Himanjali Sankar’s new book for young adults, The Lies We Tell, begins with a newspaper report about the 26/11 Mumbai attacks. And just as you’re wondering why, it segues right into a WhatsApp conversation between two friends, Uma and Rishi, before settling, mostly, into a first-person narrative by the protagonist Irfan Ahmed, a 17-year-old who loves football, his girlfriend Uma and is figuring out what to do after this Class XII board exams. This would sound relatable to many teens across India, give and take a few details. But Sankar thrusts us into the dark, gloomy atmosphere of Irfan’s home, where we immediately understand that something is amiss.
Irfan thinks the world of his older sister, his Appi, who plays a huge role in his life. But perfect Sanya’s sheen had been tarnished when her parents make a scene when they find her with her boyfriend in her room. Unlike his outspoken Appi, Irfan defers to his parents in almost everything, even opting out of band practice because they want him to focus on his studies. But no one really communicates in the house, apart from talking about his future or his studies. Sankar conveys a strong sense of a fractured family, which is trying its best to get through each day, rather than living.
Uma and Rishi, Irfan’s best friends since childhood, are a huge part of his life. The frequent WhatsApp conversations between them, which the writer uses to reveal their thoughts and feelings, work for Uma but aren’t enough to build Rishi’s character and his motivations for his actions.
With three friends, it’s always interesting to see how the dynamic between them plays out. Uma is beautiful, carefree and has no qualms in talking back to her parents, something that Irfan never has the courage to do. Rishi comes from a troubled family, with an abusive father and a scared mother with a fondness for Irfan. As Irfan and Uma get closer, Rishi becomes the odd one out and slowly grows resentful.
As the story progresses, things go downhill for Irfan, especially when he senses that Uma is distancing herself from him, eventually breaking up with him. The reasons for the break-up and the subsequent decision to date Rishi, are never very clear, considering the effect this has on Irfan. Especially since, even after dumping Irfan, Uma seems to care about him, as is evident in the messages between her and Rishi. Irfan begins to withdraw into himself, deletes Whatsapp from his phone and continues to email his Appi about how heartbroken he is.
There are times when one sees a glimpse of Irfan’s anger at his former friends and how they have conveniently excluded him from their lives. The desire to get away from it all is strong, as he applies for college admissions in the US even though his performance in school takes a hit. Then one day, a photo of Uma’s is circulated among their classmates and she’s convinced that this is Irfan’s way of taking revenge. After all, only the two of them had access to the photo. Irfan denies having sent it, thinking that maybe this is Uma’s way of drawing attention to herself. While the issue with the photo peters out eventually, we realise that Irfan’s conversations with his Appi are getting increasingly worrisome, until it reaches a point of self-harm.
“Sankar peeks inside young Irfan's head with ease, even as his mind seems to be getting increasingly fragmented.”
Across the world, young adult fiction has evolved tremendously. There are few topics that are taboo now, be it sexuality, abuse or suicide. Authors of young adult fiction are tackling all the hard subjects and publishers are also actively seeking them out, because access to such books is one way in which teenagers can unravel the confusion inherent in their lives. Reading about less-than-perfect protagonists who don’t have it all figured out can be of great help to a young person who may be troubled for various reasons.
In India, Sankar’s earlier novel, Talking of Muskaan (Duckbill) is a sensitive exploration of homosexuality, while Paro Anand’s No Guns at my Son’s Funeral (India Ink) deals with militancy in Kashmir. Ranjit Lal is another author who doesn’t shy away from writing about grim realities, be it female infanticide (Faces in the Water) or sexual abuse by a parent (Smitten). The Lies We Tell falls into a similar category— the subject of mental illness has not been explored enough, at least in young adult fiction.
Sankar peeks inside young Irfan’s head with ease, even as his mind seems to be getting increasingly fragmented. His parents do try to get him help. As Irfan says, “Between all of them, they have the glue, cellotape, scissors and the various Irfan pieces. It’s just a matter of efficiently sticking it all back together.”
Sankar had written in an article for HuffPost India last month that the book had emerged from the nebulous and fragile balance that is the human mind.
“The young adult mind is by definition a zone of mental stress, which is why it surprised me to find that no books in India for young people address mental illness. Paradoxically, while everyone knows of teen angst at a theoretical level it is something we resist accommodating in our personal lives,” she wrote.
The Lies We Tell is important on many levels and provides a crucial understanding of the many pressures young adults face in their everyday lives, facets of which we (as parents, educators) might be completely unaware of. It offers a real look at the changing dynamics in relationships and how it affects not just the people involved, but also those around them. It acknowledges that some people may not deal with grief in the expected way, and there is probably no right way to deal with it at all. The most we can do is to show up and be there for them.