Is there a secret in this diary?

This review was originally done for the Goodbooks site It can also be viewed at

“Mostly Madly Mayil”

Authors: Niveditha Subramaniam and Sowmya Rajendran.

Illustrator: Niveditha Subramaniam.

Publisher: Tulika. 2013. Pages 139.

Price: Rs. 175.00

Target Age Group: 11+

For pre-teens and teenagers, having an outlet to express their own feelings and their commentaries on the people around them seems to give them a strange sense of liberation. When Anne Frank decided to give her diary a name, she opened the window to generations of young people who saw their diary outpourings as intimate conversations with a dear friend. For readers too, there is a curious thrill to be privy to another person’s secrets through her daily entries.

In this second book of Mayil, she is 13 going on 14. Like any teenager, Mayil’s world revolves around herself, her friends, her school encounters and her family, in that order! But even though the diary as a format seems to ‘tell all’, in her first entry, Mayil gives us a hint while talking about her previous year’s diary, ” ….. I wrote so much and left out even more.”  So for the reader, there is a challenge. You will know a lot about Mayil but perhaps you will never know all!

When Anne Frank wrote her diary, it was against the background of the holocaust. There was danger and certain death lurking in the shadows beyond the small office space where the family hid. There was also the angst of growing up, and feelings and emotions that any teenager would experience. Above all, it was a true story. So how can Mayil’s diary expect to hold the readers’ attention through 365 days of so-called trivia? ” it is 3 p.m. now. Ma and Pa are sleeping. I can hear Thatha humming in his room. Thamarai is out somewhere playing with his friends.” Do we need to know all this? Yes, because when reading a diary we have to rely on a single voice to tell us who the other characters are. So this seemingly banal entry sets the scene for us to know who is who. Friends are identified by initials or nicknames, Ki, VS and so on. Like any other teenager Mayil is greatly excited about two new students coming in to their class, about present classmates getting shifted to another section, a change of teachers, a friend revealing the identity of a boyfriend…in short all the regular school stuff that occupies the minds of teenagers. But then suddenly there is a portent of what is to come. Ki calls to ask her whether Mayil has ever been on a crowded bus and has she been hurt? Mayil is baffled but not for long, unfortunately. On her way back from Pandian Stores one day, she has a creepy encounter with a ‘flasher’ and is confused, disgusted and actually nauseous. Who should she tell? “I don’t know if I should be writing this. If Ma somehow reads this, she ‘ll be mad I didn’t tell her. I don’t feel like telling her. But I feel I’ll burst if I don’t tell someone. So I’m telling you, diary……What if Ma never lets me go anywhere by myself?”

Mayil’s diary takes us through her own crushes, strong likes and dislikes, her observations of close family relationships and her own take on it all. “Now Pa and Ma are not talking to each other. This is really tiring because they’ll use Thamarai and me as messengers. And they’ll not even look at each other…..I wish they’d stop being babies.”

The issues that Mayil takes up in her diary could be seen as girl-oriented, but actually the references to a boy’s perspective are there for reading between the lines, whether it is VS who is obviously  (though not so obvious to Mayil) attracted to her or Thamarai with his preoccupations, or even adults who are seen by Mayil with their defences down. “ Sneh Uncle(an old flame of Mayil’s mother) stayed for dinner yesterday. Pa was laughing loudly at everything he said and being fake. It was awful.”

The diary is layered in its content and theme. At one level it is the daily record of the doings of a teenage girl. Wearing a new dress, helping her mother bake a cake, getting onto Facebook, doing homework, having exams…But through these accounts, even though they are fleeting, the larger picture emerges of what it means to be a girl. The Pati’s disappointment at Mayil’s birth, her dark skin, the subtle nuances of being a girl child, the navigation through looming dangers for a girl without making her afraid and subservient, all this and more is adequately touched upon in the book. The authors’ little note at the back of the book is revealing. It says they are inspired by all the things that happened and didn’t happen to them. Not all the things Mayil experiences may happen to every reader, boy or girl, but it is their right to know about them. This humorous but very realistic perspective makes that process more accessible.

A vulnerable moment for Mayil is when she succumbs to the temptation of reading her brother Tamaril’s diary. There is nothing shocking or revealing in the entries and yet it is as if she has transgressed some boundaries. “ This was wrong. What I did…..I just feel mean and I feel like Thamarai didn’t even think I would read his diary.”

The style and language are casual and unforced, but the book does not mince words while dealing with issues like sexual abuse or about sexual urges in teenagers so it is important that the book is read by teenagers who can recognise these emotions and feelings. A younger child stumbling on it might just be confused or titillated. What would be best is if after a group of youngsters reads it, the librarian or teacher opens up a dialogue about it. But the adult must know the art of  communication with young people, and tread gently. Not like Pa who wants Mayil to open up with no preamble or chat first! Conversely a parent might read it and open up his or her genuine questions with he young person. An older sibling could find that such a book makes it easier to bring up some topics with a teenager. The right ambience is the critical factor. As Shakespeare says, “….the readiness is all.”

In conclusion, as a librarian, I have found that when adolescents read books like “The Diary of Anne Frank” or “The catcher in the rye,” there is a great deal that opens up for them that can never be accomplished by sex education sessions or by handing out teenage sex manuals. The communication and chat that goes with reading such ‘coming of age’ books are crucial.

“ I’m really happy when I write. I hope I never grow out of it.” Mayil.

Usha Mukunda.      April 8th 2014.

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