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Flat-Track Bullies | Aadisht Khanna

Diary of a grumpy kid

A reviewer should strive to evaluate every book on its own merits, and not necessarily in comparison with other books. It’s been difficult for me to do this with Balaji Venkataramanan’s Flat-Track Bullies, as I kept comparing it to other children’s books.

The books we read as children are often the books that our parents themselves read and remember fondly. Our expectations are distorted by reading books good enough to stay popular for more than two generations. For a reviewer to compare a debut novel to something that has been in print for over 50 years is not only an abdication of the responsibility to read the book for itself, but also to put a bantamweight up against a heavyweight champion.

Unfortunately, even with the best of intentions, I couldn’t avoid comparisons. Flat-Track Bullies sticks so close to well-established tropes of writing for children and young adults, and does so little new (with one important exception) that comparisons with other books become unavoidable. To make things worse, these comparisons are rarely in its favour.

Flat-Track Bullies is written as the summer vacation journal of Ravi Venkatesan, an 11-year-(and nine-month)-old boy from Chennai. Like many children’s books, it is about the protagonist’s exasperation with society’s expectations of children, how they act as barriers to his desires, and how he overcomes them.

Through the summer, Ravi meets a pretty girl, a cowardly sidekick, cool kids from the slums, and an even cooler grandfather, none of whom is particularly well-developed beyond the stock character profile. There is also a mix of slang and more advanced language that I initially found grating but later made my peace with, feeling that a precocious 11-year-old would speak and write with such a mix.

As a diary, Flat-Track Bullies is enjoyable; but as an account of Ravi’s battles with societal norms, it’s not polished enough. This is where the comparisons with other children’s books (and even some adult ones!) hurt Flat-Track Bullies the most. The book attacks Chennai’s hypocrisies and superstitions—not only the traditional ones like lady’s finger being good for the memory, but also more modern ones such as the fascination with IIT coaching classes and self-help books. Ravi’s exasperation with everything around him is almost sociopathic, but he does live in a society that is pathological.

This is where the writing compares poorly with other accounts of lovable sociopaths. Richmal Crompton’s William books and Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes could demolish an edifice of snobbery or irrationality with a single well-placed line or panel. Flat-Track Bullies is less scalpel, and more warhammer, and in the sheer joy of a good smashing, Venkataramanan ends up also taking out targets that don’t deserve as much wrath. I found his exasperation with Facebook somewhat Luddite, for example.

But there is one thing that Flat-Track Bullies does very well, and that has nothing to do with children’s literature. It is the best Chennai book I have ever read. Readers of Flat-Track Bullies will finish the book having realized that Chennai is probably the most individual of India’s metropoles, but without ever having had this being tediously explained to them through pandering exposition. Chennai lies in the background, unobtrusive but ever-present in descriptions of suburban railway, food festivals, apartment buildings and the collective neuroses of its inhabitants. It’s remarkable that the most honest portrait of the city was created by someone who was trying to smash its society to bits.

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