Unanswered questions
Amarinder Sandhu

Letters for Paul
Anu Kumar. Mapin. Pages 202. Rs 295.

Letters for PaulADITI, the protagonist, is a school-going teenager whose police officer father is transferred to Cuttack. As she adjusts to the relocation, an acid-throwing incident happens not far from the Circuit House where the family stays. The attack victim happens to be the granddaughter of an author who "wrote several novels glorifying the heroes of the Naxalite movement".

The writer is quick and observant, as she gives details of the events that follow the acid-throwing incident. The victim is taken to a hospital and then follows the normal pandemonium and drama. She is heavily guarded in the hospital and the police is deployed outside all the educational institutions for girls. Ample media coverage is given to the incident and the arrest of the suspect, a local college student, is followed by protests against the police high handedness.

Anu Kumar has an eye for details, as she describes the chain of events turning into a political drama and the students’ protest spilling out on the streets. She also captures well the colours and smells of Cuttack.

The writer offers the reader a peep into the problems and privileges that are a part of a police official’s life. These vary from sudden transfers and the family being accommodated in a cramped Circuit House till a retired senior officer vacates the house to veiled threats from the local godfather. These may also include a visit to the temple where puja is arranged specifically for very important people, with separate queues and no entrance fee.

The protaganist writes unanswered letters to her friend, Paul. She puts her heart and soul into these letters and dons a mask of bravery as she pens these. Aditi is on the threshold of being a lady and needs answers to the physical changes she has been undergoing. The book highlights the callous attitude of her mother, who explains nothing and is rather stoic in rearing a daughter.

The story is sensitive and the characters have been well described. The reader is introduced to the unknown Ratri, who is often referred to as "she"; the endearing Thamma; insufferable Miss Muller; and Aditi’s teacher, who calls her Oddity. Miss Muller is a teacher who practices favouritism, gossips and ridicules her students, indeed a spiteful individual. There is Mehta uncle, the DIG, a "Kabab Mein Haddi", who cannot keep his hands to himself, as he fondles the young protagonist.

The writer has a good sense of humour, as she catches the lingo of the constables with their pronunciation of English words: She describes the character Mohanty as a political bucket maker.

As the family moves into the official house, the story gains momentum. The house seems to have a life of its own. The Chatterjee’s appear like the family next door, that conducts a puja to get the house rid of evil influences. The protagonist seeks answers to many questions and makes imaginary friends with the dolls left in the cupboard of the vacated house.

Young Aditi’s experiences in school seem authentic. The novel is full of surprises and has an unexpected end. This is a well-written and readable book.