by Mohit Parikh
To Start With,
He closes his eyes and finds today’s date floating towards him. Shimmering in the darkness, swiveling— like the text on the Windows 95 screensaver. It seeps in through his forehead and gets absorbed. 23-04-98 is now a part of him. Today’s date, a Saturday, when the first sign of what he so eagerly awaited has appeared. The day, while bathing, he has noticed a hair on his balls, and all his life’s problems are in the past.
Thus begins Mohit Parikh’s debut novel, Manan, which tells the story of its teenaged eponymous protagonist who has just noticed the first sign of puberty on his body. It starts with Manan’s fixation with the idea of growing up, to develop physically like his friends, anticipating, in the meantime, that final moment when his voice will no longer sound like a girl. A bildungsroman in genre and narrated by an intensely personal voice, the novel gradually moves beyond the physiognomic to verbalize those crucial concerns which affect Manan with universal significance; particularly, the colourful experience of growing up in the 90s.
Manan Mehta is a grade-A student, an excellent debater, and a self-aware conscientious boy who perceives his reality through reason. He lives in an unnamed small town with his parents, his tauji, taiji, and their daughter, Pinky Didi. Manan’s parents argue over things he considers redundant, and Pinky Didi, who is a young woman in love, doesn’t have much time for him. As for himself, Manan is a passionate dreamer waiting to become a hero one day and court Hriya, the love of his life. What binds these all together is Parikh’s dreamy, visual, and borderline surreal narration. We move from one instance to the next through Manan’s stream of consciousness which is aided perfectly by a smart use of language.
Parikh’s narration is sudden, detailed, and candid. With sentences shy of auxiliary verbs, what we get are short but vivid fragments from Manan’s thoughts. Parikh entertains with sympathetic humour— an appreciation for the routine and the comedy within it; then proceeds to undercut it with observations on a society deeply implicated in frustrating ironies. Pinky Didi being in love with Bhavesh Bhaiyya is a familiar subversion to the “traditional” notion of marriage where love can be grown later. Manan’s parents arguing with each other not to heal the prick but for the sake of habit— so much so that not fighting seems abnormal. But, like the many ironies of the country, the family is nonetheless a loving one, and the novel never fails to highlight these scattered but crucial sites of affection.
‘He knows they are breaking some rule’
One of the most detailed incidents in the novel is that of Manan discovering porn. The effect, therefore, which Parikh generates, takes the character of a déjà vu. This has happened before; this has happened with us —
Stunned! A wave of chill runs up the spine, to the stem of brain, and arouses goose bumps all over his skin. His heart skips a beat. He has to remind himself to breathe. He breathes. A single thought runs amok his head, making him overcome his daze: so this is what it is, so this is what is.
A story of adolescence is a story of rebellion. The mind learns new things; it is fascinated by the abundance of information; it tries to contain the chaos into chapters of sense. Therefore, the need to identify. The body, on the other hand, slowly recognises the reasons for its own complexity. It begins to understand the urges. Blame the internet, but only to be “much too thankful” later.
In context, then— the social advancement of the 90s differs dramatically from what went before. Discarding the absoluteness of the state-owned means of production, cultural and otherwise, the Indian society was presented with choices. Computers and other gadgets stopped becoming things of luxury, and what was earlier fantastic turned ordinary by the time the new millennium began. “Esteemed professions” changed their addresses from government secretariats to glittering MNC buildings. Internet happened.
But the conscience must adjust to the sudden newness of things. More so the social conscience which permits transition but with much resistance. Manan operates here: in conflicts between generations, between tradition and innovation, between astrology and romance. India has started to come of age, and Manan is a part of the grand process.
The tales of love
Hriya, Hriya, Hriya. You choose to show up when I least expect. Do you know that can be fatal? Not that I mind it, death is but a merging back into love, still, please warn me the next time? Throw around some omens first?
There are two tales of love in the novel. First is Manan’s poetic love for Hriya which always expresses itself in the superlative. It is where Manan becomes the Bollywood hero, pining in secret, holding his heart out and offering an entire ocean inside for a girl who probably doesn’t know he exists. But Manan, for all his dreamy heroism, falters adorably when Hriya walks up to him one day in school and asks for a pen:
His ears become hot, feverish. Are they emitting steam? Oh, the pen — his hands shake as he hands the pen to her. What should he do with his hands now? What does he do with them when he is not holding a pen?
The second tale is that of the love between Pinky Didi and Bhavesh Bhaiyya. And while the first was poetic, the second is problematic. Why? Because nothing flips out an Indian middle-class family more than the knowledge of their children’s ability to love. It’s in this story, and not his own, where Manan emerges triumphant. So as it happens that after much drama, the family agrees to give love a chance and takes the next logical step of consulting an astrologer. The astrologer successfully pulls off a this-marriage-cannot-happen, much to the misery of Pinky didi, and much to the I-told-you-so of evidently idiotic elders. And Manan has had enough:
Explain to me, Mummy, answer me, why is it important? They don’t have horoscopes is Greenland or New Zealand or Russia, but people get married there all the time. And weren’t your horoscopes matched? Look at how your marriage has turned out. And these horoscopes, these two here, they do match. Twenty-nine out of thirty-six. I know it and Pinky didi knows it too. So if someone says that they do not match, either they are very, very, very stupid and don’t know how to read them, or they are liars and do not deserve my respect.
Here, Manan does not falter. He speaks for the supremacy of love, and he speaks against the mindless tyranny of tradition. He speaks for reason, and he speaks against the hypocrisy so easily naturalized by the elders—
He completes the dinner in silence, uttering only occasionally, no, no, Taiji, stomach is full, Taiji. He waits for all the diners to finish and queues behind them at the washbasin. He realises none of the adults washed their hands before eating —
and, converting the performance of being a debater in the school into a lived experience, Manan speaks for the strange generation that is ours which can no longer take the bulk of ungrounded hogwash in the name of tradition.
“When will people grow up?” Manan wonders. It’s a question we have often asked in silence, and sometimes in outburst. Manan, a novel about growing up, separates growing up from ageing to arrive at both humourous and painful understanding of the process. With animated and well-drawn characters, Parikh’s narrative is short but confident. The school scenes are precise and told in its own idiom of roll numbers, sections of a class, and math formulas, among many delightful others. Capable of sending the current twenty-somethings on a nostalgia trip with easily recognizable details, and also capable of knocking adult hypocrisy down with guilt, Manan offers much more than the innocence of its cover. Urmila Shastry’s illustrations are a bonus. Quirky and exact, they compliment Parikh’s narration with remarkable ease.