Handy Handbook

Although the jacket of this book is old-fashioned — apart from featuring a bunch of young people who are clearly not of any-part-of-India origin — the title makes it clear that it is as much a book for teens as for anybody who has anything to do with teens. When we speak of toddlers, we refer to the ‘terrible twos’; a similar appellation could apply to teenage. Well, here at last is a book that could help all concerned negotiate these crucial years in an individual’s life. Not just that, in light of the low levels of general and practical literacy prevailing among young and old in India, and the many worrying blank spaces as regards sex education and information, I’d say here at last is a compassionately written, sensible handbook for people of all ages.

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The author, Gratian Vas, dives directly into the deep end by first talking about the changes in physiognomy as a girl and boy grow. This crucial and useful information is conveyed simply and directly, and supported with diagrams. The reader gets to understand phenomena such as hormones, changes in the body, the menstrual period, erection and ejaculation, masturbation, and so on, things that few parents and fewer teachers possess the poise or the maturity to explain to their wards. Take body odour, for instance. How many times have you been in an office space and been literally knocked off your chair by a colleague’s body odour? This book, by talking about things like this and the need for proper and consistent hygienic practices, offers life lessons.

Clearly the author has experience of young people. That’s what gives this book an easy, friendly tone even though it is entirely information-oriented. Eating well, eating healthy, keeping fit, recognising your emotions, dealing with shyness and loneliness, stress, depression, looks and self-esteem, suicidal thoughts, conflicts with adults, sibling rivalry, peer pressure, bullying, violence, addiction and abuse, friends, physical attraction, love, sexually transmitted diseases, addictions, same sex relationships… all these issues are dealt with clearly, objectively and, most importantly, without any judgment being passed. This is the biggest plus of this extremely perceptive and useful book.

Take bullying, for instance. There’s physical, verbal, social and cyber bullying. The author discusses where and when bullying happens and what makes someone a bully. It could have something to do with a fascination with power, violence and the desire to win, or with disappointments, hurt and anger, or with lack of attention, poor upbringing, and constant exposure to violence (just think how many times you’ve seen little children in cinema theatres being exposed to larger-than-life scenes of violence on 70mm screens). Some ways to stand up to bullies, says Vas, are by not listening to what the bully is saying, not acting weak or scared, learning to throw a punch, not being alone, not reacting to provocation, ignoring online bullies, and sharing the experience with someone you trust. All perfectly reasonable and workable solutions.

The chapter on same sex relationships offers useful information regarding sexual orientation. Although it is far too brief, in the context of a society that is hugely homophobic, even this meagre information should help readers broaden their minds and learn to be more inclusive. It will hopefully help them understand the Supreme Court’s recent historic ruling that adult gay sex is not a crime and that sexual orientation is natural.

The lacuna in the book comes from the impression it gives that a lot of information is based on studies and research done abroad, particularly in the West. References to studies and cultural experiences specific to different parts of India would definitely have contributed more to this book. And again, this book definitely needs to be packaged in a more contemporary fashion. But if you’re willing not to judge a book by its cover, then age is no bar to consulting it.

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