School stories have always had a special place in the hearts of young readers as is evident in the continuing popularity of series like St. Clare’s and Malory Towers by Enid Blyton. Perhaps part of the appeal of these novels lies in the fact that school, especially boarding school, provides a context for placing an unusual amount of agency in the hands of the young protagonists. Though surrounded by figures of authority and constrained by rules, which they often proceed to flout, the youngsters often arrive at solutions to the problems they encounter. These books depict, at one level, a process of maturity, of growing up and learning to deal with emotional and social complications and with the complexity of human relationships, all of it leavened with the joys of friendship, school activities and midnight feasts!
The Hill School Girls series follows this tradition but within an Indian context. Beginning with the first book Alone, which introduces the reader to the new avatar of the Hill School in Lailapaani with its greater emphasis on cooperation, empathy and holistic learning, the books follow the lives of Elizabeth, Ayesha, Maitreyi and Mahrukh, all students of Class VII, along with a supporting cast of adults and schoolmates. Each book is written in the first person and focuses on one protagonist at a time but it also traces the gradual fading away of the girls’ reservations about each other as they learn to accept the quirks of each individual’s character and meld into a group of friends.
The narrator of Alone is Elizabeth, who is a day scholar and lives in town with her parents. As the book progresses we are introduced to the other members of the quartet, who are initially forced to spend time together only because they are collaborating on a school project. Apart from the meticulous, book loving Elizabeth, there is Ayesha, who seems to carry a chip on her shoulder and is really touchy and secretive about the reason she left her earlier school. The third member of the group is Maitreyi who carries the ‘awful burden’ as she calls it, of being the daughter not only of a teacher, but one who is also a dorm mistress. And lastly there is the enigmatic, outspoken, sports and math loving Mahrukh. The first book takes up the mystery of a missing notebook which is rather precious as it belonged to the founder of the school Madhavi Sultania, and had been kept in the library for safekeeping. Along the way the girls learn that appearances are often deceptive even as they deal with new teachers, companions and a radically different system of education.
Secrets is about Ayesha and her secret which she ultimately reveals to her friends learning in the process that something which has been a disadvantage always has the potential to become a gift if used correctly. It is interesting how the author manages to touch upon something as complex as the often-fraught relationship between a teenager and her parents and something as contemporary as the perils of the indiscriminate use of social media without actually lapsing into boring homilies or losing the interest of the reader. The girls’ sense of humour often rescues the book and its plot from ennui.
Strangers has Maitreyi as its narrator and as the story unfolds the girls learn about the pleasure and satisfaction of doing something for others. They also learn to explore their own strengths and, in a tongue-in-cheek nod to Enid Blyton fans, that midnight feasts are not always as much fun as they are supposed to be! Parents also have their redeeming moments and startle their children by being heartwarmingly and surprisingly intuitive at times. Just when it seems that the author is introducing too many coming of age concerns in these slender books, she rescues the narrative from becoming too preachy as the girls revert to their alternately sulky, preachy, quirky, imperfect, and fun-loving selves. The novels retain the interest of the reader not merely because of the plot but because the girls are very real, not perfect but good, and their adventures and experiences are those to which children can relate. The books are about growing up and realizing that there are ‘many different kinds of courage’ and that everyone has the potential to change and grow. A Coven manages to gradually bring the school, its teachers, and the students to life and by the third book the reader is actually drawn into the world of the school.
Ranjana Kaul is an academic who teaches English, loves to translate and review books.