Book review: Payal Kapadia's Horrid High

  • Avantika Mehta, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: Sep 30, 2014 22:25 IST

The story of eleven year old Ferg Gottin, whose parents quite literally want to forget him, Horrid High is Payal Kapadia's second book after the award-winning childrens' novel Wisha Wozzariter.

Much like Wozzariter, Horrid High makes an immediate connection with its young audience. It is a book, which is, unequivocally, on the child's side.

Right from the beginning, when Ferg's parents are introduced as two narcissists who would rather watch their television shows than him, it would take a heart of lead to not feel for the skinny little kid.
Ferg's conflict begins right from the inception of the novel -- "If 11-year-old Ferg Gottin had been brought from a store, his parents would've returned him and demanded a refund."

There's no going back from that first line, it totally draws you in and garners an immediate sympathy for the protagonist.

When Ferg is sent off to a school dedicated to making its students miserable, who wouldn't relate to that, right? The ten year old whose bussed of to school every morning while his parents are rushing to work, the one who comes home to a cold lunch, or a maid if he's really lucky, certainly would.

We wouldn't go so far as to call Kapadia our desi JK Rowling, but the influence of childrens' authors such as the Harry Potter creator and Dahl is unmistakable. Flip a couple of pages of the book, dear reader and just like me, you will be transported back to the days when Big Friendly Giants and Giant Peaches were irresistible.

The play on names is entertaining, and also sets the reader's expectations for that character. One knows when Ferg's best friend is called Ace, that she is, in fact, going to turn out to be a wonderful person to read about; When you come across Tammy Tell-tale, it's obvious what the salient features of her personality will be.

After a while, this becomes old, but perhaps not if you're a ten-year-old. In fact, I'd think the audience that Kapadia is writing for will be equal parts amused by the name-game, and equal parts grateful to have some of the information simply fed to them - much like the explanation for Ferg's name is given quietly, in the character's voice near the beginning of the book.

The theme of the book is the notion of 'found family' - people one lets in but is not related to by birth. It could be that the boy who shows you the ropes on the first day of school; the young girl who shares her treats with you; the grandmotherly character who saves your behind when you're stuck in the world's most 'horrid' school.

The book gives its young readers --many of whom are probably entrenched in the isolation and alienation that comes from being a neglected child-hope. It informs them that family isn't always the one you're born into, but also consists of those we chose to let in.

His enemies, the self-important Principle 'Prince' Perverse, Chef Gretta Gross who tops her special pizzas with maggots, and English teacher Vera Verbose who is more obsessed with knowing the word rather than applying it correctly - are all characters the average eleven-year-old will relate to. Who hasn't met a teacher who cares more than you know things than understand them or a school lunch-lady who seemingly takes pleasure in serving the inedible?

Divided into many, but short chapters, the book flows easily from one to the next. There are no abrupt moments, no points where a young reader may find himself stumped. Even the language used - short, rhythmic sentences using easy, well-known phrases - would suit a child reader.

That Kapadia had an ordinary eleven-year-old in mind when she wrote is obvious when words like Sensei are explained right away in dialogue. Familiar visual imagery is utilized to ensure that the reader immediately understands what is being talked about.

The only thing really that irked me about the book was its use of English characters and names. Would it really be so terrible to have a Dahl-esque written by an Indian author about Indian characters? We, for one, don't think so. I'd actually love to read one. How nice it would be to read an enjoyable book where the main characters have names I recognize.

But the decision to anglicize the book isn't a deal-breaker for me though. It's plain to see the publisher wants to broaden the horizons of the book beyond the Indian readership, and that's fine too. Kapadia sprinkles some brown characters throughout almost like an homage to her native land.

The illustrations that go along with the book are amusing, well-placed and helpful. They, too, remind me to the illustrations done by Sir Quentin Blake. The cover, which depicts the skinny, messy-haired Ferg looking unto the black, horrid looking Horrid High, gives the reader an idea of what to expect immediately.

Despite Ferg's back being turned to the reader, one feels his despondency. Who wouldn't want to run away if faced with the haunted mansion style building that he's staring at.

All in all, we would give Horrid High an eight out of 10. I'd take away a point for the anglocization of all the characters and one more point for a some-what unbelievable ending. (The last point may be docked off unfairly I admit, it is after all a children's book.)

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