Waking Up to the Pandemic of Bullying
Iris CF Gomes
There is an insidious disease that plagues members of Indian society – apathy towards any problem that does not particularly apply to oneself and the unwillingness to battle with the powers that be to right an injustice done to a fellow human being. Ratna Vira’s new book It’s Not About You addresses the issue of bullying, a rampant problem in our society that Indians are apt to sweep under the rug. Ratna is the author of the national bestseller Daughter by Court Order, another socially evocative novel that forces us to face upfront the injustice meted out to women in India.
It’s Not About You tells the poignant tale of 16 year old Aksh and his single mother Samaira taking on the school authorities and the bullies who leave Aksh battered and bruised. Bullying comes in many forms. At times it takes place within families or it could be bullying by colleagues, schoolmates, etc. The main aim of this book it to motivate the listless Indian public to recognise this averse behaviour for what it is rather than making light of it or ignoring it.
It was a newspaper article about a young American student trying to protect a fellow student and ending up in a coma for his efforts that was the spark that lit the idea for this novel. But more precisely, it was a conversation with the head of an Indian school about the serious problem of bullying at his institution that spearheaded the novel. It is not surprising that the topic of bullying struck a chord with Ratna since she has directly perceived such conduct. She says, ‘My children have not been bullied in school but I have seen bullying in many forms very personally.’
The book reveals much research, and it was research of a different nature for a reason, as Ratna says, ‘The teenage voice and that too of a boy comes through strongly and I spent time with school students to understand their language. Additionally, I met school teachers, psychologists and doctors to clarify the settings for my book.’
There is a conspiracy of silence as psychologist Kripi Malviya said at the launch of It’s Not About You at Raj Bhavan in Goa at the hands of Governor Mridula Sinha. It is a conspiracy that is fuelled by fear and ignorance in terms of people not knowing how to combat the issue. Literature is knowledge and that knowledge is empowering. This is specifically what Ratna hopes to achieve through her novel. She says, ‘A book can be a stimulus and I hope the success of my book will be one.’ On the prospects of the situation changing with regard to bullying in India, she reflects, ‘…unless people are willing to stand up and shame the bullies, ostracise them from society, nothing will change. Much of bullying is a social phenomenon.’
The novel seems to be a microcosm for the effects of caste and class structures that denude this country of stable progress. It also takes into account the generational gap that builds up between parents and children, especially teenagers, as the former forget the reality of their adolescent years and the latter grapple with physical and emotional changes, and the lack of understanding on the part of the adults.
The characterisation of pivotal protagonists is the backbone of this novel with Samaira who works at a corporate job while raising two children. She struggles to empathise with her teenaged son and is eventually blamed for the incident. Samaira herself, in a typical psychological reaction, suffers from self-loathing, but at the same time she defends herself by saying that she has done her best. This accusatory tone is derived from the family system that prevails in India: a misguided notion that if there is considerable familial control over young people then nothing adverse will happen to them.
The character of Maasiji stands out as an endearing one that ushers in humour and the very basic things that stare you in the face. The character was much loved even by the Pan Macmillan team (publishers), to the extent that they threatened to delay the publishing of the book if the character was not revived after Ratna had killed her off in the novel. Ratna imagines her characters as they are and in the end, she says, ‘They are as real for the readers as they are for the writer.’
The title It’s Not About You comes from the many hours spent with teenagers and the appreciation that adults really do not understand adolescents. ‘They felt that their concerns were often ignored and adults often contextualised issues to themselves. '“It's not about you”, they would explain and the phrase just stuck with me as the title of the book,’ says Ratna of the teenagers.
Silence in bullying situations, no matter the setting, is tantamount to complicity. Ratna says, ‘The bully although weak is usually surrounded by a support system that allows him/her to flourish. The victim feels like an outsider because nobody wants to stand with the victim for fear of getting bullied themselves. It is the silent majority that allows bullies to exist in schools, colleges and beyond in families etc.’