Twelve-year-old Karthik Subramanian has just been granted admission into St George’s, an elite boys’ school in Bangalore, where he yearns for recognition as an academic superstar. He is rigorously prepped by his parents and grandfather and regularly prays to Lord Ganesha as he steps into the new world. But he is left to himself to navigate the cruelties of school life, and the transition into adolescence. There are threats all around, even violence.
Seattle-based writer and editor Siddhartha Vaidyanathan, a former sports journalist known for his writings on cricket, creates a motley cast of characters in his poignant yet entertaining debut novel What’s Wrong with You, Karthik? (Rs 599, Picador India), which has been shortlisted for the Restless Books Prize for New Immigrant Writing and longlisted for Atta Galatta–Bangalore Literature Festival Book Prize. Excerpts from an interview:
You take us back to the Bangalore of the ’90s, into the life and mind of an adolescent boy finding his place in a new school. What made you write this story?
Back in 2012, I wrote a few short stories set in an all-boys school in Bangalore. Drawing inspiration from RK Narayan, VS Naipaul and Mark Twain, I wished to create characters who inhabit a small, intimate world. The idea was to draw on my own experiences – having studied in an all-boys school in Bangalore in the ’90s – and explore the relationships between geeks, misfits, bullies, peons and teachers. The main character in one of the stories was a boy new to the school and struggling to fit in. I liked him more than the other boys because he noticed things that the insiders took for granted. He had a delightfully charming voice and the more I thought about this fellow, the more interesting he became. I decided to set the story in a city that has all but disappeared: before it was renamed Bengaluru, before it was an IT hub, and before traffic jams were front and centre in most people’s minds. I wanted to capture the feel of Bangalore in the early ’90s through the eyes of a young boy.
Could you decode Karthik for the readers?
Karthik is a nervous 12-year-old who is eager to please. He is ferociously observant, mainly because he is constantly on the lookout for danger signs but also because he wants to be in everyone’s good books. On the cusp of adolescence, he has recently moved from alternative schooling to an elite, mainstream school. On the academic front, Karthik regularly falls short of his family’s lofty expectations. His teachers in the new school don’t pay him much attention and his new classmates gang up on him.
Why did you want to tell his story?
Children fascinate me. They are so original and are unafraid to ask questions. And yet our education system has little use for their originality and often fails to accommodate those who question authority. I was fortunate to spend six years in alternative schooling, at a school founded by J Krishnamurthi, where we were encouraged to question everything. Our teachers treated us as equals and we were allowed to learn at our own pace, without being burdened with tests, exams and assignments. Some teachers held classes outdoors, among trees and by lakes, and we learnt to paint, dance, sing, build model planes and do a whole lot of fun things. We played for at least an hour every day. I moved from there to an elite school, where the focus was on cracking exams, winning sports and literary competitions, and getting into the best colleges. I understand the benefits and drawbacks of both styles of education. Fiction helped me explore these themes.
You started writing this book six years ago. Could you tell us about the journey of the novel?
Karthik burrowed himself in my imagination in 2012. By 2014, I had written a fictional memoir where a 30-year-old Karthik looked back on his life as a 12-year-old. The story was largely the same but the voice and style were fully adult. When I sent this version to people close to me, it became clear that the older Karthik was not as appealing to them as the younger one. So I decided to start afresh and tell the story through the perspective of a 12-year-old. There is a guilelessness to a child’s voice, and a reader is more sympathetic when he does something wrong. Over the next four years – finding time between my work as a writer and editor, and my responsibilities as a father – I wrote this novel.
A lot must be drawn from your own memories from school. What did you realise about boyhood while writing this story?
My mother read the book and asked if all the events actually happened. It struck me that despite us being so close, she knew next to nothing about my experiences at school. Back in the ’90s, one didn’t usually discuss topics like sexuality, bullying and physical boundaries with parents and teachers. These were aspects of life we needed to figure out for ourselves. There were boys in my school who grappled with their sexual identities and there was no one to assure them that it was okay to be different. They were wracked with guilt for no fault of theirs and this led to some performing poorly in exams and others giving up on sports they were good at. While I am among those who have fond memories of boyhood, I am sure there were boys in my class scarred by all the bullying and taunting. Writing this book made me walk in the shoes of someone who doesn’t fit in.
Why do you think we are so mean to each other in school?
In my experience, men feel liberated in the company of their close male friends. They swear without inhibition, talk without filters, and are open about their sexual experiences. Teenage boys are similar, and this leads to a terrific camaraderie among them. But the flip side is that boys can lose sight of their limits, especially when fuelled by so much male energy around them. Stronger boys go after the weaker ones; the confident boys gang up on those who are trying to fit in, and there is an unhealthy obsession with muscularity and other physical attributes. Inhabiting this world allows one to see the origin of the meanness. Sexism and homophobia are normalised in daily conversations, and these can build up to physical assaults. When ragging becomes commonplace, it is seen as a rite of passage. Boys underestimate how destructive bullying can be, and the lasting damage it inflicts on the victims. To raise our sons better we need to first understand how they behave when around their male friends.
The story brings to fore the numerous expectations we have from a child, who is further bogged down by as many rules and regulations. The fear of not being able to fulfil and comply is so immense, add to it peer pressure. What needs to change to make life easier?
There are systemic issues at play. An education system that judges children by their performance in a set of exams is bound to bring on unreasonable pressures. College admissions are entirely based on marks, and they disregard a student’s creativity, sensitivity, breadth of knowledge, innovativeness and extra-curricular ability. In a memorable essay, where he looks back on his childhood, George Orwell writes: “Over a period of about two years, I do not think there was ever a day when ‘the exam’, as I called it, was quite out of my waking thoughts.” In the Indian context, exams are the top priority for at least five or six years, which leads to extraordinary pressures on pre-teens and teens. There has to be some alternative to this method of grading. At a personal level, parents and teachers can alleviate some of the pressure. In the novel, a teacher recognises that Karthik is desperate to excel in mathematics because of the elevated expectations at home. She counsels him and offers valuable tips for his assignments. Often, it takes just one empathetic person to turn a child’s life around.
Many expected your first novel to be about cricket, though this one has the sport as a supporting character. Is a cricket novel on your mind or in works?
This book could have turned into a cricket novel but I decided to highlight other episodes and themes too. And I kept the cricket bits to a chapter or two. I would love to write a cricket novel at some point but, like Karthik, it will first need a character to grip me. Maybe the adult Karthik will tell that story at some point.
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