The idea has suffused all of narrative fiction, especially that for and about the young
It is perhaps the elastic quality time acquires in the summer: days that go on and on, full of possibilities
In most books and movies about youth—extreme, vulnerable, hesitant, very new youth—boys and girls always come of age over summer. When this happens, time takes deep breaths. The pace of the narrative becomes slow, unhurried, languorous—words that skip easily because of the many, many times we have heard them in this context, in reviews and recaps, and in people talking about their favourite summer books and movies and experiences with sparkling eyes and a glow of remembrance.
During just such a summer years ago, I picked up a copy of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita at my aunt’s house in Ranchi. I read it feverishly, lying on the red-oxide floor of their drawing room, over a few mildly hot summer afternoons—back then, Ranchi was blessed with a capricious, mellow summer, unlike the rest of the blistering Chhota Nagpur plateau. Lolita was a revelation to me. I had barely read anything more risqué than Erich Segal, and the hurried, anxiety-inducing reading experience was due to the certain knowledge that I would not be allowed to read the book if the adults, who were dozing in other rooms, found me with it.
I vividly remember the cover of the book: a precocious red-lipped “Lolita" looking at you over heart-shaped sunglasses, sucking on a lollipop—a twisted interpretation of the text, as we recognize today. “The sexualised vision of Lolita perpetuated by popular culture has very little to do with the text of Nabokov’s novel, in which Lolita is not a teen-aged seductress but a sexually abused twelve-year-old girl," wrote Rachel Arons in a July 2013 piece in The New Yorker about the misrepresentation of the character in popular culture.
Yet, to a 14-year-old as yet unaware of these nuances, that girl on the cover spelt glamour and mystique and a certain American sophistication. The image has always conjured up summer and growing up for me, but today it is tinged with darkness and the knowledge that over that year, after she was fetched from summer camp by Humbert Humbert, Dolores/Lolita grew up the way no 12-year-old should have to.
A few years later, over just such a summer, I read Stephen King’s It. Most of the slow-building tension in the book occurs over a summer in small-town Derry, Maine, where a cycle of evil repeats itself every 26-27 years, unexplained horrors visiting the community and leaving death and destruction in their wake, until a group of teenagers confront and almost vanquish the evil. It is a most unusual coming-of-age story, yet the familiar tropes are all there: Something cataclysmic brings a rag-tag bunch of boys and girls together as they fight monsters both within and without, and lose their innocence (in this book, in a spectacularly controversial way). Perhaps it’s familiar to us today because King practically birthed and nurtured this trope—of summer being a time not just of self-discovery but also of something darker coming to the surface, of tensions gathering and nerves stretching till something has to give.
“One summer can change everything," scream the distinctive red neon light graphics of Stranger Things—a formidable heir to King’s It. When you google the phrase, all the references across several pages of search results are related to Stranger Things itself, which is surprising because the idea it embodies is such a familiar one, especially in the Western cultural universe—or maybe not, given that the show is such a media darling. Coming of age and summer—the combo pack that is as old as the Greek myths—never really gets old despite retellings in every age and culture. I recently read Circe, Madeline Miller’s beautiful retelling of the Greek myth about the witch-goddess, and, sure enough, Circe’s 16-year-old son Telegonus starts getting restive over a summer and sets out to seek his father, the always-restless Odysseus.
It is perhaps the elastic quality time acquires in the summer: days that go on and on, the sun setting later and later with every passing day, full of endless possibilities. In the Western narrative, winter is a time of burrowing and nesting, while summer is a time of adventure. The idea has found a place in all literature, indeed all fiction: of summer as a time of transformation, finding one’s identity and voice.
In recent years, no film has captured this as lovingly as 2017’s Call Me By Your Name. Would Oliver and Elio have come together in the summer of 1983 if it weren’t for those long bicycle rides, unhurried walks and moody swims?
Of all the Indian writers I have read, Satyajit Ray, who wrote prolifically for and about children, really understood what summer meant to young minds hedged in by school-homework-porte bosho (sit down to study). His short stories show how deeply he understood the adolescent mind—and I am not even including Feluda, where most of the adventures take place conveniently over the summer and Durga Puja holidays so that the dashing detective’s school-going cousin and narrator, Topshe, can participate.
