Everytime I read a book of Ranjit Lal, one of my favourite authors, there is one thing guaranteed – I am richer by a few words. His latest, and yet to be launched, The Dugong and the Barracudas, does not disappoint me in this regard, right from the title. Now that I have spent a major part of my life not knowing names and beings from the animal kingdom and plant kingdom, books like Vanamala and the Cephalopod, and this serve to enrich my biological jargon.
Recently, I reviewed Big Bully and M-me, a book based on bullying. Here comes Ranjit Lal with a poignant tale based on bullying, laying bare the minds of the involved children.
The dugong is a sea creature, a mammal which is large, but harmless and friendly. So is Sushmitha. She is a huge triple XL size girl, who is slow in her activities. She has never been schooled outside her home. She has ‘pretend’ friends, whom she sees through the window in her home, which overlooks a school. She has imaginary conversations with them. She is too naive to catch on when anyone takes a dig at her, and is of too gentle and sunny a disposition to retaliate.
Alisha, Sushmitha’s mother, is an alumnus of Rugged Rocks High School, a school situated near the sea. Farah, the head-girl when Alisha joined the school, is now the principal of the school. Alisha remembers an incident, when Farah helps Alisha and makes her feel comfortable. With these pleasant memories of her school, Alisha now seeks admission for Sushmitha at RRHS.
Farah wants to give Sushmitha a chance to study at RRHS, however, she is concerned that it would be like putting a dugong into a tank full of barracudas. And barracudas, they are – the prefect and deputy prefect, Arun and Natasha respectively. Given the responsibility of showing Sushmitha around the school, they turn out to be barracudas.
All the children of Ms. Desai’s class eight, which Sush joins, have great fun at her cost. Be it class time, lunch time or sports time, they never miss a chance to tease her for her size. But Sush takes it very sportingly, and is happy to have so many friends. Karan, a small, skinny boy with curly hair, is probably the only child in class, who feels sorry for Sush.
One day, when Mr. Darukhanewalla explores various possibilities for Sush to practice during sports hours, he discovers that she practices boxing. He fixes an immediate bout for Sush against the class honcho Arun. And guess who emerges the winner? It is Sush with a knock-out shot.
But this alienates Sush further from her classmates. Natasha who is Arun’s girlfriend is upset over this, and gets Sush into trouble by weaving a convincing story. She tells Sush, that Karan has a soft corner for her (Sush), and wants Sush to prove that she reciprocates his feelings by swimming across the lagoon.
Sush takes up the dare and almost gets expelled from the school. When questioned, she does not reveal the name of the person, who dared her to do it. But Natasha finds it as a good opportunity to take her revenge. So, she claims that Sush squealed on her, and the class puts Sush in exile.
Try as hard as she might, Sush is not able to overcome this silent treatment, and is about to give up and leave the school, when things turn around due to a brilliant idea by Karan, which Ms. Desai executes with aplomb.
Read the book after its launch to find out how Sushmitha eventually gets accepted.
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- Bullying is a serious issue among children, and I am happy that authors are taking up this topic and giving different points of view. This one is a very sensitive portrayal, which forces the reader to get into the skin of the person being bullied and feel it first-hand, well almost.
- When dealing with a sensitive topic like this, the author has kept his readers in mind and made it light and humorous, rather than render a sob-story or a preachy sermon.
- Mr. Lal has this uncanny ability to create suspense out of any story. Though I guessed right ahead that it will be a “Subham” at the end, I could not figure out when and how it would be done. This made it a single-sitting read late into the night, and lots of cursing in the morning, when the alarm woke me up.
- The modern version of Romeo and Juliet, as narrated by Natasha and Arun to Sush is a remarkable piece of imagination, well-worth converting into a play.
- The opening lines describing Alisha’s journey to her school is a reader’s delight. I read, reread and re-reread the lines several times. I still want to reread them. When I read such poetic lines, I realize that they are not mere words any more. They are strokes of the brush in a piece of art. Descriptive writing at its peak!
- The epilogue. After a satisfying and humorous read, as I was ready to close the book, was the surprise. I closed the book with tears welling in my eyes.
! ! !
- I wish there were such sea-side schools. The description of the school’s beach and lagoons, and salt-water pool was so attractive, that I almost wished there was one here in Chennai. As far as I know, even though it is a coastal city, Chennai does not have such a school. Do you know of any? In Chennai or anywhere else in India?
Dugong wins over the barracudas!
A copy of this book was given me by the publishers, Zubaan books, in return for an honest review. Thanks to the author Ranjit Lal and Zubaan.