Monday, February 23, 2015

Book review: When She Smiled

Name: When She Smiled
Author: Ritoban Chakrabarti
Publisher: Notion Press
Year: 2015
Price: Rs. 215

Ritoban Chakrabarti’s When She Smiled is what can be called a romance-youth fiction, dealing with young love. Set in the idyllic settings of Shimla the Himalayas provide the perfect backdrop to suddenly fade into when the narrative slows down or decides to take a rest. There are nostalgic descriptions of the sleepy Himalaya town, which for most of us is nothing but the famous tourist destination. There are descriptions of quaint winding roads and the long walks along them with the white wafts cloud that suddenly engulf you. It was quite easy to imagine, given that I am familiar with the terrain and its peculiarities, strictly in a touristy fashion.
The story starts with Roy, a Bengali, a misfit right from the day he was born, having gotten stuck with a name like Mrityunjoy, which only another Bengali can understand the plight of; especially when finds oneself in the middle of a crowd of non-Bengalees completely unfamiliar with the Bengali’s knack for bombastic long winded complicated and difficult to pronounce and spell names. It is enough already that they are long, it is worse when you try teaching your peers how to pronounce and in the process almost endanger them to losing some teeth. However, Roy with the short term memory of 150 plus IQ handles his first day in a new high school with quite panache. If nothing else, the author sure does let Roy give quite a show of saving the situation when it came to Bengalis with difficult names having to introduce themselves AND saving face in front of a room full of late high school kids out to get you. He is returning to his old school, which he left for two years of Sainik School, with dreams of eventually joining the National Defense Academy. However, a freak accident crushed all such dreams and the readers join him on that day when he woke up at 6 on that spring morning to rejoin his old school.
As the dedication on the first page shows, the book is the author’s tribute to Shimla, which is evident in him often going for trips down his memory lane. The story is this one year from Roy’s life that proves quite educative and enlightening for him. As always the journey to knowledge is never an easy one and Roy goes through his trials and tribulations, heart break and loss, until he discovers the light that shows him the right path of life.
Roy has a fairly typical middle class family with a father who is bordering on abusive and only interested in seeing his children excel in studies. He believes in a frugal living so as to strive for a better future. He has a massive temper, which he often unleashes on Roy and his older brother Siddarth through cruel beatings; one of which ended up with Sid having to be hospitalized with a broken thigh bone. His sister Ashima was the oldest of the three siblings and was the apple of their parents’ eye – beautiful, talented and loving; ‘was’ because Roy loses his beloved sister in an accident when the bus she was traveling from Delhi to Shimla overturned and fell down a sleep cavern. Their mother is shown doing nothing much other than the thankless job of doing everything to keep the household running smoothly. They were not a loving couple, which is evident in the few words of the author – They never shared their personal problems with us. All we heard were voices through the walls. But that they were enough to disorient the child Roy is evident in his description of Ashima holding his hands and taking him for long walks, talking to him soothing him to overcome the trauma of seeing his mother and father fight.
The major part of the story is about Roy falling for a pretty girl in his batch, Akansha, pursuing her, falling for her, offering his friendship and company only with the hope of taking that one big leap. He leaps, only to fall face flat. He loses Akansha and when he tries too hard to get her back, he realizes that the forces of nature was against him – that he was destined to go through this pai to learn the lesson of life, that is, to move on.
There are certain moments in the story where the author seems to be building up for a certain burst of action or shock, only to leave the readers waiting and it eventually never comes. The language is crisp but fails to offer much to a reader who might be expecting more, especially in terms language doing justice to the physical beauty of the place. He seems to lack the patience that is needed to capture the beauty of nature; sometimes it does pass off as the impatience of youth when one tries to see it coming from Roy. The author does touch on social everyday issues that those of us growing up in the 90s are familiar with. This strikes a note of nostalgia somewhere among the readers.

There are too many stories left untold in this book, while telling the story of Roy alone. 

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