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Anju Virmani

By Ranjit Lal
Zubaan, Delhi, 2015, pp. 141, Rs. 295.00

VOLUME XXXIX NUMBER 11 November 2015

A good reason to get the newspaper Indian Express is that most Sundays there is an article by Ranjit Lal on the animal or plant world. These articles look with gentle humour and a different perspective at fellow inhabitants of our earth: bugs, birds, animals. They may be creatures we have just read about, or even those we see every day, mostly unnoticed by us as we whiz past busily through our very important lives, sometimes destroyed by us deliberately or unthinkingly. The same seemingly effortless writing style of gentle humour and different perspective suffuses the book ‘The Dugong and the Barracudas’. Thirteen year old Sushmita is physically very large but mentally a bit on the ‘slow’ side, a gentle girl with a sweet round face. After years of home schooling because regular schools refused admission, she is accepted in her mother’s school, and is thrilled she can now have real instead of pretend friends. Immediately confronted by the amused cruelty of teenagers dealing with someone different, she takes the sharp digs at her size, even a stink bomb under her seat, good naturedly. Arun and Natasha, the class prefects, are especially caustic; only short and skinny Karan, furious at everyone’s jibing, is sympathetic. Studies and most sports are difficult for her, giving classmates many opportunities to make her the butt of their jokes. Then the sports teacher discovers she knows boxing and orders, ‘You, Mr Hero, sir, Arun Nair… three rounds with Sushmita’, in which, bruised and bloodied, she manages to knock him cold. Now Arun and Natasha viciously plot to get her into trouble, egging her onto a dangerous swim in the lagoon and a fall when hiking to a hill fort, making sure the others boycott her and reject her friendly overtures. The teachers try their best to help her at various times, but eventually it is her own guilelessness and doggedness, helped by a curious turn of events, which does the trick. How the dugong manages to finally settle down and get accepted by the barracudas is what you will have to find out. It is supposedly a ‘children’s book’, and should be in every class library in middle school. The gentle story may hold up a mirror to a teenager becoming nasty and bullying, as it might encourage someone the butt of jokes to ‘hang in there’. It is equally useful for ...

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