A panel from Terminal 3 by Debasmita Dasgupta (Courtesy: The Artist and Penguin)
WHO WAS IT who said, “The trick is growing up without growing old.” As millennials, I like to think we were the last of the simple generation. The books we read were a complete departure from the way we lived. Remember tea and scones on Kirrin Island with Enid Blyton? We would snatch moments out of our otherwise lazy summer afternoons to get lost in books. During our teens in the 1980s and ’90s, we grew up idolising Holden Caulfield’s rebellious ways and learnt to never give up on our dreams from Frodo and Bilbo Baggins. We waited for a new book from the Harry Potter franchise organically growing from its middle grade to its young adult audience. Books were an escape—into fantastical worlds, into teenage heartbreak, into rebellious realms—but remained as worlds you would only find in books.
But Gen Z is a different animal.
Fantastical worlds with macabre creatures or coming-of-age acts of rebellion just aren’t enough to hold the interest of today’s young adult audience. Tinny teenage romances are available at the flick of an OTT platform so why go looking for them between book covers? Gen Z wants something that can grip and hold their attention and they want their books like they want everything else—fast-paced, hard-hitting, and utterly relatable.
This is perhaps why Young Adult (YA) novels these days have finally come of age. YA books have always precariously straddled the world of teenage angst and early adult realisation, making it an effortless read for anyone in the age group of 13-19 years. But these days who has the time to be a rebellious teenager when there are so many things vying for one’s attention? YA books now must compete with a steady stream of national and international sitcoms, innumerable lives on social media, and endless chatter among peers.
What does a decent YA novel need to do to grab a reader’s attention? Three recent YA novels have all tried new approaches to reach elusive readers.
ZEN by Shabnam Minwalla (Duckbill; 608 pages; ₹499)
This tome of a book about intergenerational conflict is told against the backdrop of two of India’s pivotal political movements—the freedom struggle and the protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). Minwalla tells the story of Zainab Essanji from 1935 and her great-granddaughter Zainab Currimji from 2019. Both women are navigating familial and social conventions while falling in love with men they know are completely wrong for them. Essanji’s story is an absolute thriller complete with spies, a plot to overthrow the British, and hidden secrets that are revealed only at the very end. Through all this, we see Essanji playing her part and yet we are on the edge of our seat as we watch her put her life on the line to do tasks just so she can catch a glimpse of the man she has fallen in love with. Zainab Currimji’s half of the book brings the relatability aspect to YA readers. Nineteen-year-old Zainab aka Zen is an endearing songwriter who loves getting lost in books and history. She spends her days with her close group of friends where she begins hearing “ominous abbreviations” like NRC and CAA in conversations. This hits close to home because it throws a spotlight on her family—Hindu mother and Muslim father—and pushes her to take part in a debate organised by her friends at school. Unfortunately, she is distracted despite her best efforts by Yash, a family friend’s son who has travelled from the US to attend a wedding in Mumbai. Yash and Zen soon realise they don’t see eye to eye when it comes to political ideologies but can’t understand why they are so drawn to each other. Their love story plays out amidst multiple misunderstandings between them, even as Zen and her friends continue to take different approaches to protest the government’s decision.
Zen like all of Minwalla’s other books, is a love song written to her favourite muse—the city of Mumbai. She coaxes and caresses beautiful nuances out of South Mumbai—both from the past and present—that will forever be etched in the mind of the reader.
TERMINAL 3: A GRAPHIC NOVEL by Debasmita Dasgupta (Penguin; 110 pages; ₹299)
This graphic novel is set against the backdrop of a complete internet shutdown in Kashmir during the Abrogation of Article 370. Terminal 3 goes back and forth between the years of 2017 and 2019 showcasing events during a turbulent time in the Kashmir Valley. This is the story of 17-year-old Khwab Nazir, training to become a jiu-jitsu player despite all the obstacles she faces. Society and well-meaning relatives dissuade her family from letting her train and force her instead to get her married. But Khwab’s father, her best friend Noor, and her coach Omar continue to have faith in her talent and push her to follow her dream. Running parallel to Khwab’s dreams of being a successful sportsperson is her friend Noor’s love story with Yusuf Najar, a young poet. When Noor introduces Khwab to Yusuf they bond over poetry, but as they get ready to walk back home, they sense doom in the air. Protests and mob violence are common occurrences in Kashmir but the trio pay a heavy price for being at the wrong place at the wrong time on that fateful day.
It is hard to keep away from books with interesting premises. These three books allow the readers to see themselves in the story, which is priceless
Share this on
The book conveys turmoil, doom and helplessness through its stunning illustrations and typography. Dasgupta fills the pages with pinks, reds, and browns when there is sadness and hopelessness and switches to white, beige and yellow when there is hope. The friendship between Noor and Khwab is etched out beautifully and we can all identify that friend who believes in us like Noor does. The story is endearing and inspiring and highlights the indomitable spirit of those that live in the Kashmir valley.
KARUPPU by Praveena Shivram (Young Zubaan; 240 pages; ₹495)
This is a fascinating read because there are so many ways you can look at the story. The novel is dark, complex and filled with layered characters. The author creates a fantastical world with Yama, Yamadoots, gods and humans. Each one is a pawn in the other’s game and these characters seamlessly move between life and the afterlife through multiple realms. Yama and his twin sister Yami are sent as mortals to Earth but Yama dies soon after and comes to the Underworld as its ruler. Yami is left to spend her life on earth as an immortal. But there is a prophecy that will allow both Yama and Yami to live together in the world of Kanavu or dreams. Connecting all these characters is Karuppu, Yama’s only female Yamadoot. Her daughter Karuthamma was raised on earth in exchange for Sigappan, an intersex child raised in the underworld. Karuthamma and Sigappan play instrumental roles in the fulfilment of the prophecy. But there are sinister forces at play. Will blind and single-minded devotion prove to be fatal and put those who least expect it in harm’s way?
Author Shivram’s characters are multi-faceted, and their complexities can easily mirror personalities in today’s world. The dark undertones and multiple surprises shock and awe the reader keeping them hooked. This is such a clever book because it leaves it up to the reader to make an inference while subtly drawing plot lines. This is an ideal world where the rigid rules of time, life and death don’t apply. Instead, there is a welcome fluidity.
It is hard to keep away from books with immensely interesting premises. These three books can easily be the lens through which readers can examine and empathise with daily events. Being able to see yourself in the story you read is priceless and relatability goes a long way in engaging the reader. These new YA novels offer a unique vantage point to explore the ramifications of events happening around us.