How can I be shot in jeans?

Riya Sarin, 18, who likes to stay busy—spending upto four hours a day at jazz, and ballet classes—saves a rare afternoon for friends and her cat Mr Monkey   -  Ramesh Sharma

Amol Rana   -  Paul Noronha

Nimay Sahani   -  Paul Noronha

Àanya Saluja

Aparajitha hopes to go into molecular gastronomy   -  jessu john

Dhruv Saluja, back in the capital after a cruise in the Med, wants to be a neurologist

Sanay Mathur tunes into pilot communication   -  Jessu John

From cruises in the Mediterranean to MDMA cakes, nudies on Snapchat to eavesdropping on pilot chatter... BLink spends time with urban, affluent teenagers, and comes away heartened and afraid

Aanya and Dhruv Saluja, all of 16 and 13, have recently returned from a Mediterranean summer cruise. It was the best vacation of their lives and they can’t stop talking about it. They bring out their father’s computer to show me their pictures — 2,000 of them. “We aren’t allowed to touch it. We will say you asked for it,” they suggest, handing over the laptop with alacrity. Where did you go? “Italy, France, Monte Carlo and South Africa.” South Africa? “Yes,” says Aanya. “Noooo, you idiot. You mean North Africa,” Dhruv reprimands his elder sister as they both break into laughter. Did all your Delhi school friends go on international holidays? “Yes, most did — Europe, America, Australia. One went to Sri Lanka, we all laughed at her.” Why? “That is not international,” says Dhruv. Did you like the holiday? “We looooved it.” Aanya adds, “I didn’t like Monte Carlo, it was too rich.” “It was the best,” says Dhruv, “even the cabs are Ferraris.” “No, it felt like someone from Bihar coming to Delhi,” explains Aanya.

In photo after photo, Aanya — in blue dress, in black dress, in black top and red skirt — stands against blazing sunsets and iconic monuments. She says she never repeats outfits, most of which are bought from Zara, Mango or Forever 21. I am informed that if a girl repeats clothes, people will think she can’t afford new ones. Aanya says, “The day we reached Paris it was cold. My dad told me to put on jeans. I cried. How can I be shot in jeans?” We duly rush through the Eiffel Tower photos and linger on the cruise. The holiday is long over, and now holiday homework looms large. Gone are the days of darting through Europe and basking by the pool. They now plunge into the world of timetables, exams and tuitions.

We have all been teenagers, passed through that essential stage from childhood to adulthood. But the experience of it makes us none the wiser. Teenage, like no other stage of life, is of its own kind and determined most by the here and the now. When our children, nieces, nephews pass through this arena, they seem to be pioneers in a foreign land. A 1965 Time cover story ‘Today’s Teenagers’ described them as “worldly, interesting, informed and even intellectual” — clearly, every generation considers teenagers of its own time with a mix of admiration and discomfort.

Science reminds us that the bedding down of the prefrontal cortex of teenagers might explain their disorganised and irrational behaviour. It might tell us that the underactivity in the right ventral striatum could lead to their risky natures or that their overworked pineal gland is responsible for their late nights and sleep-ins. Thank you New Scientist, but in the messiness of life, this explains little. To spend time with teenagers is to be let in and to be pushed out. One can turn antagonist or confidante with equal haste. They stun you with their innocence and their smarts — they know so little, they know so much. In an attempt to understand them, to peep into their worlds, BL ink spends time with urban, affluent teenagers in Delhi, Bangalore and Mumbai. We come out heartened and afraid.

Eighteen-year-old Riya Sarin is the kind of girl who might be called an ‘old soul’. Mature beyond her years, she divides her time between lectures at St Stephen’s College, dance classes, friends and Mr Monkey, her cat, who nips people he likes. When possible, she spends up to four hours a day at jazz and ballet classes. Does she plan to do this professionally? “No, this isn’t going to lead anywhere,” she says, “I just want to do something with my full energy.” She stays with her parents in south Delhi and commutes by Metro. “I don’t want to move to north campus (where most of Delhi’s colleges are located). It is this one big chilled scene there. People go to parties in their pyjamas. I like being busy.”

If there is one thing that teenagers are, it is busy; they endure incredible pressures — social and academic. Delhi’s Medha Mathur studies in Class X. In her school, classes are divided into four sections. A is for the average student, B for brilliant, C for can do better and D for distracted. Medha — a soft-spoken girl, an active participant in Model United Nations, who is reading I am Malala when we meet — obviously feels the weight of these demands. She returns from school at 2pm, has tuitions from 4 to 6pm every day, on test days she wakes up by 4.30am. Her tuition is not a place of gentle guidance and encouragement. Poor results lead to sit-ups performed in front of the class. “I once got 10/20 on a test. So I had to do 60 sit-ups...” she trails off, the memory and humiliation of it still bruising.

If Aparajitha Sankar, 14, from Bangalore were to meet Medha, they would hit it off instantly, as they share similar interests in books and cooking. Percy Jackson created by Rick Riordan seems to be all the rage for teenagers. Aparajitha is a loyal Percy fan — “the Percy Jackson series has characters I can relate to. It’s about a boy and a girl and their adventures.” Her loyalty to reading leads her naturally to the path of writing. She adds, “When it comes to writing, I don’t like imagining to write. I like seeing to write. So I may sit in front of a river or beach and take a notepad or canvas out.”

