When you think of a book or movie that revolves around childhood, the themes that come to mind usually involve coming of age, rebellion, or adventure. But Rajil, the central character of Manav Kaul’s Hindi novel Ka Teesra Button Shirtfinds itself singularly ineffective in doing any of the three.
A shy schoolboy, Rajil is an unlikely protagonist and he is painfully aware of it. At some point, when he starts reading a novel, he wonders which character he most resembles. And as he watches the people of the village market pass by, a realization comes to his mind – he is the outcast sitting unnoticed in a corner. It is the character on which the author would have forgotten to write.
In recent years, Kaul has achieved widespread fame as an actor, but his avatar as an author has been equally remarkable. His extensive literary output includes plays, novels, and a collection of poetry.
In an interview with the Hindustan time, Kaul quoted a wide range of authors as sources of inspiration – from Vinod Kumar Shukla and Rabindranath Tagore to Anton Chekhov and Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Indeed, the profound influence that Russian authors had on his writing can be seen in many places in the novel. In a tip of the hat to 19th century Russian literature, Kaul repeatedly mentions Rodion Raskolnikov, the protagonist of Dostoyevsky’s novel. Crime and Punishmentwhen he seeks to give voice to the inner turmoil of his characters.
One village, many worlds
Teesra Button Shirt paints a vivid picture of a seemingly quaint village and the multitude of not-so-quaint stories nestled within it. An important story arc is that of Armaan, better known as Choti, who is Rajil’s close friend. Choti’s friends initially envy her for her affable nature and for her many female fans in the class. But it turns out that the four walls of his house hide a history of abuse and impunity.
The novel, through its characters, also highlights the many social mores and taboos of village life, where everyone knows each other and intimacy is an extremely rare commodity. For example, social norms dictate that Rajil’s mother, Asha, is content to take care of her family and have no other dreams or desires. But she defies convention in more ways than one by engaging in a clandestine affair with a middle-aged Muslim man.
If middle-aged clandestine affairs are taboo, so are school romances. Kaul skillfully depicts friendships and childhood love, with all their uncertainties and explorations. Although the exact time period of the novel is unclear, the story takes place in a setting where social media and smartphones had yet to appear. Thus, the air of sepia-toned innocence in the depiction of school life becomes all the more believable.
Facts and fantasies
The tone of Kaul’s writing is at times realistic and grounded, while at other times it swings seamlessly into surrealism. From time to time, the story takes the reader on Rajil’s fanciful flights, before returning to bleak reality. And so, sometimes a character crouches in their yard and picks up gold from the ground, while other times bored children struggle to memorize “thoughts for the day” to repeat over and over again. school assembly.
Rajil repeatedly tries to capture his coming of age moment and make his voice count. But the few times the world listens to him, his attempt at revolt only makes things worse. Thus, each time the schoolboy finds himself faced with a crisis, he can only stare at the third button of his shirt and hope that the crisis will pass. In many ways, the novel is about how the “third button” looks at him as well.
Ka Teesra Button Shirt, Manval Kaul, Hind Yugm.