“The Indian family needs the unfamiliar”, says Samir Halarnkar towards the end of his short essay in Being Boys, tracing his lifestyle choices to the influence of the women who raised him. Halarnkar’s comment is aimed at the kind of mindset that finds his choices unnatural – he is a stay-home dad, who likes to cook and doesn’t consider household chores ‘women’s work’. Replace the word ‘family’ with ‘reader’ and the statement still holds true, where the Familiar swings from standard retellings of mythological stories with their strongly patriarchal bent, to fifty shades of the same old , predominantly urban, Indian household.
So, while Being Boys presents itself as an anthology of short stories with young male protagonists, what stood out for me was its inclusion of narratives that one would be hard pressed to find in mainstream Indian publishing. Sure, it has its share of regular schoolboys venting spleen over the usual suspects -girls, pimples, pesky younger brothers. But it also gives us a Dalit struggling not just with abject poverty but the daily humiliation of casteist discrimination, a Sikh boy being bullied for his long hair, a transgender child struggling with identity , a sweeper’s son humiliated at wearing hand-me-downs. And, in what, for me, was the best story in the book by far, there are Kalmu and Karma, two boys with very similar stories, whose choices put them on opposing sides of a violent conflict.
Being Boys brings together a diverse range of authors, and an interesting mix of narratives – fables, memoirs, diary entries, historical fiction, even a glimpse into the beleaguered childhood of Indian Supervillain No.1. Some , like Big Brother, Rinku’s Hair and Kerr-rack are about boys trying to find their place in the pack, while stories like Man Up-its’s Football! and The Haunted Sampige Tree are true life accounts of facing casteism and racism. In General Apron Strings, a boy ridiculed for his interest in cooking becomes the savior of his bullies on a picnic gone awry. Destroy, Boy, A Hero and Rave On are light hearted looks at the daily tribulations of being Boy , and surviving acne, siblings and overbearing fathers. Guthli has Wings is a sensitive examination of alternate sexuality and joins The Red Suit, Abu and On Founder’s Day (extracted from a speech given by Vikram Seth at his alma mater)in stressing the importance of embracing your individuality regardless of societal pressures. The Ugly Boy, the book’s sole piece of historically inspired fiction , gives us another side to the story of Emperor Ashoka, that of a boy ridiculed for being homely. It makes you wonder if the derision he suffered as a boy helped shape the ruthless warrior he grew into, before turning pacifist as a follower of Buddhism.
I would have liked to see more female characters in the book… barring some exceptions, these stories are almost exclusively about boys in power struggles of different kinds with other boys, with female characters relegated to the background or totally absent. Then again, most ten year old boys (and girls) I know do seem to move almost exclusively in packs of 'their own kind'. Also … what, no comics!!! Given the growing popularity of graphic narratives in short story anthologies today, I was actually surprised NOT to find one in this collection. Surprised and more than a little disappointed, given the presence of both Niveditha Subramaniam and Manjula Padmanabhan in the list of contributors. These minor grouses aside, Being Boys is an anthology that could get young readers thinking . More significantly, it suggests that sometimes, being a boy in India can be confusing and mysterious, as much a burden as a socially conferred privilege, as much about celebrating one’s feminine side as flaunting the masculine.
Disclaimer: I received a review copy of this book from the publisher; the opinions expressed in this review are, however, my own.
Image courtesy: Tulika publishers