Reviewed by Nandini Varma
Title: The Sunlight Plane
Author: Damini Kane
Publisher: Authorpress (2018)
To reach out and urge us to inquire into our deepest emotions is the most beautiful gift a writer can give to a reader. To flap open an ear, to have our feet dangling from our beds, to imagine carefully the sound of an airplane pass by in a book, and listen to its heightened music in our heads, to brush the air as if for a moment it weren’t needed: these are acts of a reader only witnessed when a writer has produced something marvellous. Readers live double lives, much like writers, when they kick the earth unexpectedly, when they dance to a silently beating heart, when they crouch as though scared to break the dream.
Damini Kane’s first novel The Sunlight Plane does exactly that. It is a beautiful exploration of a friendship between two 9 year old boys — Tharush and Aakash, living in the posh Reyna Heights in Bombay. The cover art carries a paper plane flying across the city of Bombay, illustrated by Nivedita Sekhar. The book is divided into three sections: ‘The Sun’, ‘The Clouds’ and ‘The Sky’, each depicting a phase in their friendship – a brightness, or tension.
As we begin reading, we’re introduced to the protagonist, Tharush, the embodiment of curiosity and imagination, giving us a rich insight into the questioning mind of a child. We’re also introduced to his parents and find in them a family that doesn’t attract much trouble. Humour is therefore often seen paying a light and lovely visit in the moments shared between Tharush and his mother, another powerful character that represents deep intelligence and sensitivity, especially in her response to Tharush’s appeal for another fighter plane when they sit for dinner with eggplants floating ‘in the middle of yellow curry like dead rats’.
Quite early in the narrative, we’re given hints of what is to become a contrasting second main character of the book, Aakash, also meaning the sky as Tharush, but another shade of it – much darker as the clouds on a rainy day, more mysterious as a ‘stealthy, almost invisible, shadow’.
Aakash, a nine-year old, has shifted to Reyna Heights with his father, a man whom we see in snatches at the beginning. The common point which leads to this friendship between the two protagonists is the neighbourhood bully, Vikram, who resents individuality and finds ways to attack Tharush and Aakash. What is interesting is the representation of power in Vikram’s character over those who are not submissive but who resist through their silence.
It is in maintaining that silence but also in making a playful attempt at riding Vikram’s grand ‘Electric Blue, The Bike,’ the one envied by all the kids in the society and ridden only by him, that we’re introduced to Aakash’s first talent: picking locks with a hairpin (‘like in the cartoons,’ as Tharush, completely surprised, points out). Although quite a mischievous start, this moment is a crucial point in the book, where two feathers make a wing and from here we’re invited to sit very close to the adventures of Tharush and Aakash, who have broken open a lock and stolen the grand bike to ride it in turns, the tension shifting in our hearts from being scared for Aakash to being scared for Tharush with each turn.
We’re slowly introduced to Aakash’s other talents, which often include bandaging his own wounds, and surviving a tumultuous father every night. This background becomes the foreground in the second section of the novel, ‘The Clouds’. Aakash’s father, an extraordinarily violent man whose wife has left him, now wastes his life abusing his son and listening to a list of ghazals to hold on to the memory of his wife. What music does for Aakash’s father who slips into intoxication has a different effect on Aakash – while it develops fear of his father in him, it also comforts him and allows him to breathe. His favourite things include the background score of the movies he watches with Tharush, the sounds of the books he reads, and the little guitar that he learns secretly from Tasleem didi, the owner of Qawwali, a quaint little music shop near their school.
As the novel progresses, Tharush and Aakash have created magical worlds with fighter planes and sky pirates, they’ve sketched phosphenes and given their stories names, with Tharush taking the lead in building the narrative and Aakash filling it up with tiny but important details. We meet interesting characters like Nikita, Siraj and Andy, with whom the two boys hang out in their school hours, and Aakash’s aunt who flies from Delhi and gifts him his first mobile phone.
While the story is written in the third person, we find ourselves relating perhaps most with Tharush, through whose eyes we seem to perceive most of the details. The accumulated details of the warm interiors, the sun stepping in, the clouds forming outside, the bathrooms walls, the dinner table menu, and the trips to the market to buy vegetables and other necessities as is routine in Tharush’s life, makes the absence of the same in Aakash’s more prominent.
The novel derives its strength in creating moments between a child and an adult, a parent and another parent, one child and another, and the child and himself; in doing so, we cannot help but step inside the universe of Reyna Heights as though we belong to it, as though we are the curtains in the homes, the bed sheets that often hold Tharush’s tears, the invisible flight of the fighter planes that watch him as he creates a world out of thin air and fills it with magical details, ‘spaceman heroes’ who save the world, and ‘alien money and prototype rockets’.
What’s fascinating is the author’s interest in the commonplace – whether in describing the everydayness of Tharush’s breakfast that completes our imagination or his father asking him to choose between two ties, or his mother explaining the difference between a castle and a palace.
Abuse and bullying are some of the most important themes in the novel, but at its core it deals with the complexity in the mind of a child in having to choose between being a good friend by keeping a secret and opening up to expose a truth that can save his friend but break their friendship.
If you are to invest in a book, this is one that is written for all ages, in a language that is seamless, that speaks about the human condition, that holds a strikingly beautiful title, a metaphor for a friendship which in all its fragility, continues to fly, or perhaps a metaphor for Aakash, also meaning ‘the sky [which] had this ability to just be. It was either the beginning or the finality of everything in the world, almost like a capital letter at the start of a sentence or the full-stop at the end of one. It was the world’s only real constant, because the sky blanketed every place on earth, and no matter what was happening out there, you could always just look up and breathe it in.’
Nandini Varma is the Cofounder of Airplane Poetry Movement. She’s a poet and her writings have been published in various journals such as The Caravan Magazine, Muse India, The Bombay Review Anthology, The Book Review Literary Trust, The Ellipsis Magazine, and A Map Called Home (published by Kitaab). She is currently pursuing her Masters in English at Symbiosis College of Arts and Commerce, Pune.