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BookView | Teenage Angst and the Struggle with Identity in ‘Summer of Blue’

BookView is a column that analyses literary texts of all genres from an intersectional, feminist standpoint.

In recent times, the burgeoning critical interest in Young Adult Literature is a telling signifier that the domain of literature has become fluid and more inclusive. The young adult fiction market, in recent years, has enjoyed somewhat of a literary boom. The transition from being disdainfully categorized as pulp fiction to being elevated to this niche of Young Adult Literature has been a phenomenon which has happened over the past few years. Young Adult writing by Indian authors has expanded considerably and almost overnight created a huge market for young adult fiction so much so that it even forced the big publishing houses to shed their cloak of elitism and churn out mass market fiction written in easy, accessible vocabulary with plenty of local references and flavours. Now, as we flash forward to 2019, we see that there has been a significant rise in the number of writers contributing to this category.

It is in the light of these aspects that this article will focus on Saumya Balsari’s Young Adult Fictional work, ‘Summer of Blue’ (2003). “Young adult fiction is fiction written, published, or marketed to adolescents and young adults, between 12 and 18 years of age. The “fringe” readership may go as low as 10 years at the one end and as high as 20 or more on the other” says Vatsala Kaul Banerjee, Publishing Director, Hachette India. Balsari’s novel successfully proves itself to be worthy of being included under the aegis of Young adult fiction. Beneath the veneer of Mallika’s quotidian experiences, the novel is about teenage angst and how Mallika attempts to escape from it but eventually ends up confronting these inner demons – of insecurity, a struggle to establish herself as a confident and capable young woman and learning to live without her older brother, Neel.

Summer of Blue explores the preoccupations and troubles of Mallika; ‘Milly’ Dikshit, who is a teenage girl living in Cambridge. Mallika’s world is like that of any other teenager. Neel, her brother, is a part of the British army, posted in Afghanistan and missing in action. Since Mallika considers Neel nothing less than a father figure, his uncertain whereabouts in war-torn Afghanistan have turned her world completely upside-down. She spends each day in a daze of anticipatory anxiety and emotional turmoil.

One could say that Mallika’s preoccupations are more metaphysical and existential. Ever since Neel was declared missing in action, Mallika has been on tenterhooks to know the certainty of the situation. Talking to an imaginary Neel, she confides her deepest troubles and anxieties in him. Her relationship with him is almost like that of a parent and child. Mallika evidently depends very heavily on Neel for emotional nurturing, support and reassurance. It seems as though because of Neel’s absence, Mallika has lost a vital limb of her own. This urge to always be in Neel’s shadow – and not have any identity of her own – stays with Mallika right until the end of the book. This can be linked to the idea that in traditional (Indian) society, patriarchy still conditions the woman who always feels morally obliged to trail in the man’s shadow.

Another intriguing element in the novel is Mallika’s attempt to be a mother figure to Rohan, her younger brother reinforcing the motif of woman as the nurturer. Rohan is a delicate child, easily prone to epileptic seizures and an extreme introvert.  As the novel progresses, Mallika tries to reach out to him, but her efforts are in vain. It is obvious that Mallika is mature beyond her seventeen years; life has clearly not dealt her a favourable deck of cards. However, in some ways, she is indeed a ‘typical’ teenager – concerned about her appearance, wanting a boyfriend; and, at the same time, striving to fulfil her potential at school. She tries not to appear as superficial as her three best friends, who seem to be the epitome of shallowness. Another notable aspect in the text is the categorising of her three friends; Ella who keeps struggling to accept her obesity and yearns to be beautiful, Chloe whose life revolves around her various boyfriends and Sam who loves to stick her nose into other people’s business. “They accepted me the way I was and never asked about Neel- pain had no place in their plastic world” says Mallika in the text. Mallika obviously struggles to achieve a harmony between who she actually is, and who she is expected to be. The pressure to live up to a set ideal – of being ‘perfect’, so to speak – is a thread that runs throughout the story.

