Long, long ago, I studied in a school in Rourkela with two brothers, the sons of an IAS officer. Arun, the elder brother, was absolutely brilliant and believed in finding his own way and not following the beaten track. After topping the Indian School Certificate exams, Arun did not sit for the IIT entrance exam and instead joined the Shri Ram College of Commerce. After completing his BCom Honours, Arun did not appear for the IIM entrance exams and instead did his CA. A few years later, he applied for and got admission into the Harvard Business School whose MBA course was then rated as the best in the world. He passed out in the top-ten per cent of his batch and joined a leading consultancy firm. His younger brother Ajit must have had a tough time emerging from the shadow of his elder sibling. It almost seemed inevitable when Ajit followed up IIT with a job with an MNC and then applied for and got admission to the Harvard Business School. Unlike the two brothers who studied physics, chemistry and mathematics in school, I was a humanities student and followed their progress from the sidelines.
C K Meena's "Seven Days to Somewhere" (Dronequill Publishers, 2012, Rs 275) gives you a fictional glimpse of the other side of the pursuit of the impossible dream. Nischit, whose middle-class father is an IIM product and whose mother almost made it to IIT, is conditioned from a young age into being a topper who will, hopefully, follow up IIT with an MBA from Harvard. As Meena mentions early in the book, "Harvard was Appa-Amma's dream for him. He could point it out on a map, tell you about its weather patterns and its landscape; he had memorised names of its luminous alumni and knew its neighbouring restaurants and what its library contained and which Indian musician had last sung there to the student body. Focus, Appa said, and you can get there. You should be better than the best...In his entire school, Nischit hadn't had a real vacation. There had always been some edifying activity--advanced math or memory improvement or personality development--with which to fruitfully fulfill his leisure. Playing tapes at his bedside ensured he could learn while he slept."
And then something snaps. The boy's mind goes blank during a crucial physics exam at the end of the eighth standard and this means that he will be moved from ISCE to the less-prestigious SSLC stream in a school which prides itself on its 100-per-cent distinction in the tenth-standard exams and its state rank-holders. What do you do when the impossible dream turns into a hopeless nightmare and there are just seven days left for the results to be announced? Crushed by the burden of parental aspirations, Nischit ever-so-logically creates a file on his computer called Endit where he lists all the ways out of the dilemma called life so that he is not around when the results are announced.
It is at this point that Meena's book takes off from the tragically ridiculous to the fantastically sublime. A bluish-grey parakeet called Po notices the small human's acute distress and decides to intervene. Unlike those of Nischit's class-mates who parrot their way through coaching class, Po is a clairvoyant parakeet genius who cares enough to fly down every evening to the balcony of the boy's apartment and narrate to him seven anecdotes on the crises being faced out there in the real world by the young of not just the human species but the animal kingdom. It's a bit like the Panchatantra but with the essential difference that the objective is not to enlighten little princes in a tranquil kingdom but to provide a helpline for small humans in India's troubled Silicon Plateau. And as the countdown begins and the clock starts ticking off the seven days, the reader gets carried away while wondering whether Po's didactic approach of narrating an anecdote a day will provide redemption.
There have been quite a few literary fables from Kenneth Grahame's "The Wind in the Willows" to George Orwell's allegorical "Animal Farm". Given middle-class India's obsessive pursuit of the IIT-IIM academic model, "Seven Days to Somewhere" is one of the most relevant fables to appear at this point of time. As someone who has taught generations of students at some of India's best-known journalism colleges, C K Meena brings to bear all her skills as a compassionate communicator in her characterisation of Po the parakeet, surely one of the most magical characters to grace the world of fiction, and with a quirky sense of humour thrown in. Like when Po tells Nischit that the human trait of going to palmists and astrologers is "a roundabout way of asking how long they have to live...If I were God I'd put them out of their misery by announcing their lifespan in advance. You'd come out of your mother's womb with the date of your death stamped on your wobbly little bum. `For Expiry Date See Bottom', like on a medicine bottle."
The blurb of her second novel "Dreams for the Dying" commends Meena for continuing "her exploration of the many dimensions of a woman", begun in "Black Lentil Doughnuts". Meena's "Seven Days to Somewhere" transcends the gender-divide and strikes a universal note.