Survival instinct

The central predicament of C K Meena’s Seven Days to Somewhere is one that we, as a society, are familiar with.

It screams at us from our newspapers, especially when examination results are announced. A cold headline such as “59% XYZ exam passes this year” is invariably followed by a boxed item of a student who has “failed” the exam and decided to end the struggle.

C K Meena’s protagonist Nischit is a bright youngster, but his world, and hence his vision, is circumscribed by what is allowed by his parents — a compound entity called Appa-Amma, deftly satirised and played pitch perfect by the author. Appa-Amma have instilled in Nischit the terror of not getting a high enough percentage to make it to the national board exam, and thenceforward to IIT and Harvard. Nischit is strictly monitored; his TV watching and leisure are rationed and he has few friends.

Jason Subramaniam, his childhood playmate, and his parents, are not posh or ambitious enough for Appa-Amma; Jason goes to the Big Banyan, which is affiliated to the lowly local board, and his family prefers to eat local food rather than at McDonald’s. At thirteen, Nischit is already looking back at a time when he was young, so much younger than today, after his favourite Beatles number.

It is not surprising then that in a crucial Physics final exam, Nischit’s brain rebels and he stops writing. He does worse in Karthik Sir’s English paper. Nischit does not tell Appa-Amma but they will find out when they come to collect his report card. For Nischit, the end of the world is near and he has seven days to resolve things. He spends time alone on his terrace looking over the sides; he buys a thick green nylon rope.

What does the novel have in store for Nischit and the reader? Will it complete the predictable trajectory that the green nylon rope hints at, a heart-breaking story that we have read time and again in our newspapers? To break Nischit’s freefall and the story’s descent into unmitigated tragedy, and to explore an issue that seems to concern the author deeply, that of social, especially parental, control and individual freedom — it was the motivating theme of her first novel, Black Lentil Doughnuts — C K Meena introduces Po, the Parrot, irreverent, all-knowing and all-seeing.

If Nischit brings out the author’s essentially humane concerns and forms the linear thread of the narrative, Po is the disruptive element, channelling the narrative into sub-streams, giving full flow to the raconteur, the sutradhar who ties up the many threads even as he deposes on the state of things.

Po, incantor of the ‘Tota Stotra’, observer of the human world, finds humans stupid and deficient in many ways, especially in their understanding of success and failure. Two traits, he observes, particularly distinguish humans from animals: the desire for revenge and planning for the future. Animals that live close to humans, Po sees, pick up their nasty habits — they lose their pack mentality, become individuals with egos and kill wantonly.

Po departs from his rule of never communicating with a human being when he reads pure lingering terror in Nischit’s mind and decides to intervene. Nischit, brooding on his terrace, finds a persistent parrot (parakeet, as Po screeches) keeping him company. Other than provoking Nischit with insults and home truths, Po tells him stories — improbable, fantastic stories, of Ramu and Ashraf and their daughter Anju, of a dog named Ernst, of Chinkoo and Babu who are “kicked upstairs” to study in a privileged school — where people, and children and animals too have to deal with the blows of fate or the acts of fellow human beings.

They are caught in situations that Nischit cannot conceive of in his protected life. During one of his storytelling sessions on the terrace, when Po pulls his leg suggestively, Nischit protests, ”You can’t say such things to me. I’m only a boy”. The novel, in thrall to Po’s fireworks, proceeds with Nischit’s decision almost as an afterthought, but finds a satisfactory solution within the framework laid out by the
author.

Deeply felt and rendered with wit and keen observation, this novel is a rumination on what we value as a society and hence, how we are going to shape it. It holds up a mirror to us as we are, reflected through the author’s wry intelligence and in a style that is playful and fast-paced.

However, even as one sympathises with the author’s vision of an education system that truly empowers, and of a society that allows its children to follow their hearts, one demurs at the romantic vision that the author has of alternative lifestyle, as espoused by the Subramaniams, Karthik Sir and other non-conformists.

And this, perhaps, is the crux of the problem, the solution for which requires the courage, imagination, wisdom and a bit of the primeval instinct that the author endows Po with — which a society of mere humans will find themselves struggling with indefinitely.

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