Friday, 9 October 2015

Book review: The Secret of Falcon Heights by Ranjit Lal

The Secret of Falcon Heights

Text: Ranjit Lal

Penguin Books. 2014. Paperback.  Rs. 250. 220 pages. English. Young adult.

ISBN: 978-0-143-33333-3

Until about five years ago, I was afraid we would never have relevant India- centric literature for young adults. Unanswered questions teased me: Why were we, as writers and readers, afraid to engage with the societal skeletons in our collective cupboards? Why were we constantly shielding our teens from explosive subjects that throng our media?

My misgivings vanished when Ranjit Lal ~ whom I have long admired for the engaging bandwidth of his writings ~ published ‘Faces in the Water,’ brilliantly tackling female infanticide with sensitivity and surety. His novel won the Crossword Best Children’s Book award in 2010.

Was his a random excursion down an offbeat track? Lal, to my delight,  proved me wrong to establish himself as an intrepid explorer of the young adult genre. Take the 1984 Delhi riots in ‘The Battle for No. 19’. Or child sexual abuse in ‘Smitten.’ Or teen sexuality in ‘Black Limericks.’ I came to applaud each rivetting read for his literary daring and masterly storytelling.     

          In ‘The Secret of Falcon Heights,’ Lal engages with other taboo subjects that seldom enter Indian drawing rooms. Here he explores (hold your breath!) political corruption, social ostracism and even an episode with shadows of Bhanwari Devi in 1992. 

On the tantalizing book jacket, a young woman in black sets a falcon free to soar against an idyllic landscape. The cover blurb reads: ‘She’s beautiful. She’s fearless. She’s bewitching. So why is she the ‘leper’ of Pahadpur?’ Lal treats his subject with a cinematic, edge-of-the-seat vividness, interspersed with episodes of distilled teen spirit, pulsing with life. 

Sandeep, 17, narrates the story, set against a post-colonial pucca hill station, complete with a club, an army set-up and treks into the hill. How will he and his siblings ~ Manish (14) and sister Chubs (7) ~ survive three months in the internet- free hills with their terrier Jacko, under the eagle eye of great aunt Mita Masi?  They are tantalized by Aranya, the girl next door at Falcon Heights. The townsfolk shun her; they gossip darkly about her past. But what is the truth?

With all the drama of breaking news, Lal transforms the mundane into an irresistible adventure that is unputdownable, yet inoffensive to teen readers, parents and teachers alike. His dialogue, distinctive of sibling rivalry and revelry, helps. So does his ability to weave in full-blooded twists and turns into his quick-paced plot. Who are the s/heroes; who the villains? Lal keeps the reader guessing almost till the end.

Sandeep’s voice is in perfect sync with today’s teens. Take this nuanced hint  of first love when driving past Aranya in distress on a rainy road, thanks to Mita Masi’s prejudices: ‘I turned around and stared: her face was lit by the battery lantern… Her jaw was taut, her chin stuck out defiantly, rain streaming off it, but there was anguish in her eyes, the same devastated, hollow anguish I had seen in Papa’s eyes when Mom passed away.’ From that moment on, it is impossible not to root for Sandeep’s happiness, no matter how danger-laced.

Lal’s writing is charming with its unusual detailing. For instance, the way the older siblings nurture Chubs playfully, coaxing her out of her wandering ways.  Or the enchanting evocation of Aranya’s falcon as it mantles its pigeon prey on a ledge. With the trio’s parents out of the big picture (a device often used by Enid Blyton and JK Rowling), the coast is clear for an adrenalin-fuelled plot.

 This powerful narrative soars, dips and lands as effortlessly as Aranya’s falcon. In Lal’s experienced hands, it never nose-dives into patchiness of tone, plot or character.

I am now a committed Ranjit Lal fan for his convincing unravelling of the ugly, everyday India. Especially since he has made this world accessible to young adults.


This review originally appeared in the GoodBooks site: 

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