Ela: The Girl Who Entered the Unknown
by Sampurna Chattarji
(Scholastic India, 2013)
Dreams, imagination and reality all merge in novelist, poet and translator Sampurna Chattarji’s superb first book for young adults, gothic novel Ela: The Girl Who Entered the Unknown. Ela’s world spirals away from her on what she has been looking forward to as the happiest day of her life: her thirteenth birthday. During her party, the bombshell is dropped that she is adopted. All her certainties fall away as she contends with what she perceives as her parents’ deceit and the taboos of her immediate social circle. Her normal, teenage question, ‘Who am I?’ is now further complicated by issues of where and how she fits into her social sphere, because this is India, where identity is more often than not wrapped up in the inflexibilities of the caste system. Whilst Ela takes its readers far beyond the socio-political critiquing that this seems to imply, this is a powerful dimension of the story, as Ela deals with the consequences of both liberal and conservative attitudes: indeed, by adopting her in the first place, Ela’s parents have put their principles into practice and have also had to deal with the heartbreak of a rift with other members of their immediate family (let alone, now, with the breakdown of their relationship with their beloved, precious daughter Ela).
Standing back and trying to assess what happens to Ela, we would probably describe it as a breakdown; the power of Sampurna Chattarji’s writing is that she takes readers right inside it all so that it is impossible to make such an objective, clinical observation. For alongside the hospitalisation, eating disorder and terrible scratching against a psychosomatically induced rash, Ela’s journey takes her and us readers to dark places, where notions of madness and reality are turned inside out.
As Ela retreats inside herself, refusing to speak to her parents, believing herself ostracised by her school friends, she contends with a hypnotic, malignant monster bird whose power over her will eventually lead to her destruction – and only she has the power to vanquish it. Her beloved aunt who takes up residence in Ela’s room and an empty note-book left as a present become her crutches, even if she doesn’t realise it – and all the time, she is travelling through a parallel universe that is narrated via the story/diary she writes in the note-book, beginning: ‘The Girl Who Was Hatched From An Egg’. This story is portentous, unpredictable and riveting. There are moments that suggest echoes of scraps of dialogue that Ela might be party to in the ‘real’ world, further confusing the boundaries between the solid 21st-century world of a bedroom with four walls and a computer, and the constantly changing, unmapped landscape of The Girl’s quest for survival.
This dual narrative of Ela, who does not appear to be capable of looking beyond the prism of her own despair, and of The Girl, who is led by instinctive, gut-responses to the people and magical situations she encounters, engenders a desperation in the reader that keeps the pages turning. We are challenged by notions of identity, metaphor versus reality, sanity and physical survival. By the end, Ela’s world has shifted and we are with her every step of the way as she begins the long haul towards healing and rebuilding relationships – and there is one person whose reality has converged with The Girl’s world in a way that makes his response to her, Ela, absolutely vital.
Anyone who revels in the Gothic will love Ela, but its broader appeal lies in the fact that it is also a beautifully written book (it is no surprise that Chatterji is also a poet), attuned to human emotion and frailties and drawing attention to questions of self-identity made more complex by the layering of adoption and social acceptance/acceptability, not to mention the power of healing that a story can bring.
Read Sampurna’s post ‘In which Ela and her side-kick go places‘ on Scholastic India’s blog – I was privileged enough to hear Sampurna speak at the Asian Festival of Children’s Content last year and I urge you to read the transcript (including an extract from Ela) that she includes in this post.