20 March 2011

Third Best by Arjun Rao

Lord of the Bogs
Arjun Rao is a schoolmaster at Doon. He himself studied at the Lawrence School, Lovedale. So Third Best is definitely an insider’s version. I was eager to read it because I did time at Lawrence too, and had heard that this book was set in the school.
My initial reaction was a slight distaste at the sex scenes in the first few pages.
Well – I left school a full 22 years before Arjun did, and doubtless the relentless march of technology (to avoid the word “civilisation”) had provoked, um, advances in other spheres of life too. Or perhaps the author had just, um, inserted them to attract young readers.

Now it’s not that they were offensively explicit – in fact they were in the remote background, coy as a schoolboy’s fantasies, and perhaps a book about boarding school life without the hint of preoccupation with sex would be a book without virtue.

Compared with Enid Blyton’s St Clare’s or Mallory Towers books, to which I will admit being devoted as a child – or even with the (yawn) Harry Potter books, this one must be singled out as more than just escapist fiction because it is so firmly rooted in reality and includes ugly facets of boarding school life too.

While my distaste at the hint of sexual freedom lingered, it was eventually overcome by the gripping, well-written stories in this book which I found very relevant and interesting.

Shore Mount is different from Lovedale in geography but I found it emotionally very similar.
The author has drawn on a variety of situations and characters appealing to a young person – a stay in London, a holiday with a friend at his royal home in Rajasthan, a peek into the life of the most privileged person in a boarding school (the headboy) including meals at the headmaster’s house (where they serve pasta, which in my days had not yet been invented) and, for one who has spent years in a dormitory, not just a room of one’s own but the most amazing and desirable living quarters – and more.
But these were peripherals.
The book also has teacher stereotypes – posturing, petty minded, superannuated, socially compromised and other varieties. One teacher even has the maturity to frankly advise his students, “Listen to me. These exams are among the most useless things that you will ever have to do in your life. They do not matter in the greater scheme of things. In five years you’ll laugh that you ever had to do them and that you were even worried about them. But the fact is that the only way to get into a decent college in this country is through those marks.”
There are excellent descriptions of traditions such as the school dances, ceremonial sports rituals such as awarding colours, “Founders” and more. Listen to this:
A colour was Shore Mount’s most prestigious acknowledgement of its sporting heroes. Traditionally, it was awarded to the best player of the year in each sport, decided by the captain of the team and the teacher who was responsible for managing the sport that year. The Headmaster had the power to overrule and even withdraw a particular award, but this had been done so rarely in the history of the school that no one sitting in the Memorial Hall that morning even knew that such a rule existed.
However, these, too, are just background.
The real meat of the story is the constructed world of a particular boarding school steeped in conventions that go back a hundred and fifty years and more.
There are dynastic families which spawn star athletes and great leaders and if you come from one of these – the weight of expectation on you is tremendous. When your father and grandfather were headboys – but the headmaster doesn’t consider you up to the mark – could that be considered trauma that might mark one for life?
We learn that it’s an idyllic world – but isolated, and cut off from modern technology as it always was and doubtless always will be.
And these young kids spin out speeches with articulate passion. Even an un-glamorous sports captain has it in him to say, while listing people to whom he’s grateful:
Nathaniel Gomez who taught us the reason why we play this game: “Not to win but to show everyone we’re the best”.
Because language, to these students, is more than just a medium of expression – it’s a field in which your craft must continue to grow and grow. It was always like that at Lovedale and I enjoyed the propensity for dramatic and sweeping statements in this book that I remember well from my schooldays: “If you don’t switch off the fucking lights, you’ll all see nothing but darkness for the rest of your lives”. (Though I must permit myself a token objection to the easy use of the f word – oh dear.)
There is also insight into an innate childhood response to recognition, evident when you are made a prefect:
No one at Shore Mount knew how it happened but one minute you were just like everyone else, trying to get away with breaking the rules, and the next minute you were standing up for the system. It was as if a switch had been turned on that morning at assembly.
And childhood frustration culminating in violence features here, neatly and easily. You can get caned for misdemeanour, and this can happen in public. But more likely you’ll get beaten up, hit with hockey sticks, your bones will break and perhaps your face will be scarred for life:
No one ever tells you that your butt cheeks should be left loose. Clench hard and you won’t be able to shit for weeks. That, and to ensure you hands are way out in front. You don’t want a broken wrist adding to your pain.
An especially vicious cruelty is administered to teachers’ children.

What I didn’t like about this book (besides the implication of sexual freedom I mean :-)) was the easy assumption that the boy hero had to be much better than his girl. She studies harder but he scores higher. And when some girls begin to cry after seeing their marks, “everyone backed away lest they be blamed for the situation, and this included Mr Baweja, who should have been impervious to tears by now considering that the girls practically wept every time they encountered shares and debentures in his Accounts class."
Now this little bit of stereotyping may well be grounded in reality – but as a smug older woman, and one originally repressed by the very community this book is based in, it’s my duty to object
while praising the accuracy of detail. On the other hand, I did like it that these boys too cry at times – and even hug each other – and when they pull back after a while they say, “oh man – this is so GAY!” and laugh.

This book did a good job of drawing out the essence of singular self-importance that a contrived world is bound to engender. The boys and girls in it came alive for me. I could see them, physical features, personality traits and all – and, like real children, they grew before my eyes. Not just in inches but in maturity too. I admired this. But what I liked best about this book is the strong values it showcases. Nirvan is strong and reliable; he knows right from wrong and has the courage to always stand up for what he believes, regardless of any kind of social pressure. And I particularly liked the strong focus on mentoring and appreciation of it that this book quietly but effectively brings its readers.

1 comment:

  1. An enjoyable read Third Best by Arjun Rao . loved the way you wrote it. I find your review very genuine and original, this book is going in by "to read" list.