes where few novels for adults have gone before. Payal Dhar’s Slightly Burnt, which deals with homosexuality, is a great example of just such a book.
Slightly Burnt’s narrator is fifteen-year-old Komal, a well-adjusted teen with – thank god! – none of the D issues (Divorce, Disease, Disability, Death) that seem to plague protagonists of western YA novels. Komal is smart, snarky, technologically-savvy, and loves to bake, although that is still very much a hit-and-miss game with her (which is where the title of the book comes from). Her world is small but near-perfect – her grades are good, her best friend Sahil is her soulmate, and her brother Vikram, less than two years younger, has begun to – awkward! – attract feminine attention from one of her closest friends.
But that cosy world is about to be irrevocably shattered by Sahil’s three-word revelation (I love you? Naaah!) about his sexuality. The rest of the novel is about how Komal struggles to come to terms with this stunning confidence, and with another, equally earth-shattering, discovery.
What are the best things about Slightly Burnt? To my mind, there are two. The first is the voices of its main characters. Dialogue that sounds natural is extraordinarily difficult to write, and contemporary Indian teen dialogue – with its mix of American and British phrases, apart from home-grown colloquialisms – is particularly so. But Dhar achieves it marvellously, without resorting to Hinglish (but still keeping it Indian), and without trying to make it sound, ugh, ‘cool’.
The second wonderful thing about this book is that it is light without being flippant. Which is vital, for the stuff that Komal is dealing with is real enough – the betrayal she feels about Sahil not confiding in her earlier; her confusion about what she is supposed to feel towards him now, given that everything that has gone before seems like a lie; her need to be protective of him now that she knows; her worry about Section 377 being upheld by the Supreme Court; and her disgust at herself at the discovery that she isn’t quite the non-judgmental, unconditional ‘best friend’ to him that she has always believed she was. Dhar is acutely conscious of this, and does not trivialise them at all. But teenagers – that gloriously self-absorbed breed – are also amazingly resilient, especially when they come from generally stable and happy families, and the book’s tone, while taking us through the very real pain of Komal’s emotional ‘growing up’, affectionately emphasises this. Too many books about serious issues get bogged down by their own gravity. Slightly Burnt neatly skirts that pitfall with humour and empathy, and ends, as all good books should, on a warm, hopeful note.
Unfortunately, neither the cover nor the blurb at the back (any reason why homosexuality wasn’t mentioned there?) do enough justice to the book, which is a pity. But teenagers rarely go into a store and pick up a book based on what the blurb says; with this age-group, it is almost always peer recommendations that decide a book’s fate. For its sake, and for the sake of anyone who enjoys a fun, well-written and heartwarming story about a complex issue, one hopes that word of mouth ensures that dog-eared copies of Slightly Burnt become staples in hormonal high-school corridors across the country.
Arundhati Roshan B. reads anything she can get her hands on, but is especially addicted to books for children and young adults.