Chintan Girish Modi
Vibha Batra’s book, Gobi Goes Viral, is a must-read for teachers of the English language. This thoughtful and engaging work of fiction examines the bullying and humiliation faced by students who do not speak the language as flawlessly as they are expected to. Their struggle to match up to inflexible standards of pronunciation – rooted in colonialism and class – becomes their whole identity. They do not get a chance to be seen for the gifts they have.
The protagonist of this book is Gopi, a nine-year-old who goes to a school called Primrose Academy. He is a budding rapper but none of his peers or teachers know about his talent. Students like Aarav, Himesh, and Imtiaz taunt him for the manner in which he speaks English. It is different from others. Gopi is acutely aware of this. He tries hard to say ‘busy’ instead of ‘bijy’, ‘zip’ instead of ‘jip’, and ‘traffic jam’ instead of ‘traffic jaam’ but fails miserably. The students imitate and belittle him frequently. This has an adverse impact on his self-esteem.
Unfortunately, the book does not dig into the reasons behind why some children at Primrose Academy have turned into bullies. Words like “supervillain”, “henchman” and “sidekick” are used to make the readers despise these characters. There is no depth to them. They come across as types rather than people, and get no opportunity to mend their ways.
The author paints a detailed picture of the socio-economic background that Gopi comes from to help readers understand that his language proficiency is not something to be made fun of. His father is a vegetable vendor and his mother works in a tailoring unit. They work hard to send Gopi to Primrose Academy. Because of the Right to Education Act, they do not have to pay the tuition fees but there are a number of other expenses towards textbooks, workbooks, practice books, different uniforms, meals at the canteen, and costumes for school plays.
Gopi lives with his parents, grandparents, and younger brother Dhiru, in a chawl. Their kholi is one little room, divided into three little sections: bedroom, kitchen, and living room. The walls are crumbly. They get running water for an hour, twice a day. It needs to be stored in a drum for cooking, washing, and cleaning. Their roof is leaky. The fact that Gopi is able to study at Primrose Academy might seem like a sheer miracle given their means but the truth is that they are determined to give him a comfortable life – a life better than they have lived.
While nobody at school knows how good he is as a rap artist, his family takes pride in this talent. They argue with each other about how he came to be so talented. His grandfather says, “The boy takes after my father. He was the singing sensation of the village.” His grandmother says, “My mother was the one who would compose bhajans.” Not one to be left behind, Gopi’s mother reminds them that she used to sing to him everyday when she was pregnant.
She is aghast to learn that Gopi’s fancy new school shames children for delayed payment of fees in front of their classmates. She thinks that it might be a good idea to send Gopi back to his old “corporation school” but her husband insists, “Nothing can match a good education”.
At the previous school, classes were cancelled for months at a stretch. As a result, Gopi and his classmates could not read fluently. When classes were held, students were asked to learn by rote. They reproduced information without understanding anything. When teachers fell ill, the school could not find any substitute teachers to ensure that students continued to study. The author writes, “It was cramped and crowded, and there was no playground, no toilets. The mid-day meals were tasty and filling (and best of all, free). But if he had to use the washroom, he had to return all the way home.” The chawl has common washrooms on each floor. Primrose Academy does not have all these problems, so Gopi does not want to leave it.
The author gives readers a glimpse of the dreams that so many parents in India have for their children and the lengths they go to in order to ensure that their children have a bright future. In addition to the expenses on Gopi’s education, they have to pay rent for the kholi they live in and for the vegetable stall where his father works. They have to spend on medicines for his grandparents and earmark some money for the monthly ration. The family is neck-deep in debt. Gopi’s mother has run out of gold jewellery to pawn in exchange for loans. Her boss – a kind woman – pays her salary in advance at times, but this is not a sustainable solution.
Gopi is portrayed as a grateful and sensitive child. He does not want to add to his parents’ woes, so he does not open his mouth about the fact that he has no friends at the new school and that his classmates make it difficult for him to be at ease and enjoy the new environment.
Thankfully, good news comes in the form of Pari – a classmate who overhears him rapping when he is alone. She is quite impressed with his hidden talent and his desire to stand up to the bullies. Pari’s family is financially well-off. Her carpark is bigger than Gopi’s house. When Gopi visits, he is astounded to see that it is absolutely free of dirt and cobwebs.
Pari does not rub her wealth in Gopi’s face. She does not laugh at his pronunciation. She does not brag about her toys and possessions. When Gopi asks her about her parents, she tells him that they are on a holiday and that she decided to stay home because they tend to be glued to their phones. “They go all the way to Europe to do that. Imagine,” says Pari. Through a quick comparison between their houses, and the use of such funny one-liners, the author establishes that they can be friends despite the vast difference in their social status.
The author skilfully shows how sometimes good intentions are not enough to help. Pari invites Gopi to her house so that they can research how to get rich quick on her laptop. Because she has not seen a life of deprivation, she does not know how hard it is to earn. The conversation between Pari and Gopi is hilarious. The author is excellent with writing humour.
Gopi points out that a bank robbery, gambling, and smuggling – options on the laptop screen – are not feasible. “Er, I want to stay in school, not in jail,” he says. Pari alters the search query and looks for ways to get rich quick the right way. When she tells Gopi that his family could stop eating out, he replies, “Stop? We never started.” When Google tells her, “Sell things you no longer need,” she passes on the suggestion to Gopi. He is startled to hear this because Pari clearly seems to have no clue about his life. He says, “Done. Even sold things we needed.”
One of the most delightful scenes in the book is where Pari takes Gopi to an open-mic outside a burger joint. The bouncer asks them to show their identity cards because only people who are 18 and above are allowed to enter. Pari, who is clever, anticipates such a scenario. She pulls fake identity cards out of her backpack. It is not difficult for the bouncer to see through this charade. The cards claim that one of them is 18 and the other 19. The photographs are real but the names and birthdays are fake. It is not clear whether the bouncer is a Harry Potter fan but it is heartwarming to think how earnestly Pari and Gopi must have worked on their craft project. The names on the cards are Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger, both of whom are characters that appear in the Harry Potter series of fantasy novels written by J K Rowling.
If this deep dive into the book has piqued your interest, get yourself a copy and find out why Pari rarely takes off her glasses, how Gopi takes care of his school fees, and many other details that have been left out of this review so that you have some surprises to relish. It would make an excellent addition to school libraries, and offer both children and adults a chance to reflect on how they treat people whose English is a bit different from their own.
The author is a Mumbai-based book reviewer who used to work as a school teacher in the not-so-distant past. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.