We live in a world where boys and girls are raised to be very different, but very definite people. Just as it is expected that a girl be meek, biddable, quiet and subservient, it is also expected that a boy be aggressive, strong, insensitive and controlling. To that end, we habitually divide children, from their clothes to their toys and their books, according to these gender norms. Boys have their adventure and mystery books, girls have their fairy tales and ballet stories. There is little leeway and nearly no middle ground for little boys and girls who don’t fit perfectly into their designated molds. Richa Jha’s deceptively simple story of Gagan, an “un-boy boy”, however, is an exception to this rule.
Gagan is not a boy-boy, despite his friends and family (with the exception of his mother) constantly trying to make him one. Peaceful by nature, Gagan spends his time drawing, reading, studying ants, collecting stamps and playing with his stuffed toy, Bingo. He actively spurns the more traditional male roles that he is expected to play: the ones perfectly encapsulated by his brother, Pavan, who acts as his foil. Pavan is the perfect rough-and-tough boy. He jumps straight into his day, fighting with his friends, playing pranks, delighting in war stories and indulging in any other small acts of destruction that come his way. He constantly mocks Gagan, calling him a “sissy” and “mousey”, for his ‘un-masculine’ ways and tries to fix him. In this, he is joined by most of Gagan’s acquaintances. Their grandfather laughs at Gagan for being scared by war stories, calling him a “chooha”, and his classmates call him a “Baby G-I-R-L” when he brings Bingo to Show and Tell at school. The emphasis on Gagan’s stereotypically feminine qualities, and the belief that these qualities are somehow negative, and brought forward and criticized in Jha’s tale.
Every night, he asks his mother if he really is a boy, and her assurance is the only thing that gives him comfort and allows him to sleep at night.
The constant mockery and disgust from his friends and family for only doing what he likes to do, makes Gagan feel “sad and lonely and unsure”. Every night, he asks his mother if he really is a boy, and her assurance is the only thing that gives him comfort and allows him to sleep at night. The torment and bullying he experiences are things that boys often face at very young ages, without being provided with any outlet or acceptance. Boys who express strong emotions that are not anger (crying, especially) are mocked and disregarded. This constant suppression of their natural feelings and inclinations consequently leads them to grow up insecure, insensitive and unable to communicate effectively. Gagan, who is no more than eight-years-old, is already filled with a loneliness and insecurity that no child of his age should be familiar with. He is too young to understand the prejudices that underlie the bullying he faces and his growing uncertainty is evident in Jha’s tale.
Jha also challenges the translation of physical aggression and emotional apathy as bravery and strength. When, during summer camp, a pet cat goes missing at night, none of the children who relentlessly mocked Gagan for his apparent cowardice have the courage to stay out and look for the cat. Ghouls, zombies, monsters and witches haunt the dark corridors, brought fearfully to life by Gautam Benegal’s striking illustrations. The children, naturally terrified, turned tail and ran back to their tent. Only Gagan stays out, hunting down the wayward pet and bringing it back safe, much to the amazement of his peers. From that day onwards, no one mocks Gagan for doing the things he loves. Except his brother, who, with his friends, still tries to make Gagan a boy-boy.
However, Gagan is no Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer, and his story does not end with the acceptance of his peers after he has proved himself. Gagan’s story is one about self-acceptance, as well. The final page shows him hanging from a tree and studying some ants, while his brother and his friends play a prank on an adult below. Gagan is smiling to himself, and the story ends on the implication that even though Pavan and his friends mays till try to change him, Gagan no longer cares. Jha leaves her readers with a strong message: there are some minds that you cannot change, but there is only one mind that matters and it is your own. With the affection and the support of his mother and classmates, Gagan has learned how to love himself, which is the most important thing of all.
The moral of Gagan’s tale is a simple one: “there are no un-boy boys or un-girl girls in this world.” Every child has a right to embrace who they are, no matter where they may lie on the spectrum of gender.
The moral of Gagan’s tale is a simple one: “there are no un-boy boys or un-girl girls in this world.” Every child has a right to embrace who they are, no matter where they may lie on the spectrum of gender. Jha’s tale deconstructs this idea of gendered expectations, and emphasizes on the right of every child to be who they are, and to be loved in their entirety. No more, no less. Unusual and heart-warming, Jha’s The Unboy Boyis a must read for any young child who is trying to find their feet in a complicated and prejudiced world, and need to learn how to love and accept themselves no matter what anyone else may say.