Swapna Dutta, Juneli’s First Term (1992, CinnamonTeal Publishing 2014)
Before I was sent off to boarding school when I was 13, I enjoyed the tales of English boarding schools in the Boys Own and (yes, I read them too!) Girls Own annuals that occasionally found their way into our house. They were tales from another era, another planet almost – and I wasn’t surprised when my own boarding school experience had very little of their camaraderie, independence and adventure (though it did have some of the bullying – poor Billy Bunter!).
Similar stories captured the hearts of Swapna Dutta as a Bengali child a decade or so earlier, and of young Juneli, protagonist of this book a decade or so later. If Juneli’s First Term and its popularity with Indian children when first published are any evidence, the romance of those British stories (the Chalet School series is the name here that rings a bell) were closer to the experience Indian girls sent to missionary schools than they were for a North Queensland boy sent to a Brisbane Christian Brothers school.
Juneli lives in a remote place with only her widowed father and the servants for company. She is happy enough, but when she discovers her mother’s trove of boarding-school story books she yearns for the life she reads about there, for companionship and adventures with children her own age, and to learn from teachers other than her father. At the urging of his long-absent sister, Juneli’s loving father sends her to a boarding school, and it turns out to be just as wonderful as she had hoped, with samosas instead of cream buns and illicit play with colours on the festival of Holi instead of midnight feasts.
There is unpleasantness of course: a snobbish girl and her hangers-on make trouble, a cooking class goes seriously wrong, an innocent joke about a flamboyant male teacher brings shame on Juneli. These episodes ring true, but so does the overarching benignness of school life.
The book is illustrated by the author’s daughter Sawan Dutta. She did the illustrations for the original publication when she was barely out of school. For that edition, her cover image wasn’t used, but it graces this e-book, and it’s hard to see why it wasn’t used the first time.
I guess any boarding school book without magic and a cosmic villain who must not be named will seem pallid in this post-Potter days, but what this book lacks in spells and sorcery it makes up for in warmth and quiet celebration of ordinary things – with two added bonuses: for Indian readers as I imagine, the chance to see their own reality mirrored in the genre, and for westerners, a gentle example of the colonised speaking back.
You can buy the book from Dogears etc. for 99 rupees, which is about $1.75 Australian. I don’t know if there are any plans to bring out ebooks of the rest of the Juneli series.
I should mention that Swapna is a friend of mine, and that my copy of the book is a gift from her.