Sick of Being Healthy by Monish K. Gumber is an illustrated teenage saga of trials and tribulations faced by the protagonist, Tara Kapoor. The narrative follows her daily struggles as a teenager in today’s time, from school to home, BFFs to boyfriends, she faces it all, and tries to adjust to them herself, as any one of her age would do.
An army child, Tara lives with her Punjabi family in their Gurgaon flat. The younger of the two children of her parents, Tara is a writer, and writes on the burning topic for her school newsletter, and is, what we call, healthy. It is evident from the title that our lead is not very fond of her own body, and wants to change it for the sake of a boy’s, Karan’s, attention, who doesn’t even know she exists! And when that same boy starts going out with one of her BFFs, Dolly, she hates herself even further. With all the pressure her parents put on her for being more like her elder sister, Baby Didi, who happens to be an academic topper, Tara finds herself desperate, leading to a cyber alter ego, Isabelle, who is everything she is not – slim and beautiful. Isabelle attracts a lot of boys, Rocko being one of them, but when they decide to meet up in person, Tara is devastated to find that he is none other than Rohan, the nerd from his school. Needless to say, this could-have-been-a-cybercrime incident reaches her mother’s ears and she is forced to confess everything, Karan and Dolly, and Isabelle and Rocko. Her mother is sympathetic towards her, understanding her need to look beautiful and slim, she suggests her to exercise and walk, instead of gobbling down junk all the time.
Meanwhile, in school, the students get a surprise, their very own prom night, to take place after their finals! Overjoyed and worried at the same time, Tara decides to go on a crash diet to win the boy of her dreams, Karan, and of course, the Prom Queen title. It is not long before she starts all this nonsense of dieting, surviving on liquids, puking out the food eaten to not gain weight, and all that stuff. Eventually, she ends up at the hospital with bulimia, after which she is treated like royalty by her family and she also comes close to her sister. Though she now understands the need to eat food, she is still a teenager, bursting with adrenaline and curiosity. So when a sex education camp comes up in her society, she, along with Dolly and her other BFF, Megha, attends it, and finds it boring since all the educators do is to ask them to say no to sex to boyfriends – and stamp it right across their minds. In the course of time, Tara comes to know of her sister having a no-strings-attached affair with a senior, which shocks her, but not after Baby tells her that she is sick of having no life for herself, amongst all this pressure to perform, she has lost all interests. Tara can only feel pity for her poor sister before she is faced with her exams, she clears them with an 80+ average, and also gets over her insecurities related to her body when she wins an award at the prom night for her writing.
Written in an engaging first-person narrative, the striking point of this diary-cum-novel, to me, was the word “healthy” – a mellowed down cousin of the word fat, used to describe a person who is apparently overweight, but not to an extent of being obese, only by us Indians. Having faced several body issues myself as a teenager, I was quick to find familiarity, pick the book up, and read it in one sitting. The language used is simple and understandable and there is an underlying hilarity, even in serious situations. The illustrations are a feature, little doodles and drawings, make the book all the more interesting and funny.
This book is a more of a social than leisure read, highlighting the grave issues of parental pressure on children to perform and fulfill wishes, which they couldn’t have done for themselves; peer pressure, she has a boyfriend, I don’t, she is so popular, am not; body shaming, I’m not healthy, but a fatso; incomplete sex education, no-strings-attached relations, pleasing boyfriend situation. It makes one aware of the problems these teens face, given that they have a lot more exposure to the world than we did, struggling to cope with them all, without the help of their unsupportive parents. A lot of other aspects of life have been shown during the course of the book, divorce, single parenting, slut-shaming, love for junk food in youth, the desperation to get into a relation, the choice of becoming bolder than the rest…which brings us to question our behavior towards our own children – Is it okay to impose our wishes on them? Is it okay to berate them for underperformance? Is it okay to not impart knowledge that is essential under the pretext of fake dignity? Is it okay to put them on a leash, always? Or is it okay to give too much freedom? Children are difficult, and teens are rebels, no doubt, but the duty of a guardian doesn’t only lie in looking after them superficially, but to peep into their minds as well and try to know what’s going on. We all had this phase, and all our children will have it, and they will definitely not consider us their best partner-in-crime, but the least we can do is not put them in a pressure cooker of demands. Teens happen not to listen to anyone, and this is a fact, but they will surely learn as we did.