Milind Bokil's Shala, translated by Vikrant Pandit, is a tour de force. I don't know how else to explain it.
I didn't think a fourteen-year-old experiencing the pangs of new love would be able to hold me over nearly 400 pages but Mukund Joshi is an extraordinary young man. (And so are they all extraordinary young men, in a long tradition that stretches back to Holden Caulfield.) He lives with his father, and mother, and extraordinarily sanctimonious elder sister, Ambabai, in a town just outside the great city, from which various intimations of excitement come. His father works in the city as most of the town does, except for Nikam Kaka who works in the municipality.
At the heart of Mukund Joshi's world is his school, his new love Shirodkar, and his mates who rejoice in names like Surya and Phawdya. Their conversation is ripe and ribald, peppered with words that suggest incest and lewd suggestions of all kinds. And yet, they are not mean-spirited. When a new hawker, a woman, arrives at the gate of the school, one of the boys asks her whether her wadas are hot. She replies coolly that she has a son his age and that she sells wadas to pay for the boy's school fees. Deflated, the young man buys a wada and ceases and desists from making further innuendoes. The school is also immediately recognisable.
The teachers who use corporal punishment freely. This is in the middle of the 1970s when I was also a schoolboy and although we were all beaten quite freely during this time, the severity of the beating and its irrationality reflects the Emergency that lurks behind the scenes. The political is only noises off, as it should be. I do not remember much about the time, just that I was warned by an uncle not to talk about Certain People (meaning Sanjay Gandhi) and to be careful about talking about Certain Values (democracy, freedom, etc). I remember taking this to be part of the world view of adults, one so alien and so far-removed from my reality, that it could not possibly matter.
Shala's Emergency backdrop: Sanjay Gandhi at Ramlila Ground addressing the Safai Worker Sangh on 20 June, 1976. (HT Photo)
This is how Mukund lives his life too. It is only in the personal - a group of three young men who live above them in their chawl - that the political ever finds expression. The young men are radicals and use many of the ploys that were common during the Emergency when you could not gather in groups larger than a certain size. They hold a Satynarayana pooja and then use it as a cover for a political meeting. One day, they are arrested and Mukund discovers his sister's secret.
But none of this matters much to Mukund who spends his life dreaming of Shirodkar and slipping two ranks in class as a result. He wants to write her a love letter but Ponkshe Mama is clear that you should give nothing in writing, say what you want. He tells her he likes her but she, good Marathi mulgi that she is, walks away briskly, exclaiming, "Na re baba, I don't think I can do all this."
Things come to a head when one of the boys makes his move and the girl tells on him. The resultant explosion is one of the great set pieces of the book, as it wends its way past the savagery of punishment, the threat of expulsion and the Atticus Finch-like intervention of Joshi Senior.
I enjoyed Shala a great deal. The boys are real and presented in the round. Should one let girls win at Hangman just to impress them? How much juice can you lose before you die? Wouldn't a couples-only school be more fun? This is what concerns them.
One could wish that this important novel had been better edited. Baden-Powell of the Scouts and Guides Movement is referred to as Bedon Powell on page 73 and page 77. On page 161, we have: "We all laughed out heartily" and mention of "a abhang". I know, I know. The language boys use does not have to be standard English any more than it should be standard Marathi. But if you can ignore the many infelicities, this is a lovely novel and the translation works most of the time.
Now, to find some editors.
Jerry Pinto is the author of Em and the Big Hoom