Fearless and gritty, Nardah’s debut novel chronicles life at an Indian boarding school in this coming-of-age saga.
During his first days at school, Krsna faces nonstop abuse at the hands of the prefects. Older students beat and humiliate incoming freshmen, and there is no escape from their torment. But Krsna is not alone: he meets the “cultivated” Muslim Jehangir, working-class bully Om, French-speaking Blackie, and Koshy, an effeminate sports prodigy. At the top of the social ladder stands Ralph Forster, a conflicted Englishman with a host of family problems, who serves as housemaster. As Krsna grows older, he toughens up and learns to navigate the school’s cliques and hypocrisy. Just as Krsna’s father advises him to keep a stiff upper lip, he learns about the school’s secret sexual rites: boys seduce and molest each other, then extend their salacious behavior to any girls they can find, including Forster’s daughter. Nardah writes in dense run-on sentences, breaking up the blocks of exposition with terse dialogue. The present-tense descriptions often sound stream-of-conscious: “Saying a girl’s like a shadow, follow her she runs, run from her she follows you, Jehangir adds dames are wont to say no with their lips, with their eyes they say yes, with nets you catch birds and with presents girls.” However monotonous and overwritten, the book still offers an unflinching look at boyhood. The story lays plain the many cultural conflicts within modern India, from classism and exploitation to religious discrimination and gender inequality. The story accepts abortion, violent hazing, and sexual experimentation as parts of life. Despite the savage curriculum, Krsna becomes increasingly patriotic, especially when he learns that Albert Einstein admired India. The author never overtly condemns this system, and although the book has its share of unwanted pregnancies and fatal accidents, readers might expect more of an overarching tragedy. Instead, the boys simply evolve into men, and the cycle starts over.
For patient readers interested in postcolonial India, Nardah offers a rare, honest glimpse of how many middle-class Indians grow up.