When one thinks of a book or film that revolves around childhood, the themes that come to mind typically involve coming of age, rebellion or adventure. But Rajil, the central character of Manav Kaul’s Hindi novel Shirt Ka Teesra Button, finds himself to be singularly ineffective at doing any of the three.

A diffident schoolboy, Rajil is an unlikely protagonist and he is painfully aware of the fact. At one point, when he begins reading a novel, he wonders which character he most closely resembles. And as he watches people in the village market go by, a realisation dawns on him – he is the outcast sitting unnoticed in a corner. He is the character whom the author would have forgotten to write about.

In recent years, Kaul has earned widespread fame as an actor, but his avatar as an author has been just as remarkable. His wide-ranging literary oeuvre includes plays, novels, as well as a poetry collection.

In an interview with the The Hindustan Times, Kaul has cited a wide range of authors as his inspirations – from Vinod Kumar Shukla and Rabindranath Tagore to Anton Chekhov and Fyodor Dostoevsky. Indeed, the profound influence that Russian authors have had on his writing is visible at many places in the novel. In a hat tip to 19th-century Russian literature, Kaul repeatedly mentions Rodion Raskolnikov, the protagonist of Dostoevsky’s novel Crime and Punishment, when he seeks to give voice to the inner turmoil of his characters.

One village, many worlds

Shirt ka Teesra Button paints a vivid picture of a seemingly quaint village and the multitude of not-so-quaint stories nestled within it. An important narrative arc is that of Armaan, better known as Choti, who is Rajil’s close friend. Choti’s friends initially envy him for his affable nature, and for his many female fans in the classroom. But as it turns out, the four walls of his home hide a story of abuse and impunity.

The novel, through its characters, also sheds light on the many social mores and taboos of village life, in which everyone knows everyone else and privacy is an extremely scarce commodity. For example, social norms dictate that Rajil’s mother Asha should be content with looking after her family, and not have any other dreams or desires. But she defies convention in more ways than one by engaging in a clandestine affair with a middle-aged Muslim man.

If clandestine middle-aged affairs are taboo, so are school romances. Kaul deftly describes childhood friendships and love, with all their uncertainties and explorations. While the exact time frame of the novel is not clear, the story is set in a context where social media and smartphones were yet to make an appearance. Thus, the air of sepia-toned innocence in the description of school life becomes that much more believable.

Realities and flights of fancy

The tone of Kaul’s writing is at times realistic and grounded, while at other times, it switches seamlessly into the surreal. Every now and then, the narrative takes the reader for a ride into Rajil’s flights of fancy, before meandering its way back to dreary reality. And so, at times, a character squats in his courtyard and picks out gold from the ground, while at other times, bored children struggle to memorise “thoughts for the day” to be parroted at the school assembly.

Rajil tries multiple times to seize his coming-of-age moment and make his voice count. But on the few occasions that the world does listen, his attempted revolt only ends up making things worse. And so, whenever the school boy finds himself faced with a crisis, all he manages to do is stare emptily at the third button of his shirt and hope that the crisis will go away. In many ways, the novel is about how the “third button” also stares back at him.

Shirt Ka Teesra Button

Shirt Ka Teesra Button, Manval Kaul, Hind Yugm.