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Saturday, October 16, 2010

(Published as 'A Boy's Guide to Growing Up', I-Witness, The New Indian Express, dated September 20, 2010)

Book title: The Sacred Grove

Publisher: Harper Collins
Price: Rs. 250/-
Pages: 237

If it weren’t for the impeccable English and the fact that twelve-year-old boys spend more time with their Wii than Word, you might well believe The Sacred Grove was written by the protagonist Ashwin.

My propensity to form preconceived notions about a book before reading it let me down big time during this read.

The Sacred Grove,” I sniggered to myself, “it has to be a take on The Secret Garden – it might at least have been better disguised!”

Moving on to a write-up on the author, I thought “oh no, yet another government servant who wants to write fiction to pass the time!”

Well, I had to eat humble pie on both counts. The book has nothing to do with gardens or convalescing boys (though it does have a rather plain girl leaving an adolescent boy quite confused about the morality of having a friend of the icky sex.)

Daman Singh, pictured wearing a demure sari in the slot for the author’s bio, knows a whole lot more about video games, cricket and Pokemon than she would need to qualify for induction into a secret club comprising boys in the eighth grade. She might well get elected its president too.

The book begins with the horror of discovering the reproductive system – how well we all remember the day we walked home from school in a daze, not wanting to look at our parents! – and ends with the horror of discovering India.

The author’s portrayal of an adolescent boy has just the right doses of poignancy and irony. With its graphic descriptions of not-quite-aesthetic biological functions that fascinate a twelve-year-old, the book is not the best accompaniment to a meal. However, Daman Singh shows remarkable sensitivity in looking at the spectrum of issues that troubled all of us at that age.

To begin with, adolescence is pretty much the worst time to have to welcome a little sibling into the world. Between wanting to be treated as his mother’s boy and respected for his individuality, Ashwin also has to decide how to cope with this thoughtless embarrassment his parents have caused him.

As the son of a district collector, the boy faces a rather unique challenge in dealing with the small-town mentality at home, school, as well as the adult world outside. Within this framework, Daman Singh skilfully creates vignettes that stay on in one’s mind long after one has turned the page.

Adults usually forget how much conversation they understood when they were teenagers. They rarely remember that they themselves were broad-minded at that age. Throw in a nosy journalist, a hypersensitive housewife who happens to be pregnant, a diplomat who has overcome the destiny chalked out for the son of a farmer, the saffron brigade, Islamic extremists, and an intelligent teenager, and you’ve got a book in your head.

The author brings out Ashwin’s dilemma as his best friends – the boy who first accepted him as a member of the cricket team, and a driver who coached him, bought him a samosa and gifted him a taviz – become victims of religious prejudice, albeit in different ways.

There are times when one finds oneself brimming over with righteous anger as Ashwin resents being penalised because sycophants use him to cosy up to his father. One empathises with his struggle to reconcile his father’s standing in society with the man’s subservience to politicians, who are half as educated as he is.

Using a matter-of-fact tone, Daman Singh shows a keen sense of observation as she explores the hurt of a daughter whose mother doesn’t want custody of her, the angst of a journalist who has seen too much, the concern of a mollycoddling mother, the passion of a schoolteacher who “doesn’t know where to draw the line” and the shades of a one-time sports champion resigned to matronhood.

While there are occasional slips in the language and stream of thought that remind the reader that the book is not actually an autobiographical piece, they are necessary to bring in perspective. Given that she has worked in the field of rural development for a couple of decades, Daman Singh’s narrative has an authentic ring to it.

You will not regret paying the price of a pizza to pick up this book. The author is certainly one to watch out for.


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