Timeless College Tales
By Nadya Chishty-Mujahid
Liberty Publishing
ISBN: 978-627-7626-167
139pp.

Sex, drugs and copious amounts of young adult angst encapsulate the main theme of this novella.

When we think back to the classic bildungsroman literature we enjoyed growing up, books such as The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Catcher in the Rye and Little Women come to mind. These works captured the attention and imaginations of entire generations, as their collective disquiet and malaise were reflected in these transformational stories. Timeless College Tales by Nadya Chishty-Mujahid attempts just that — to speak to the young generation of Pakistan, perhaps as a show of camaraderie.

The book is a coming-of-age story with a desi flair, and pays homage to themes of dark academia. It attempts to depict and unpack the raw, unfiltered, interpersonal dynamics one can only experience in their youth, before the cynicism of adulthood sets in.

Trending issues such as how to handle social media, the reality of sexual harassment, the ills of feudalism, the importance of mental health, and the dangers of political one-upmanship, are all part of the narrative. The author has used her own extensive experience as an educator to create a story about a fictional college in Karachi, and shed light on the desi, upper-middle class college experience.

The main character that weaves through the narrative is Dr Madeeha, an English professor at the SSB College, who plays the role of mentor to the students. She is a passionate, empathetic character (“sweet but loony”), who gets inextricably involved in her students’ personal lives and melodrama.

A young adult novella set in a fictional college tackles contemporary hot-button issues such as social media bullying, sexual harassment, mental health and political one-upmanship

She comes across mostly as a well wisher and a positive influence, trying — mostly unsuccessfully — to curtail the students’ raging emotions and regulate their level of entitlement. However, the reader — and perhaps a parent — would question why she feels the need to get so deeply immersed in their personal matters?

At one point, a student remarks, “You’re overstepping your limits here.” It makes one wonder where the role of a parent ends and that of a teacher begins. How much access and control should an educator have over a child without the parent’s knowledge? It is definitely food for thought.

When we think of iconic movies such as Dead Poets Society, Good Will Hunting, and Mr Holland’s Opus, we get an insight into how essential the role of a mentor can be in the absence of parental guidance. This role is further amplified in the current socio-cultural environment, which is having devastating effects on the well-being of teenagers.

Issues such as addictions, depression, the need to fit in and social media bullying, can all be difficult to navigate on your own. Having an ally such as “Meddlesome Madeeha” serves the protagonists well in the story.

Nadya Chishty-Mujahid has managed to capture the texture of the young and reckless right down to the lingo and demeanour. The Pakistani literary landscape is in desperate need of more books addressing these coming of age stories, so I applaud her for delving whole heartedly into this subject.

The Young Adult genre, for some reason, has never really taken off in Pakistan, probably because the number of young readers is depressingly low, and dwindling further with the passage of time. However, it is still the responsibility of writers to continue telling authentic stories about the tribulations of being a young adult navigating life, grappling with issues of identity and self-esteem.

However, the main issue with the novella is that no character is developed enough for the reader to invest emotionally in their story arcs. Dr Madeeha also falls prey to being a tad unidimensional, even though I did see glimpses of a layered and complex character.

I would have enjoyed discovering what past experiences in her life led Madeeha to be so overly involved with her students on such a personal level. Also, besides her, there is not one single female character that has any gravitas; the majority of women in the book are presented as love interests of the male characters. A few strong female protagonists would have lent more depth to the book.

Having said that, Nadya is a competent and compelling storyteller, who writes with ease and skill. Timeless College Tales is a quick, easy read, and she manages to capture and disassemble the high drama and vacillating emotions that are characteristic of the young. She draws from a lexicon that gives the writing an air of authenticity and leads to an immersive reading experience.

If you’re looking for a light, slice-of-life book, then this one is for you.

The reviewer is co-founder of My Bookshelf, an online library which delivers books to you and picks them up when you’re done reading. X: @mybookshelfpk

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, June 16th, 2024

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