Talking of Muskaan by Himanjali Sankar is a young adult novel that explores the issues of bullying and homosexuality among teens in school. In various perspectives, she talks about class differences, the entitlement that comes with being from a certain class, and the dire need for support systems for students. It is a slightly heavy young adult novel, but it is also recommended for adults, especially parents. Parents can reflect on how their own behaviour, attitudes, and prejudices tend to creep into their children’s attitudes and points of view.
The narrative starts with Muskaan in a hospital, fighting for her life. Her three classmates: her former best friend Aaliya, Prateek, and the class topper, Subhojoy, talk among themselves about Muskaan. They were called into the school principal’s office and told that Muskaan had attempted suicide and was hospitalized. The novel then goes back to a flashback five months earlier. From then on, the perspectives of these three protagonists describe the events that would cause Muskaan’s suicide attempt.
It was an excellent choice of narration by Himanjali Sankar to tell the novel through these three alternating voices. While ensuring that the narrative does not get uninteresting, this narration style also gets us into the heads of very different characters in terms of motivations, backgrounds, and gender. Especially Subhojoy, who is sort of an underdog, who comes from a not-so-well-off family and knows that studying hard is the only way to make his dreams come true.
We don’t really hear Muskaan’s viewpoint throughout the novel, but it is through these three leads that we hear her thoughts. Aaliya and Muskaan are good friends, while Prateek is a rich kid and Subhojoy is on the opposite end of the class spectrum. Prateek likes Muskaan, but she rejects him. Competing for the top rank in the class, Muskaan and Subhojoy become friends. As they become close, they understand each other’s situations better: her not being attracted to the opposite gender and him feeling out of place because of where he comes from in his class. She is made fun of for being friends with Subhojoy and also for having rejected Prateek.
School can be hard and horrible for those of us who are misfits and do not seem to follow the majority decided “normal”. Teenagers can be vicious to each other when their peers do not conform. The book beautifully portrays how, directly and indirectly, gender and sexuality norms are taught culturally or by their parents. These are things like the portrayal of the girls shaving their body hair or Prateek’s almost Bollywood-like thinking that a girl’s “no” can always be turned into a “yes.”
We can only expect to establish egalitarian environments where individuals are not burdened by the fear of being ostracised for who they are and are not humiliated or bullied to the point of contemplating or even attempting suicide if we engage in conversations.
The novel has the potential to open up conversations around poverty, sexuality, and suicide in an imaginative way. It, in different ways, pushes readers to examine their own prejudices. Humorous and sad in turns, Talking of Muskaan is a sincere and moving novel about life and death and the teens caught in between.