Imagination is one thing teenagers have in plenty. Well travelled and worldly, they know of different career options and possibilities. Aparajitha, for instance, wants to go into molecular gastronomy, which she says is “when you use an item of food in a different form but it doesn’t lose its original taste.” Riya wants to be an archaeologist. Dhruv wants to be a neurologist like Derek Shepherd ( Grey’s Anatomy). Sanay Mathur, 18, also called Momo Man, because of his love for momos, is obsessed with planes and is the proud owner of 50-60 model planes. He even skipped school the day US President Obama was to arrive in India in 2010, so he could catch a glimpse of Air Force One in the skies. Sanay says, “I listen to the chatter of pilots. Although it’s illegal in India, I try to eavesdrop on pilots flying into or out of Singapore. I even tune into Australian pilots during the course of their flights… I hear them discuss conditions of flying, the degree the flaps have to be raised and the altitude they are at…”

While teenagers of every generation confound their adults, this generation’s facility with technology — be it homing into pilot exchanges or living in virtual realities — sets them apart. Email is passé. They use it only when they have to — when internships and college admissions demand it. They Skype and WhatsApp with friends, their phones are extensions of their limbs. WhatsApp groups are used to discuss homework, snigger at adult jokes or stare at Sunny Leone’s assets. God of War on PS3 can entertain them for six-seven hours a day. They share passwords with friends. Aanya says, “My boyfriend gets jealous if I talk to others, so he looks at my accounts.”

In their company, we quickly learn of websites and social networks that are alien to us, rookiemag.com (an aldaily.com for youngsters), cracked.com and 9gag.com (which seem to be Buzzfeed on steroids) crop up often in conversations. While Facebook and WhatsApp are commonplace to be de rigueur, you have to be on Snapchat or Ask.fm. Snapchat, I learn, allows you to send photos that dissolve within one to 10 seconds. “This is where girls send nudies to boys,” a 13-year-old boy tells me gleefully. Have you ever received one? “Oh, many times,” he says, “I once got five together.” Sensing my disbelief, he adds, “All girls send naked photos. The boys feel happy. The girls feel happy. Then they break up. The boy passes the photos around and says the girl is such a s**t I never even asked her for it.”

Ask.fm pops up as another trendy social network as it allows questions to be asked under the cloak of anonymity. The questions vary from ‘What bra size are you?’ to ‘How will you turn me on?’ to ‘Do you think X is hot?’ School confessions pages on Facebook caused much furore as they became the perfect venue for online bullying. They were quickly pulled down, but they still exist as stubs and carry venomous posts like “I once pissed on the squash court seats after seven shots of Absolut vodka”, “X, you’re such a d**k, I will buy a gun and shoot you one day” or “Y, you s**t, your mother was a s**t”.

Glimpsing these worlds, you realise that teenagers live in fraught and cruel times. They have always snuck bits and bobs of their lives into closets, away from parental eyes, but the internet provides them with a bubble of anonymity and a freedom that is all too easy to vandalise. This is the first space to get misused and sexualised and the hardest to monitor, as teenagers are often more familiar with this terrain than adults. Photos do get passed on, comments lacerate, reputations are shredded and it is usually the girls who suffer.

The teenagers we met said that bullying existed more in the virtual than in the real world. But ‘wedgies’ seems to be a popular form of hazing. Nikhil, Riya’s friend explains, “Basically, you take someone’s underwear and pull it from the side so it really hurts and the underwear tears... and then you take out the pieces and throw them around.” Those on the basketball team and students council carry extra underwear in their bags as a precaution.

From bullying we move on to talk of ‘relationships’, where it seems like nothing has changed, and at times as if everything has. Texting paves the way for these ‘relationships’, late-night calls cement them and alone time establishes them. In the early teens, boys and girls regard the opposite sex as something distasteful, in the mid-teens mutual interest is kindled and by the late teens you realise boys can be friends and boyfriends. Riya says, “In Class IX, the biggest controversy was if you were seen holding hands. Our batch started dating around then, by Class XI, people were in steady relationships. The longest relationship in our batch lasted six months.”

When it comes to questions of sex, the answers appear convenient rather than accurate. Everyone tells you everyone else is doing it but they aren’t. “At 14-15, boys are just emotionless creeps,” I am told, “they only want to get physical.” Further details aren’t divulged.

After sex, the questions obviously lead to drugs. When we meet on a winter afternoon, an 18-year-old wearing ladybird socks is in a bit of a rush, as she is heading to a hair salon. You see, two of her close friends had cut off her hair after eating a slice of cake laced with MDMA, the drug commonly known as ecstasy. I stare into her face, feigning disinterest, and quickly notice the steep incline of her fringe and bangs. Feeling the edges, she says, “It is not so bad, it just needs to be evened out.” When I meet her friends a few weeks later, they say they don’t do real drugs, maybe just grass or marijuana. Procuring it is never hard, only the voice in their head plays spoilsport. While those in the senior classes have easy access to alcohol and pot, to earn their street cred, juniors down shots of Red Bull in once-popular bars, now largely frequented by underage drinkers. Aanya says, “Everyone drinks and smokes. In a group of 10, eight do. But I don’t. Cigarettes can kill you. I don’t hide anything from my mother and aunt. We have a very open relationship. They tell us right from wrong and where not to overstep.”

Today’s teenagers speak more in emoticons than words. They feel more than they can tell. They probably have 16 best friends rather than one. In many ways, they are still children, quick to trust and easy to believe. They face pressures that we never knew, they battle demons we have never seen. We will probably never know teenagers, we can only wait until they cross the Rubicon and join us in humdrum adulthood. And together, we can then gawp at the next generation of teenagers and ask, who are they?



Published on July 25, 2014
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