Young Zubaan’s most recent release Smitten is a bit of a misnomer, the story being about Child Sexual Abuse or CSA. CSA is a cause close to my heart as you all know and author Ranjit Lal needs no introductions. Our favourite, chez mad momma, is Birds From My Window and the Antics They Get up To. I have to admit it got us far more interested in our little feathered friends than we otherwise might have been.
Which is why I was keen to get started the moment I laid hands on Smitten. Samir, the unlikely little hero is a fourteen year old boy (15 according to the back cover – some editing errors there), interested in the usual boy things – model cars and ‘dirty’ documents. It is, while trying to retrieve those documents that he’d hidden in the empty flat across that he ends up befriending the new neighbours, the Handas, or rather, their fifteen year old daughter Akhila. The family seems nice and just dysfunctional enough to be real. A boisterous, affectionate father, a wraith like mother who is always sickly, a younger brother, Sumit who has special needs, and of course the lovely Akhila. An only child with very busy parents – a pilot mother and a banker father, Samir hangs out with the Handas all the time. Soon he and the two children are a regular item.
The residential complex also has two big bullies, and their father, a top cop. The odds are stacked against them the day the two bullies catch hold of little Sumit and begin to bully him. Akhila and Samir throw themselves into the fray to save him. Samir is stripped and beaten till his arm breaks and that is when the top cop father charges in and catches his sons red-handed. At this point, contrary to the corrupt capital city background, he does the right thing and throws his sons in jail, saving the three younger children. Samir is a hero and even more a part of the Handa family than he was to begin with.
As luck would have it, a few days later Samir’s parents both need to travel on work and he can’t be left to fend for himself with only one functioning arm so the Handas offer to take him along on their vacation. It is around this time that Akhila realises that something is wrong. Her father is now sharing her room and she wakes up with her clothes unbuttoned and in a state of disarray. She turns to her only friend, Samir, and they work out a plan for him to spy on her at night and figure out what is going on. The answer of course, is that her stepfather is abusing her. But now that they’ve confirmed it, how do they save her from her father?
Author Ranjit gets a lot of it bang on target. A non-stereotypical family, with a pilot mother. A budding romance between a couple of teenagers, where the girl is *gasp* a little older. Also, a dysfunctional family with a weak mother who does not interfere in her second husband’s relationship with his step daughter. A mentally challenged child whose needs must be considered and for whose sake the boat must not be rocked. An all powerful male figure whose word is law.
The story explores many aspects of CSA, from the power games, to the secrecy, to fooling a child into believing that what you are doing is for his or her own good and that they’ve got it all wrong. You see the confusion in Akhila’s mind, the horror when she realises what is going on and the revulsion too.
Being fiction, the story naturally comes to a conclusion, but I feel a lot of the real life nuance of CSA was lost for that very reason. The ends tie up too neatly and there is no hint of the despair and trauma and scarring that CSA leaves behind. Most children in a similar situation would not find such a convenient solution so it is a little misleading in the pat way it ends.
It’s not exactly recommended reading for the early teens, as some of the language is a little objectionable even though the topic is relevant. But it fills a gap in the market and is definitely an interesting read for the mid teens and above. My wish would be to see a book that helps keep the little ones safe because that is the age group most vulnerable to CSA.