Flat-track Bullies by Balaji Venkataramanan

February 28, 2014 § 1 Comment

Originally published at goodbooks, a website for  reviews, discussions and more on Indian Children’s books. 

Every once in a while, one ends up with a book which sounds promising, gets excited, only to be disappointed in the end. Madras, Chennai, if you want, is my home and it isn’t common to find a children’s book, set here.

The story as such is truthful- Balaji Venkatramanan takes us through the world of IIT classes, cricket coaching, spelling bees etc- the cold, planned summers which are built by zealous, domineering parents for their wards. The book is a journal of Ravi, the child who decides he is to have a few fun things as well, and, along the way learns a few invaluable lessons.

Where the book fails though, is the writing. Children’s books are about children. As such, the best writers for children are great story tellers- they bring to life a world of adventure, discovery and most of all, do not impose adult views of the world on to the story. The author has liberally sprinkled his take on everything under the sun as the view of the narrator. A few examples:

“Storytelling- it’s such a girly session. The less said the better. Only girls and the girl-type guys attend. I am too old and macho for that.”

“Sanaa, though thirteen, is wearing a six-year-old’s top and a five-year-old’s shorts. Seriously, where are they from- Delhi or Denmark? GRUMPY GRAPES I dare not think what they would wear if they went to US or elsewhere.”

“Mom thinks marbles is a game for those who use Indian-style toilets. What skewed logic! But that’s mom for you.”

“One thin AIDS-patient-like guy asked for Suresh’s cigarette to light up his own.”

“Every moron these days can play the keyboard or sing or dance with the exception of me…”

“I do really hate the retired types. The JACKFRUIT retired cases. I think they should keep a warning board in every apartment ‘beware of dogs and retired cases: one barks, the other bites, guess who?”

’Who won it? Was it the yellow-underwear girl or the black-underwear girl?’ Would you believe it? It was our tennis coach”

Not sure what exactly is the author’s intention here, but a plain reading of it, does come out as distasteful, sexist and utterly inappropriate, especially in a children’s book. Not merely the comments, but their position in the book- these could have been done away with entirely and don’t add much to the story. Wonder if the publishing house (Duckbill) holds similar views, considering they have kept it.

Ravi Venkatesan, a twelve year old boy, loves to swear. Of course, there isn’t actual swearing, just names of fruits, as he fears the journal might land up in the hands of his mother. Funny name calling should be fine, but page upon page, we are put through mangoes, grapes and watermelons- bigger the fruit, the more intense the emotion. It is almost tiring even, to imagine an adolescent with such a big gutter mouth. JACKFRUIT tiring.

The strength of the book is the plot. Ravi gives the slip to his parents to play with Durai, the son of his family’s ex-maid and Durai’s friends along with his best friend, Ramesh. The adventures are exciting and fun. We are even taken on a tour of the Mylapore street festival. As the boys lounge in a graveyard and Ravi ensures they win a few bet matches against rivals, the trouble comes when there is a “gang” fight- Ravi and his friends jump into a flat, where a car with broken glass gets them into trouble. The two worlds of Ravi meet, with an obvious ending.

Ravi is also obsessed with breaking coconuts for God, with him offering the tropical fruit for all sorts of favors. Nothing wrong with that, just might not be everyone’s cup of filter coffee, especially when the same thing is repeated over and over and over and over.

While the story as such is exciting, it wasn’t a fun read, as the author keeps tripping on his shoelaces, imposing his sordid views throughout. Overall, the book could have been made to work. Looking at the plot objective, there is nothing wrong with it, in fact the book presents a reality. If the author had kept out his prejudices and merely written the story, the book might have worked.

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