We know how rife India is with study pressure and competition. Dhanya has low marks in school. Her teacher says she needs to ‘work harder’. In other words, she’s ‘too stupid to compete’. Dhanya protests against this assessment. She says school is useless, so she doesn’t try. It’s a lie to say that she’s not capable.
In “The ‘Stupid’ Child’s First Rank Effort” by Kunal Roy, the narrative unfolds with the protagonist (Dhanya) struggling academically. She is annoyed when the teachers tell her to work harder because she believes she is not stupid. She just does not care about the school curriculum as it is “not practical”, particularly subjects like Maths and Science (which, in my opinion, are the most practical ones).
The theme of the story is a powerful one, and it did raise my expectations. As someone who has faced competition throughout her school life, I dived in wanting to learn how one can tackle the “competition” or just root for Dhanya as she found her way to success.
The author’s attempt to compare education with learning magical mantras falls short as the narrative fails to demonstrate the value of the learned skills. The irony deepens on page 49 when the new school is described as “a place for facing the real world.” Creating storms and battling elemental forces with mantras may be fantastical but lacks real-world applicability.
While calling it out in the old school, the story justifies rote learning in the new school, as the mantras are a collection of non-sensical phrases. While Dhanya uses her intellect to grasp the etymology, the narrative struggles to wholly justify the shift in the results. Dhanya’s choices, at best, can be called a child’s tantrums. How they would work hard for something they like, but won’t give any amount of effort for something they don’t like.
The writing style raises some concerns. Unlike typical fantasy stories, the inciting action — Dhanya’s decision to move to a new school — lacks a strong motivation or conflict. The story heavily relies on telling rather than showing, which takes away the fun of being involved in the world-building. Dialogues lack smoothness and fail to capture a conversational tone, making it challenging for readers to engage with the characters and the plot. I like the gradual development of the plot and the introduction of the mystery character, but the story is not able to provide clarity about its role.
The thing that I found unnecessary was the sexually suggestive scenes. It is the story of a 14-year-old girl (initially marked for an audience of 10+, which has now been removed after I raised the issue with the publisher). Extracts like: “Come sit on my lap…. A button popped off. Not from Kyle’s shirt had it hailed…. Somewhat hastily Kyle untucked his uppers. He spread them over his swelled—well—lowers,” showcase what I am trying to say. Although not quite explicit, the scenes subtly point at sexual intentions, which I find inappropriate for the protagonist’s age. Most importantly, these scenes don’t add any value to the characters or the story. They are introduced and brushed off.
The cover and title of the book adequately convey the theme of the story, reflecting the protagonist’s rebellion against traditional education.
I appreciate the author’s efforts to talk about hard work, understanding over learning, respecting animals, and that respect is given and taken.
While the book presents a well-intended message about a child’s excuses and interests, the execution leaves much to be desired. The book requires significant improvement in maintaining an appropriate tone, elevating the stakes for the main character, and refining the narration.
Ultimately, I would like to say that no matter how competitive, education is important for us. And, it’s alright if you are not getting the first rank as long as you are learning something. You need to learn because your education and knowledge, not your rank, will define your future. There is no excuse for dropping education, no matter how good you are at any other aspect of life.
I didn’t enjoy the book as much as I wished I would, but it might be for someone else out there.