School days, school days
Dear old Golden Rule days
'Reading and 'riting and 'rithmetic
Taught to the tune of the hick'ry stick
— Will Cobb and Gus Edwards
I don’t like blurbs. I understand why we have them but don’t ask me to like them. I hate writing them. They never do a book justice and often provide a decidedly skewed picture. The danger there is that once the reader picks up the book he or she will be disappointed with what the author offers because no matter how good it is it’s not what the blurb led you to expect. Teasing’s not nice. Quite often I don’t read blurbs at all. But in this case I did and here it is:
A child, who lives in his imagination at his grandmother’s house in Calcutta, is unable to cope with the real world when he is sent to a boarding school in northern India and finds himself involved in a tragedy. Set against the Japanese advance on India during World War II, Sabby, aged nine, lives in a family where anglicised sophistication of bridge and dinner parties co-exists with Indian values and nationalism. In a regime of rules and punishments the schoolboys are beaten and brutalized by the teachers and the boys are transformed into mirrors of their abusers. From the mindless killing of birds and animals, the bodies of their skinned trophies are thrown on to a cactus known as the Skinning Tree, the boys’ thoughts turn to murder, which is to them feels like no more than a natural consequence of the pain inflicted on them. Conspiratorial whisperings and talk of killing and revenge spiral into a tragedy engulfing Sabby. The Skinning Tree marks an extraordinarily evocative and haunting debut. – Tibor Jones and Associates website
So what do you think? The cover’s no help. I expected something dark. Not quite Lord of the Flies. Maybe an Indian version of If…, perhaps, although with kukris (Gurkhas’ knives) instead of automatic weapons. The expression “beaten and brutalized” is an emotive one. I grew up at a time where it was commonplace for kids to get the strap—I received it twice at school (the first time when I was about Sabby’s age)—but I didn’t consider myself brutalised: I’d been deemed disobedient; I was punished; end of story. I didn’t take out my spite on defenceless animals or make plans to do away with my teachers. Like all kids I’m sure I’ve pulled the legs off a daddy-long-legs or two in my time without really appreciating how cruel I was being but that phase passed quickly enough. So I was expecting something much harsher here and probably very unpleasant. But d’you know what? It takes a hundred pages for Sabby just to reach the school and then another hundred before things come to a head. That leaves us with fifty pages and the fact is this book could easily be stripped down to a tight novella. It all depends on where you think a story ought to start. How much exposition is really necessary?
What’s Lord of the Flies about? Is it about Ralph or is it about the boys? It’s about both—it’s about Ralph’s experiences while with these boys—but it’s primarily Ralph’s story. We meet a decent English schoolboy and we watch him try to hang onto that sense of decency despite extraordinary external pressures. And that’s what we have here, albeit to a lesser extent. Someone dies, yes, but the book is not about her death any more than Lord of the Flies is about Piggy’s murder. Yes, both are key scenes, life changing in fact (Piggy’s was the first fictional death that I can say honestly affected me), but they need to be kept in perspective.
I can’t lay the blame for my expectations solely on the blurb. This is the opening paragraph to the novel:
Murder was the plaything of us kids. We fooled with the idea of killing like some kids fool with ﬁre. We stood around in free time on the far side of the pitch, leaning against the wall or sitting on it, kicking our boot heels against it, talking – talking about killing, killing someone, someone we didn’t like, how we would do it: killing was easy, no one would tell on you, because they wouldn’t. Talking and bragging. Then one day it happened. Sister Man was found on the rocks below the school.
The skinning tree doesn’t make its appearance until page 193 (of 250); the Lord of the Flies is set on her stick on page 247 of 349; both are symbols but they are also distractions and their importance shouldn’t be overemphasised. By the age of about seven most kids have an understanding of death—they know dead people don’t come back and they realise eventually everyone dies—but even when a loved one passes—as Sabby’s grandmother does in the book—often they still don’t really get death which is why most kids go through a phase of pulling the legs off daddy-long-legs or, as in the case in the book, the heads off flies. Some don’t. And if the Japanese had remained on their side of the border Sabby would’ve stayed in Calcutta and probably never hurt any living thing. And we would’ve still had an enjoyable semi-autobiographical novel not unlike Ismail Kadare’s Chronicle in Stone.
