Not so different

Nandini Nair | Updated on August 27, 2014 Published on August 08, 2014

Looking in: Author Kate Darnton made Delhi her muse and home

The Misfits, Kate Darnton, Young Zubaan, Fiction

A young adult book that addresses social similarities and contrasts in light of the Right to Education Act

Kate Darnton and her husband moved to Delhi in 2009 from Boston, with two suitcases, two daughters and one doll. They left five years later, with 144 boxes and one more daughter in tow. During her stay, she also wrote a book, The Misfits, which tells the story of two young girls — Chloe and Lakshmi — and how they become friends. The twist in the tale, as there must always be, is that Chloe is the only blonde-haired girl in Class V of Premium Academy, New Delhi and Lakshmi is one of the few children from the Economically Weaker Section (EWS).

In August 2009, the Parliament enacted the Right to Education (RTE) Act, which required private schools to enrol 25 per cent of their students from economically weaker sections and disadvantaged communities in their incoming class. While its merit as a piece of legislation cannot be questioned, its implementation has been slipshod. The Misfits addresses the same issues of fitting in and standing out in a sensitive and wise way. Darnton says over the phone from Cape Cod, “This legislation was radical and exciting. It sounds like de-segregation, but very little thought has been put into its practicality. There is very little support — to the teachers and the parents. There is no dialogue about what is going on. The conversation happened only around the edges. I wanted to say this is happening, let’s talk about it.”

Being 11, having one elder sister and a younger one, is not easy. But life for Chloe is even harder as she has just left her school in Boston and best friend Katie, and joined a new one in Delhi. Here she looks different. And everything she knows is different as well — from the park in front of her house, to the clothes people wear, to the shiny things that dazzle on their noses. Living in Delhi often feels like living in “a greenhouse with no walls”. To make matters worse, the most annoying people in her class insist on calling her Chhole — like in chickpeas.

The book opens with Chloe colouring her blonde hair with a permanent black marker — a desperate, if unsuccessful attempt at fitting in with the other 98 children in her class who all have black hair. She soon befriends a girl called Lakshmi, whose distinct appearance cannot be negated by the school uniform. But they are friends only at home or in the park playing with their mongrel dog Kali and making origami cranes. In school, Chloe hangs out with the cool kids like Anvi, who hands out birthday invitation cards that blare out songs written specially for her by a famous Bollywood composer.

While The Misfits juxtaposes the lives of the affluent against those who are not well-off, it is never patronising or didactic. The character of the mother is slightly tedious with her preaching and constant reminders that her children treat everyone equally. But this is an important book for our times as it explains ‘differences’ and the importance of acceptance to children.

For Darnton, who worked for many years in the book industry and is now moving to Amsterdam with her family, the book arose from a personal diary that chronicled the cultural clash in India and mapped her own anxiety with the deep economic inequality. While her eldest daughter was only nine when they left India, she made the heroines of her story 11 as she feels that is the age children first become aware of social differences. With none of her daughters having hit that age, the biggest challenge for Darnton was to speak in the voice of an 11-year-old. Something she accomplishes with panache; though Chloe might seem rather precocious at times, the reader feels for her and with her.

Lakshmi too is a figment of Darnton’s imagination, and born from the author’s experiences of volunteering at a school in a slum in RK Puram. She found the children there especially bright and receptive. “The sky is open once these children are given an opportunity... they need to be given the support,” says the Harvard graduate.

In The Misfits, Lakshmi becomes thick friends with Chloe and they win the admiration of their peers and parents. Hopefully, there shall be more such happy endings in real life.

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Published on August 08, 2014
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