Lessons In Small Print: A Curious Incident and Perspective
“But it has the F-word in it—you want us to read a book like that?” they posed, part delighted, part disbelieving, as we announced the month’s title for our young book clubbers.
The book like that was The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon. And they discovered, beyond the occasional expletive, a rich, captivating novel, ostensibly about 15-year-old Christopher Boone’s self-assigned mission to investigate the suspicious death of his neighbour’s dog. The simple story for kids, however, compellingly embraces a wealth of issues—Asperger’s Syndrome, broken families, social acceptance, and abandonment. (For a fuller plot synopsis and review, see The Swaddle’s book review here.) To do justice to its complexity, we welcomed a guest, Dr. Pervin Dadachanji, a psychiatrist with special experience in adolescent psychology.
Haddon’s book offers outstanding proof that children engage readily with the deepest themes when the writing has a (deceptive) lightness of style. They spoke with feeling for Christopher’s stilted reception of people and the troubling social situations he creates as a result of his awkwardness. They tried to understand why he nurses a phobia of being touched by anyone except his mother.
After a brief introduction to the syndrome, Dr. Dadachanji invited queries. What most children were keen to know lay along the lines of “Does Asperger’s go away with age?” and “What about intimacy?” which we guessed was the polite version for “Do people with Asperger’s have sex?”
Discussion of Christopher’s Asperger’s-related quirks gave the kids freedom to admit their own. The main character violently abhors the colour yellow, reels off capitals of every country in the world, and knows prime numbers up to 7057; most kids noticed that the book’s chapters are numbered not sequentially, but with prime numbers. They admitted personal oddities; one of my favourite fixations was “stepping only on the small, blue lights on the ground at Inox when I go for a movie!”
Yet, Dr. Dadachanji noted, the group was quicker to sympathise when the teen hero is deserted by a parent, than to look for a deeper understanding of Asperger’s. The kids were extremely bothered by the fact that his mother leaves home for another man and were scathingly critical of her. We thought to ask them to steer clear of judgment, but we stopped ourselves; we felt it was important to delve into the reasons behind their reactions.
For fidelity to take centre stage in a discussion with a bunch of middle schoolers, there has to be good reason. Possibly, it has to do with the familiarity of easily shifting family dynamics in today’s world; Asperger’s syndrome is intriguing, but a fractured family is real (for kids who don’t know anyone with Asperger’s).
Also more identifiable for them? The Hindi films Barfi and My Name is Khan—not the best or most accurate portrayals of autism. We suggested they add more authentic renditions like Dustin Hoffman’s turn in Rain Man to their viewing list. We also strongly recommended they watch the award-winning play version of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time through the brilliant National Theatre Live programme, which streams stage productions from London’s West End to screens across the globe, including Mumbai. This book’s dramatization is so stunning that, when I watched it, I heard a few kids in the auditorium say, “Must read the book.” Absolutely, they must.