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Defying Classification

G.J.V. Prasad

By Kalpana Swaminathan
Penguin India, New Delhi, 2003, pp. 233, Rs. 250.00


I don't think I have read any Indian book in recent times as avidly as I did Kalpana Swaminathan’s Ambrosia for Afters. This is a brilliant book, and one of the rare breed that targets young adults as much as it does older readers. This to me is a crossover book, a book in the line of classics like Catcher in the Rye, books that defy classification of readership by age (not that Ambrosia has been positioned a novel for young adults). I have read two such stunning books this year, the Australian Melina Marchetta's Saving Francesca and Kalpana Swaminathans Ambrosia. Both give you real worlds, worlds that somehow still surprise you as such fictional worlds must. Why hasn't this been done before you wonder, why not with this or that particular generation, why not in this manner? Kalpana Swaminathans is a far more (consciously) literary work, one of its pleasures being its uses of literature, of other texts. It is a world about the uses of fiction, about the uses of imagination, about the reality of the various worlds many of us inhabit, some for at least at a certain stage in our life. The protagonist of the novel, its narrator, is Tenral, a fifteen year old Tamil (not that this linguistic/cultural identify is of import in this novel) girl in her school leaving year. Set in Bombay of 1972, Ambrosia is at one level a school novel, drawing for us immediately resonant pictures of school students, teachers and the Exam year. Tenral is an intelligent student who does well in almost all subjects and is brilliant at writing. We see examples throughout of her attempts at fairy tales, tales that make sense of the reality that she encounters in terms of the paradigms that the brothers Grimm left for us in their sometimes so forbidding tales. Tenral, Dolly, and Shirin are the trio that go through this disconcerting year together and take on all that life and fantasy throw at them including loves from cousins far and near to Rajesh Khanna. They are at the age that is considered to be the threshold and they know that they are there and that they don't know what it is the threshold to but also that the threshold is a world in itself for them. Tenral seems to inhabit at least two different worlds, one of the workaday school ...

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