In Sadanander Khude Jogot (Sadanand’s Little World), a young boy is mesmerized by the world of ants and spends hours observing them and inventing stories about them; in Onko Sir, Golapibabu O Tipu (The Maths Teacher, The Pink Man And Tipu), a similarly imaginative boy is obsessed with mythological and fantasy stories, which makes him the target of his math teacher. He considers them a bad influence and confiscates Tipu’s books. Ray describes with perfect empathy the agony of a child whose books have been taken away—a not unfamiliar sensation for a bookworm who often had to hide Enid Blytons within textbooks to escape porte-bosho strictures.
In his autobiography Lone Fox Dancing, Ruskin Bond writes lovingly about summers in the hills, especially the summer of 1963, when he returns to Mussoorie and never goes back to the crowded cities he dreads, and writes and writes. “Now the forest begins to pulse with the hypnotic buzzing of the cicadas. Big white ox-eye daisies grow on the hillside. The sorrel—‘Almora grass’—has turned red. I sit in my garden, contemplating my old Olympia typewriter. Still writing stories, still trying to sell them.
“As a boy, loneliness. As a man, solitude.
“The loneliness was not of my seeking. The solitude I sought. And found. I am to spend many summers, monsoons, winters in this cottage. Mornings in the sun. Evenings in the shadows," writes Bond.
Bijal Vachharajani, a children’s book writer and editor with Pratham Books, brings Lone Fox Dancing to my attention. “For me, summer is gulmohar trees that blush crimson and the cassias, a sunny yellow. Seeing my nephew, taking him to the museums and galleries, and for ice cream after," says Vachharajani. A gorgeous Hindi picture book from Pratham called Chhutti, written by Loveleen Mishra and illustrated by Somesh Kumar, pays homage to this idea:
Chhuttiyon mein ras hai/Dusseri aam ka/Kabhi khatam na hoti/Thandi shaam ka (Vacations are filled with/the sweetness of Dusseri mangoes/of never-ending/cool evenings)
When you are young, every change is significant; every little event momentous and memorable. You haven’t lived long enough to gain a sense of perspective and proportion, and a certain resignation towards change. Is that a blessing or a curse? We don’t know; it just is.
“Summer is a time of the most marked changes in childhood. It could be because by the time you come back to school after a long break, you realize that people you were used to viewing one way before you left have suddenly shifted a bit," says author Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan. “Maybe one friend failed a class and had to stay back a year. Maybe someone moved. Maybe someone grew breasts or suddenly grew 5 inches, maybe the people you were used to being friends with decided they would only be friends with each other and leave you out..."
The idea of a summer that changes everything and leads to a reconciliation of identities prompted writer Andaleeb Wajid to write one of her books for young adults, Asmara’s Summer, about a 17-year-old who is waiting eagerly to go with her family to Canada but ends up at her grandparents’ home on Bengaluru’s Tannery Road instead: an area she has always avoided and scorned, one which doesn’t sit well with her identity as a smart college-going girl with modern ambitions. “The things you mentioned—of exploration and change, of coming into one’s own and finding one’s identity—they are all explored in the book," Wajid tells me.
“A summer is transient, and although you may undergo several life-changing moments, there is always the chance to go back to life as it was, post summer. Once summer gets over, it always signals the chance to begin life with a clean slate. At least that’s what I used to think as a child," she adds with a smile.
“Summer is also a symbol of a lost past connected with youth and a carefree life that people look back on nostalgically. Bryan Adams’ Summer Of ’69 has that quality, so does Don Henley’s TheBoys Of Summer. And a song by Abba called Our Last Summer, which I was thinking of recently because I first heard about the Notre-Dame cathedral through it, and when I first visited, the lines In the tourist jam/Round the Notre-Dame kept going round in my head," says columnist and art curator Girish Shahane.
The Notre-Dame features in another famous summer movie, and the scene takes on a special poignancy in the light of recent events: In Richard Linklater’s Before Sunset, as Jesse and Celine wander through Paris on their second momentous, life-altering meeting, they talk about Notre-Dame, with Jesse recounting a sentimental, possibly apocryphal story from World War II about a young German soldier tasked with blowing up the cathedra l who is unable to do it because of its beauty.
“That’s a great story. But you have to think that Notre-Dame will be gone one day," Celine responds.
Just like summer, and youth.
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