Whereas in Lord of the Flies the story begins on the island and we don’t learn an awful lot about the lives of the kids beforehand, Srikumar Sen devotes the first section of his book to a vivid and detailed description of what life was like in Calcutta during the 1940s, what life was like for him in the 1940s because this clearly draws heavily on personal experiences and that’s fine but after a few pages I wondered when the book I’d felt I’d been promised on the back cover was going to start. It’s not that Sabby’s not an interesting boy because he is and as portraits of nine-year-olds go it’s an excellent one, especially since it was written by a man in his late seventies (he was eighty-one when the book, Sen’s first novel, was published).
Sabby lives in England, Calcutta. England is not of course in Calcutta but ‘England’ is a term Sabby has come to associate with his worldview. He has no idea that England is a country:
[T]here were no countries in his world and his heroes did not come from any country, not even India. They were just there in his grandmother’s house. […] Like [all] children, he lived in a make-believe world of adventure. He didn’t know how or where [other children] acted out their tales and myths, but his were played out in a land called England. India was in England, and India and England were in Cal. And Cal was within the spiked walls and the big iron gates that enclosed his grandmother’s two houses… The world of Surojit Sabby (Sabjee) Sarkar was in England, Cal, 10 Park Road. He didn’t know where he got that name, England, from. He must have read it somewhere or heard about it somewhere, or someone told him about it, or perhaps it was because in reality he was living in England all the time, Cal being an English town somewhere in the mythical country of England. Indians were there, of course, but they did not matter. They didn’t even exist if he did not want them to.
He’s a baby. Despite being nine years old he’s still a baby. He’s called one and acts like one. He’s never been out his front yard on his own. He’s been cossetted all his life. Can you imagine what the transition to a boarding school hundreds of miles away is going to be like for him? Not that he truly appreciates what is awaiting him when he’s told that, for his safety as the Japanese are threatening Calcutta, he’s to be sent away. The only thing that’s on his mind is getting to see Zora Ka Beta [Son of Zorro] at the local fleapit. (I do not use the word euphemistically; the place is infested.)
The next few weeks pass by normally for him. Apart from a shopping trip to get him kitted out for his new school nothing much is said. His parents get on with their lives and he gets on with his. The school is too far off to think about just as the war is too far off for most Indians to think about:
His family, like most politically minded Indians didn’t talk about the war. It wasn’t their war.
But the day finally creeps up on him and he has to leave by train accompanied by a family friend, Mrs Collins, and her two sons who are travelling to the next station along from where Sabby has to alight. The wrench from his family’s bosom is traumatic:
The guard’s whistle was heard above the noise of the station. The train did not move. Was the whistle for this train or another one? Everyone looked towards the rear of the train. A green flag was being waved. The train groaned. Sabby started to squeeze through the horizontal bars of the window in front of him.
“Baby! Baby! Don’t!” his mother screamed.
His father moved closer to the carriage.
“Now Sabjee, now listen, Sabjee, go back in,” he said, reaching up and stroking his arm.
Mrs Collins moved closer to Sabby, stood beside him and held him.
“Remember, darling, in three weeks, three weeks only…” his mother shouted.
Those three weeks become a life raft for Sabby to cling to. Especially once he sees the place. He believes all he has to do is sit tight for three weeks and then his parents will come, he can tell them how bad it is and they’ll rescue him. Only something happens and they can’t come and it’s going to be months before he gets to see them again.
The thing is the school isn’t that bad. Rather than crumple, Sabby copes; he adapts. Yes, the Brothers who run things—of whom we learn very little—are strict; yes, corporal punishment is the norm, but once he’s made a couple of friends Sabby settles in far quicker than one would ever have imagined. Okay he’s got to deal with a bully—bullies can always sniff out weaklings like Sabby—but even as far as bullies go he doesn’t have that hard a time; Jonsing is no Flashman. Besides it doesn’t take too long before Sabby gets the strap (which is nowhere near as bad as he imagined in would be) and his receiving it goes a long way toward making him one of the boys. And the boys are just boys. They play with catapults, swear and break whatever rules they can without getting caught because that’s what kids do. One boy who’s especially skilled with his catapult starts talking more and more about what he can kill and it’s him that draws the kids into their secret circle of killing.
