If you’re looking for a light, frothy young adult novel, Ranjit Lal’s Smitten isn’t it. This is a novel that will leave you disgusted, enraged and saddened. The reason is simple: child sexual abuse (CSA) is a disturbing subject and, unfortunately, we live in a world where it is a reality.
Samir is delighted when the Handas move into the flat right across his. He and Akhila, his new fifteen-year-old neighbour hit it off immediately and he is equally taken with Akhila’s little brother Sumit and their madcap dog Jolly. Then there is their jovial, larger-than-life father and a mother who is his polar opposite—sickly, depressed and almost inconsequential.
But as the narrative alternates between Samir and Akhila, the sinister truth emerges. The reality behind Akhila’s father’s over-affectionate, touch-feely behaviour with his daughter is revealed. His inappropriate advances escalate even as friendship — and possibly a hint of romance — blossoms between the teenagers. Mr Handa manipulates the situation at home to ensure that he spends more and more time with his daughter, including sleeping with her at night.
The two children watch helplessly as Mr Handa continues his abuse with impunity. When confronted, he twists the truth in a manner that makes it clear that there is no escape. The story veers to a chilling climax in a lonely Himalayan village as the youngsters fight for survival against an ugly monster.
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- Smitten is a brave attempt to talk about CSA. The information and the Q&A compiled with the help of RAHI Foundation (http://rahifoundation.org) are important resources, though one wishes there was more detail.
- Despite the grim theme, a burgeoning teenage romance between the two main characters means that there is a lot to smile about as well. The story also tackles themes such as depression, friendship and bullying.
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- The story’s biggest downfall is that it demonizes the stepfather. In November 2014, in a discussion with YA authors and publishers on Indian books that tackle serious issues, the publisher revealed how the character of Mr Handa was changed from father to stepfather on the basis of certain feedback. This is eminently problematic at a number of levels.
- Mr Handa’s constantly hugging and kissing his daughter — even in the presence of outsiders — was so over-the-top and inappropriate that he felt like a bit of a caricature. To characterize a predator in this manner sends a rather disturbing message. It is well known than perpetrators of CSA are able to behave perfectly “normally” when required.
- The ending was very convenient.
- A better cover, please!
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- Why did Samir—who is almost 15 years old—think that Mr Handa’s creepy behaviour was “sweet”?
- How did Akhila’s mother suddenly spring to life and take control in the end? (This question makes more sense when one reads the book!)
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- As mentioned earlier, the Q&A about what to do if someone you know is being abused is great, but it would have been worthwhile to also include a list of questions and discussion points for young readers to ponder about.
The shame and secrecy around CSA has to go and if fiction is the way that we can start talking about it, then so be it. Smitten is something of a trailblazer in that sense.