Problem Child


Anamika Sharma is confused. The eponymous heroine of Abha Dawesar’s Babyji, she bears the weight of a 16-year-old girl’s world, her attention divided between the contradictory responsibilities of her caste, education, and gender. She retreats into her nascent sexuality, savoring it when only one woman at a time asks for anything, marveling at the fact that she herself is free to make demands. One would-be paramour, a beguiled father figure, conspicuously grants her a copy of Lolita, a knowing nod to Anamika’s similarities to Nabokov’s nymphet—if not his baffling Humbert.

Anamika gathers names to herself, hoping that each new one will provide a clear course of action. At home, servant—and lover—Rani addresses her as “Babyji” (the -ji suffix indicates deference to their class division, an ironic pairing with the diminutive “Baby”). At school, she is Head Prefect, a first-among-equals designation affording her the respect of her classmates without the authority of her teachers. Even in her blossoming sexual life, where her self-appointed role seems most assured, there is ambiguity. Arriving at the home of the older divorcée—and lover—whom she calls “India,” Anamika is greeted by India’s five-year-old son. The boy lets her in, recognizing the increasingly frequent visitor as “the Bhaiyya who was a Didi” (“the boy who was a girl”). Anamika is nonplussed: If she’s not a Bhaiyya, and if her classmate—and lover!—Sheela is right in saying that “women can’t be gay,” then what is she?

Anamika’s best friend, Vidur, is blissfully overbored and self-assured, condensing life’s worthwhiles into a short list: “Food, sleep, sex, and mathematics.” But Anamika is necessarily more succinct, at least ideologically: “I thought of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. Just as one could never be certain of one’s exact position given one’s momentum at any instant, I could never be certain of the exact consequences given the impulses of my heart at any instant.” There’s something endearing—even persuasive—about her logic, willfully myopic in its survivalist’s simplicity.

While the novel patiently filters these forces jockeying for prominence, Anamika decides that the only name that matters is her own. She comes to admire the class cheapad (scumbag), Chakra Dev, for his anarchic self-reliance, if not for the fact that he needs to shave every day. After one particularly offensive act of uncivil disobedience (desktop, condom), Chakra finds himself, naturally, in the principal’s office. Anamika, less naturally, defends him. His thuggery, she believes, is an affected response to the expectations of his lower caste position. She identifies with him not because of the way he acts, but because he’s compelled to act that way: It’s what’s expected of him. “His problem is himself,” decrees the “princi.” Anamika responds, half asking, half answering, “Isn’t that everyone’s problem?”

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