There’s been a fair bit of debate over the years about how exposure to violence desensitises us and I’m not saying it’s not a factor here but I think what motivates the kids to start mistreating animals is more of a desire to curry favour with the cool kid. Childhood is full of rites of passage like this: If you want to join our gang you’ve got to do x, y or z unpleasant thing. Initiation rites are a part of growing up and they continue into adulthood. Hazing is common in fraternities and sororities, bikers (reputedly) have to bite the head off a live chicken to join a Hell’s Angels gang and others go through more formalised initiations into organisations like the Freemasons.
Considering the amount of time spent on Sabby’s life in Calcutta the whole killing animals thing is skimmed over. I know the book was cut substantially prior to submission but more time really needed to be spent on the transformation of Sabby. It gets covered in a couple of pages and that’s really not enough. That said, it has nothing to do with the death of Sister Man. That is an accident. Certainly, it’s an accident that could easily have been avoided and the reason it’s not is that the kids are so afraid of being caught breaking the rules that when they’re faced with the moral dilemma: Should I break a rule for a good reason? they err on the side of caution. They don’t think things through. Granted, they don’t have more than a few seconds to make this decision, but each boy takes it and looks to save himself. So what we have here is an example of negative reinforcement that’s gone too far. When Pavlov’s dogs heard the bell they salivated; when these kids hear the bell they run like the clappers because they know what happens to anyone not in his place when the bell stops. I’m reminded on the lines from Dead Poets Society:
I always thought the idea of educating was to learn to think for yourself.
At these boys’ ages? Not on your life! Tradition, John. Discipline. Prepare them for college, and the rest will take care of itself.
Sen has a nice, unhurried writing style. He spends a long time on descriptions which, normally, I would hate but he does such a bang up job that I really didn’t mind his taking a hundred pages to say what he could have summarised in two or three. It was the fact that after setting the pace he then bolts towards the finish line: Sabby becomes one of the boys, they indulge in a bit of animal cruelty, they leave a nun to her fate and the next thing you know the school term’s over and Sabby has talked his parents into not sending him back. Why the rush? While it’s true that after Piggy’s death in Lord of the Flies and Neil’s death in Dead Poets Society things do get wrapped up fairly quickly, this felt especially hurried.
The bulk of the story is told in the third person but it is bookended by two short chapters where we hear a grownup Sabby offer his perspective. I think maybe too much is said here, especially in the opening section, because he draws conclusions before we get a chance to hear the evidence and, although he has good points to make, I think they would’ve been better held onto until afterwards or maybe left out completely. Such didacticism is unnecessary when a book is well-written which this one is. We’re adults; we can think for ourselves; we get the point; you don’t need to spell it out for us.
The book’s full of Indian terminology. There is a glossary but there’s a lot missing. Like “m’n”. This gets tagged onto the end of just about every sentence the boys utter and Sabby adopts it but what does it mean? It’s never explained in the book, it’s not in the glossary and you try looking up “m’n” in Google. I would’ve preferred footnotes, personally. There were a fair number of words I didn’t fully understand: Bhishti, charpoy, kachori, dhoti, paan. Some I guessed. Some I looked up. Some didn’t affect the story and so I didn’t bother. The Bhishtis find Sister Man’s body. It’s the only time they’re mentioned and it really doesn’t matter. She was found. End of story.
I’ll leave you with the book trailer.
Srikumar Sen was born in Calcutta. He moved to England in 1946 when his parents, who were journalists, were transferred to London. He continued his education in a London school and Oxford University, after which he joined the Times as a trainee. He married Eileen Hartwell, from South Africa, in 1955 and they went out to India, where he worked on the Statesman in Calcutta and then joined ICI (India) as head of the public relations department. They returned to England in 1965. He worked on the Guardian sports desk for a year before moving to the Times sports desk, where he remained for thirty years, becoming the Boxing Correspondent, a post he held for the last thirteen years of his service with the newspaper. He has three children, two boys and a girl.
Sen is the joint-winner of the Tibor Jones South Asia Prize 2011 with The Skinning Tree. He is currently working on a second novel which will deal with Sabby’s experiences of life in the UK.