Narratives told from the perspective of a child have the tendency to go terribly wrong, either by a faux-naif tone hitting false notes or by an adult narrator’s condescension drowning out the child voice. In those rare cases where it works, however, the result can be pure magic, and Bhisham Sahni’s short novel Boyhood is one of those.
I came across Bhisham Sahni (1915-2003) during my exploration of travel narratives about India last year; apparently he is considered to have been one of the most important Hindi writers of the 20th century. In Boyhood (which was first released in 1967 – it seems to have been his first novel – and translated into English by Anna Khanna) he has the good sense to not attempt to give us the boy protagonist’s voice unfiltered, but shows him to us through the perspective of his adult self; however, this self is merely a spectator and does not intrude by commenting or explaining anything.
While Boyhood is a coming-of-age tale it is not a Bildungsroman – the straight, linear development towards a better, more accomplished which that narrative model implied has not really been applicable for at least a hundred years now, and probably only lives on in Young Adult and Fantasy novels. And the rejection of this particular narrative model is not just an esthetic choice – the Bildungsroman narrative receives its power and impact from an underlying conviction that a life is structured like a story, that it follows a meaningful arc which will eventually lead to a place where the individual can be completely, utterly him- or herself. While this type of novel may be essentially European, the notion that the meaning of a person’s life is tied to that person reaching a fixed, significant place certainly is not, in fact the concept becomes even more striking when applied to a strongly stratified society, one that is structured by class or caste.
Bhisham Sahni’s novel, then, (and judging from what I could glance of the author’s biography from the internet, it is fiction and not veiled autobiography) does not present us with the unbroken flow of a narrative that runs towards fulfilment but instead gives us a series of fragments, spread out between the narrator’s first memories as a small boy and his coming into manhood – only to come full circle in conclusion, ending his narration with a scene that is a repetition of the one he started it with. In correspondence with this, the narrator also fails to find a fixed place in life – in sharp contrast to his father, who spends almost all of the novel in his office at home (and it is this home where almost all of the novel takes place, too), both the narrator and his brother are at loose ends by the end of Boyhood, with no clear idea of their vocation or their position in life.
The narrator’s family consists of his father and mother, his elder brother and two sister’s, as well as Tulsi, the family’s servant who is a constantly recurring figure, taking up enough narrative space to considered a second protagonist, in a way the narrator’s shadow or mirror image. Tulsi also serves to bring class distinctions into sharp focus as he is caught between his humble, lower class origins and the upper class milieu in which he serves. His exposure to the latter makes him unhappy to simply remain the former, and he attempts to straddle both only to fall into the cracks between them – he is a figure that is both tragic and pathetic, and another instance of the failing model of the Bildungsroman.
All of this goes to show that the narrator’s backward perspective is not tinged by nostalgia, and there is no rosy haze softening his depiction of childhood and adolescence either, time and again Sahni shows how uncaring children can be, so preoccupied with their own world that they barely notice the feelings of others. Home and family are not always safe and secure either – not only does the outside world frequently pose a threat, but on several occasions a certain harshness intrudes not so much upon as rather out of the familial warmth, and there even are moments of sudden tragedy. In spite of this, however, the overall tone of the novel is, though somewhat melancholic, not at all depressing, and it can be very funny in parts, too (such in a hilarious episode where the narrator spends the night struggling to stay awake to prevent himself from having a wet dream) – not only is the narrator’s boyhood a kaleidoscopic jumble of unconnected fragments, those fragments – as of course, is the case in any kaleidoscope – differ from each other in tone and colour, and simply refuse to cohere together into any form of unified whole. Instead, the pieces fall and settle into intriguing patterns both colourful and intricate which readers can trace at leisure, or possibly even shake up into new patterns. In any case, Boyhood is a novel that profits from being read slowly and savoured, and will likely not remain the last book by Bhisham Sahni that I have read.