Indian boyhood

Shala 
Milind Bokil
(Translated by Vikrant Pande)
Harper Collins
2014, pp 383
Rs 399

Decades and decades after remaining absorbed in Swami and Friends, I had the joy of reading a very satisfactory novel about school life. R K Narayan’s work was a pleasant and easy read, like a comfortable catch on the cricket ground. Milind Bokil’s weave concentrates on the problems of adolescent love and its tragic comedies. Well, this is life, brilliantly recorded in Marathi by Milind Bokil, and Vikrant Pande’s version is a welcome entrant to the area of Indian literature in translation.

The first person narrator, Mukund Joshi, is 14 when the novel begins. There is nothing unusual about him. He’s not too bold, but bold enough to utter small lies so that he can have his morning chat sessions with his select friends. “We just sit there and have mindless conversations, resting our backs against the walls.” Their adda! Each boy has his own individuality, like Chitre, who is always trying out experiments and even explodes a bulb, involved in a bargain. Most of the school’s boys come from poor backgrounds, like Phawdya, who sells vegetables. The novelist creates what may be called an ‘Everyschool’. There is adolescent inquisitiveness into feminine physiology that gives the inviting look of peacocks and parrots woven on the pallu of a Paithani sari to the novel.

We realise soon that our young hero is in love. Silent love, of course. Those were the pre-’Kiss of Love’ days.

“The girls and boys in our school do not talk to each other. It is like a crime to be seen talking to the other sex. One might be torn to pieces for doing so. The girls never take the initiative, but neither do the boys. All we do is pass snide remarks.”
However, there is more to Shala than mere adolescence. The realities of chawl-life, for instance, with its discreet middle class trying to move upwards with the help of education; the tragic-comedy of Indian classrooms that nevertheless turn out tolerable specimen for the nation. Word-games, NCC, scouts, exams and its attendant feature of copying... there is so much about high-school days that Milind cannot manage, like a one-day cricket match.

And with Shirodkar in, it’s fine tight-rope walking. Those tiny lies uttered at various times to different people to get nearer his classmates.

In comes Anita Ambedkar and her ways that stun the boys and girls. Once Milind gets into a continuous recordation of breasts, leakage and four-letter-words, the novel gets its selling power. It might be that the nuances of the Marathi original get lost in English and reality gets exposed in blunt terms.

Towards the end, the novel picks up with a usual crisis. Not the kind of terrible goings-on that hog the media attention, but those were the days when most of the teachers, though ill-paid, took their responsibilities seriously. Surya, the budding self-confessed Romeo, asks school girl Kevda whether she is interested in going with him. She simply nods in the negative and walks away. But, she reports that two boys of her school had accosted her when she was walking home alone. Hell breaks lose, and the boys get caned. A mini typhoon turns the steady rhythm of the school boys upside down. Milind manages the tensile passions of adolescence with brilliant economy. It’s interesting to watch adults sitting in judgement over teens, and boys having their own conclusions about adult behaviour.

Boys have a point, because the teachers and Mukund’s father (who is in the Education Department) cane the boys. Unfortunately, this is not enough for Kevda’s father, who is a hysterical hawk, and screams for the police. As Mukund muses, “Surya was right, these people had misunderstood the whole episode.”

The true centre of the book, however, is Mukund’s silent love for the Shirodkar girl. There are some beautiful scenes reminding one of one’s own years of passage from childhood to adulthood, the acts of unexpected kindness from the poor and the rich that balms the ruffled psyche of the boys. The Shirodkar family’s welcome of their daughter’s classmate, for instance, and the father looking at the mother affectionately with a question on being introduced to the youngster: “So, have you offered tea to Joshi sahib? I wouldn’t mind a cup either, if there is any.” But, time waits for none. The Shirodkars go away on transfer. As for the Shala world, “All that remained was a dreadful year called Class Ten.”

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