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Asmara’s Summer (Andaleeb Wajid)

(Penguin, 2016)

Indian YA has lately woken up to class dichotomies. It’s high time, of course, since we live in a society that’s heavily stratified by class and most—perhaps all—of us, knowingly or otherwise, contribute to the state of matters. Andaleeb Wajid’s Asmara’s Summer takes an uncomfortable look at certain types of haves and have-nots in a way that one wishes more young fiction would, and yet also (unwittingly?) ends up reinforcing some of the stereotypes and prejudices it sets out to unpack.

Seventeen-year-old Asmara is looking forward to spending her summer vacations in Canada, where her sister-in-law is about to have a baby. But a last-minute change of plans results in Asmara being kicked out of the itinerary. If that’s not bad enough, she has to spend a month living with her grandparents in the Tannery Road area of Bangalore, a downmarket lower-middle-class area that is characterized by pot-holed roads, tightly-packed houses, conservative values and a general air of what a middle-class spoilt brat like Asmara would describe as kitschiness.

Our protagonist is so horrified at the thought spending her holidays cooped up in this hell hole that she pretends to her best friends that she gone to Canada and lost her phone. Asmara feels the walls closing in on her as her grandmother is scandalized at the kind of clothes she wears and her general lack of appropriate social graces. She doesn’t endear herself to the immediate neighbours by mistaking the head of the household as her nani’s domestic help. In short, Amara turns up her nose at everything—from the absence of Wi-Fi, showers and air-conditioning to her lack of mobility; from the clothes that her new neighbours wear to the colleges they attend; from the TV serials they like to watch to the way they interact with each other.

Despite her misgivings and despite her disgust at all things Tannery Road, Asmara finds herself being drawn to the girl next door, Rukhsana, and they strike up a tenuous friendship. When Rukhsana’s brother Farzaan turns to be smouldering hot, some sparks start to fly, and Asmara is horrified to find that she has a crush on him. The plot thickens when Rukhsana’s grandmother pursues a marriage proposal for Rukhsana. The three teenagers must put their heads together to thwart such a catastrophe from occurring. Of course, Asmara and Farzaan’s romance blossoms and then predictably falters, but that’s enough with the spoilers.

Even though Indian YA has started talking about class, the point of reference has remained starkly middle-class elite/privileged. And this is where Asmara’s Summer stumbles too. Asmara is a typical middle-class spoilt brat, that product of a post-liberalization economy that values possessions and appearances higher than anything else. Yes, it is a stereotype in itself; a generation of Indians are growing up with a sense of entitlement and of being better than others they perceive as lower on the social scale. Thus, while she does get a harsh lesson on the realities of life from her month spent in Tannery Road, in many other ways she continues to hold herself as superior to the likes of Rukshana and Farzaan. For instance, her ‘taste’ in clothes is acknowledged as ‘better’; Rukhsana defers to her better judgement; and she continues to turn up her nose at various nitty-gritties of life on Tannery Road, including the values that the inhabitants live by. It must be said that given a teenage first-person narrator, one would have hardly assumed that she would have received Buddha-esque enlightenment over a period of a month, but as a story, one does wish that the complexity of how we (the elite, privileged middle class) look at class was more deeply explored. There was one sentence that stood out particularly:

“That guy could be living in a slum and still be gorgeous.” (p.88)

though thankfully it was only in the in the head of a self-involved teen.

But there are many good things about the book, not the least of which is that it is a quick, easy read. And however uncomfortable it might be, it does reference accurately the discomfort that any well-to-to urban Indian teen would feel if they had to spend their summer with their conservative grandparents, who baulked at their wardrobe and expected a whole different set of values from them. Asmara is not always easy to like—how does a seventeen-year-old dare to tell off someone she thinks is the domestic help in someone else’s house?!—and though her character shows some development, she remains self-centred and self-involved that you’d imagine any teen to be.

It is also interesting how Andaleeb Wajid portrays the romance thread in this book. Many Indian YA novels fall into a very Western depiction of romance, but not this one. With youngsters being policed quite a bit in our society, late-teenage romances inevitably get a stamp of approval if they are likely to lead to marriage. It would be wading into the realm of spoilers to say any more. There are also woefully few Muslim protagonists and settings in Indian YA, and this book is one step towards righting that.

RATING: 6.5/10