Book review

Two Young Adult queer novels: a rare blend of sensitivity and humour

An LGBT perspective on two Young Adult novels about teenagers coming out of the closet: Himanjali Shankar’s ‘Talking of Muskaan’, and Payal Dhar’s ‘Slightly Burnt’.

The self is an emerging proposition.  To discern and explore the self through the looking glass of sexuality, desire, class and personal identity based on powerful experiences and influences at a young age is a prodigious feat in contemporary times.

Adolescence, especially, needs such references when everything around seems idiosyncratic and painful. There are many young people who struggle with alternate sexual and gender orientation, and do not know what to do about it. I hope that more authors write about such things with the same sensitivity and humour that are evident in the two novels for young adults, Talking of Muskaan, and Slightly Burnt.

Himanjali Sankar’s Talking Of Muskaan explores what happens when a young woman is trying to break free of heteronormative structures and is seeking acceptance. It is a delicate, intimate narrative of three teenagers – Aaliya, Prateek and Shubhojay. Each of them narrates his or her own story, the style involving the use of anecdotes that offer their perspective on Muskaan and their attempts to make sense of the situation.

Through these voices, the author channels thoughts about isolation, class-political issues, biases, and all manners of prejudice. It is interesting to see the presentation of the power of intimate relationships to bring about change in a person. It is possible to perceive this as the process of either becoming one’s own self or of losing oneself in the resultant whirlwind.

Shifting narratives

The book shifts narratives and steers clear of a linear timeline, which is precisely what keeps the reader enamoured. The themes of adolescence and the angst it carries are touched upon consummately. In our everyday life, we often come across conversations about class and privilege, bemoaning the fact that people belonging to a particular class tend to get away with anything. However, this novel reflects the cruelty of the world, which doesn’t leave anyone uninjured.

Talking of Muskaan is as much about the casual cruelties we inflict on people who are not like us - whose sexuality, or class, or background is different from our own ‒ as it is about the desire to feel rooted and understood by those close to us. The novel unfolds the delicate confessions of young minds in a sensitive yet mannered way. Nevertheless, I wish the author had unraveled the character of Muskaan a little more.

The witty, snarky Slightly Burnt by Payal Dhar is something of a contrast. Dhar gets into the skin of what it is to be an adolescent and to have to deal with all things adult. The story tracks two close friends, Komal and Sahil, with Komal being the narrator. Both of them go to a new-age, progressive school where there are no exams and students are encouraged to talk about their feelings and their secrets. Everything is hunky dory until Sahil comes out to his friend, and that’s when all hell breaks loose.

Unlike in many novels that deal with homosexuality either through anguish or wisdom, Komal is seen taking a very organic route to understand and accept the facts about her friend. This story is not told in linear fashion either, and that is one of the things I loved about it. Refreshingly, it neither sentimentalises nor romanticises teenage or adulthood.

Undercurrents of desire

Indeed, Dhar has this uncanny ability to show things for what they are. If the characters are hurt, then the reader feel it. If they are happy, the readers rejoice in their moments. Slightly Burnt is an enjoyable novel that does a fascinating job of describing the notions of normal and abnormal, and the undercurrents of desire, with details and grace that are nowhere close to being ordinary.

Growing-up and adulthood are both dealt with delicately, without over-handling either. The characters shine through the entire book. There is not a single line or situation which should not have been a part of the story.

What I love most about both these novels is the honesty with which they have been written. They are all about being you and carrying on regardless of how life works out in the end. I firmly believe that everyone who has a teenager around must read and gift them these books.

Talking of Muskaan, Himanjali Shankar, Duckbill Books.
Slightly Burnt, Payal Dhar, Bloomsbury.

Priya Gangwani is the editor of The Gaysi Zine and a core member of Gaysi Family, a blog for queer desis.

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