BY Vani IN Book Reviews

Review: 17-Year-Old’s First Book is a Brave Takedown of Privilege

Vani via Quint

Try wandering up the teen section of a bookstore, and all you are going to find is romance, thriller, fantasy or any combination of these fiction categories thereof! And before you draw any conclusion about the reading preferences of teens, I would recommend you talk to someone in that age group. Most teens go through the same emotional roller coaster of heartbreaks, euphoria, angst, fear, frustration, as we adults do. However, and quite surprisingly, most of these themes continue to remain “under-represented” in popular works of literature, feels seventeen year old newbie author, Naima Kalra Gupta.

In her first book, Seventeen Takes, which is a collection of stories and memoirs, Gupta writes about ideas that matter to teenagers of the 21st century. “An important thing I’ve learnt is that growing up is not easy, and one underlying emotion behind all of it is frustration. You don’t understand anything,” she says, and adds how writing gives some coherence to her thoughts. Through the protagonist of her stories called Izra, Gupta goes on to reveal aspects of her own journey in as far as how she still struggles to figure out what to do with her life, how she laments the loss of childhood, how she comes to terms with changing beliefs and develops new ideas with respect to her city, country and God.

When I started reading Seventeen Takes, I was hoping for it to be a coming-of-age book which it is not and that is as much as the author mentions at the very beginning. Gupta’s writing is ruminative, especially as she tries to come to terms with her true self. To quote her: “Identifying yourself, trying to find your own voice, getting to know yourself and finally coming to terms with who you are, are some of the toughest challenges anyone faces. It’s a constantly evolving realization, which springs up on you at the most unexpected times. The façade we struggle to keep up, the desperation behind the efforts we make, the smoke of the lies we tell, and the stench of the pretence that evolves us, how do we learn to see beyond it?”

As I turn the pages of the book, I find her tone getting more explorative as if she is trying to figure out why she is the way she is, and among other things, she recognizes the role that her beloved city has played into sculpting her very being. “Every aspect of city life cultivates…vanity…and an inherent sense of entitlement,” she says, and goes on to describe an incident when she met a seemingly unpretentious girl from a village at a summer camp that, for once, made her set the “I, Me, Myself” attitude aside. “Meeting her (Sahana) was a reality check, a look into my inner self. It was time to get off the high horse I was riding…it’s funny how people like me have such strong political and social opinions when we live such sheltered lives,” she says, and adds, “I realized I definitely had pretentious and narrow worldviews and I wasn’t even at Harvard or Yale yet.”

At this point, I am tempted to ask her if she thinks that most teenagers growing up in big cities are like that. “A sheltered life by definition means narrow simply because we haven’t seen enough of the world. And all that we have seen has been from a pedestal of privilege,” she replies. “Privilege can’t be removed and I don’t wish to remove mine either. It’s sort of a Catch-22 actually. I believe adversity builds character but why would I wish adversity on anyone? I know that I definitely do not understand the realities of life and maybe I never will. I acknowledge the bubble I live in and I have to admit it’s easier to live in it most of the times. But maybe it is our moral responsibility to be more empathetic to others,” she says. True that!

Compared to most people her age, Gupta’s prose is more elegant and she credits it to her reading. “From when I was a kid, I always used to read a lot. From Nancy Drew to Harry Potter to War and Peace, I have been across the entire spectrum of fiction.” And as she says that I begin to wonder if this book was a conscious effort. “I actually never planned on writing the book, it sort of just happened. I returned from a summer camp and my parents told me that they had sent my work to Rupa and that they were interested. I wrote some more things, tried to fine tune my work and somehow it happened,” she says.

What differentiates her work from other books populating teen fiction at bookstores is that Gupta did not write for a particular audience. “Some aspects of the book will definitely resonate more with younger people but the purpose of fiction isn’t to relate with the character. So it’s for anyone who likes my writing,” she says. And I am sure there would be many takers for her refreshingly new voice!

This review is also available to read here.


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