No matter what she does, thoughts of Mallika’s brother, Neel, linger constantly in her mind. His absence has left a deep, unfillable void in Mallika’s heart. The dreams that she has, about Neel, reinforce Freud’s beliefs that the unconscious is the repository of one’s innermost feelings and desires; these feelings and desires are inaccessible to the conscious mind. An example which substantiates this fact can be found in the text. Towards the end of the novel, when Mallika has a particularly vivid nightmare about Neel, she wakes up with a jolt. Her next instinctive action is to pour her heart out in her journal – she writes five or six pages. After having written that entry, Mallika is stunned speechless; she cannot find a way to either articulate or explain what she wrote, and her reasons for writing. She mentions in the prologue that her counsellor asked her to start writing in order to help her move on and catch up with university applications and other academic things. The reader tends to look at it as a way in which she, a young adult, exorcises her anxieties through the therapeutic act of writing just as her counsellor asks of her.

Spaces – both physical and psychological – play a crucial role in the novel, charting the physical as well as psychological journeys of the central character, Mallika. There are spatial and temporal shifts from Cambridge to Afghanistan to Mumbai. In Mallika’s world, Afghanistan is the place that snatched her brother from her; therefore, it is rife with negativity. Through the war scenario, the space of Afghanistan is stereotyped as the ‘other’. This concept of the ‘Other’ has its roots in Edward Said’s work on Orientalism. In Edward Said’s work, the West is seen to be masculine, rational and strong while the East is seen to be feminine, emotional and weak. Milly, in order to make Afghanistan seem ‘normal’, deliberately finds fault with her own surroundings.  Cambridge is the place where Mallika has lived all her life, and the news of her father wanting to sell their house comes as a rude shock. It is the last straw on the camel’s back – Mallika’s anguish spills over, and she is even more shattered and devastated than before. Cambridge is a space in the text associated with Milly’s dreams, hopes and aspirations.

The novel explores important aspects of the theme of diaspora. Diaspora can be read as a negotiation with identity and culture through time and space. In the space of diaspora, we find Milly negotiating with her identity and culture. Mallika’s parents, being first generation immigrants to Britain and Mallika, Neel and Rohan, being second generation immigrants, both undergo this process of redefining their cultural identities. In the contemporary era, immigration and exile are related to home, identity, nostalgia, memory and isolation. Travel and diaspora being relative, we see Milly travelling and informing herself about her own country’s spaces with her male companion, Jason, when she travels to India to meet her mother, who is ill. Balsari’s Summer of Blue is a relevant study in this concern, because her characters go from place to place and know what it is like to belong to different spaces at the same time while revisiting the past, exploring multiple cultures and experimenting with language. The family’s experience of displacement- shifting between India and London- is of key importance to the theme of diaspora woven into the text.

The text also hints that she cannot cope with her Indianness as she refuses to be friends with other Asians in her school. Being a second generation immigrant to Britain, her Indianness is something which is alien to her. She undergoes this psychological pressure to adapt and like her Indian origin which she blatantly refutes and subverts. It’s a noted fact in diasporic Young adult literature that migrant youth are bought up generally to be ashamed of their identity, in this case Milly’s hyphenated identity of being a British-Asian. This common tension between nostalgia towards one’s motherland and lived reality results in an involuntary pressure on second generation immigrants resulting in a bias towards one’s country of birth here in the case of Milly, towards Britain. The text portrays how Milly deals with the complex duality of her identity and copes with her marginalised space at Alcott.

The book is a satisfying read; Mallika stays in the mind of the reader long after the last page has been turned. The rise of this genre of writing in the recent times i.e. after 2004 can well be compared to the rise of the novel form in the 18th Century. The rise of the middle class and the sudden need for a new form of literature which could fulfil the socio-political-economical expectations of the people and the growing readership lent to the rise of the novel in England. As the novel was the then new found vocabulary of the middle class, Young adult writing today is the new found vocabulary which expresses the worries, concerns and anxieties of teenagers which is supported and very much in market today solely on the need and acceptance of it by the teenage crowd. Balsari’s Summer of Blue in more ways than one proves itself to be a representative of Young Adult Fiction.

Shreya Iyengar is a reader, writer and overthinker who writes her way through everything, clutching words with a needy desperation.

Jerin Jacob is a researcher, writer, educator and the COO at One Future Collective.

Feature image source: LiveMint

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