Veerapen Isaac Prendrapen is the only son of an absentee Tamil father and a Jewish mother. “I’m a VIP. The only kosher Tamil in Surrey.” If anyone thinks they can call him ‘Vera’ and get away with it, they’ve got another think coming:
“Vera will crop up every now and again, usually when some new tosser tries to become popular with the group by trying to pick on the Paki. But he gets the wrong Paki. I’m six foot, so you shouldn’t mess with me unless you really think you can have a go… My favourite moment is when Jase holds the guy down, and I stamp on his face. We are all fight, us kids.”
A few years back, most bookshops did not even have a section for teens. Now, fuelled by the international success of writers like J.K. Rowling, Philip Pullman, Cornelia Funke, Lemony Snicket, this section is one of the largest and most varied. There seems to be a trend recently for books which take off the kid gloves (if you’ll pardon the pun), and pull no punches. Govinden’s story of love, loss, and classroom chaos in Graffiti my Soul is not dissimilar to Melvin Burgess’s Junk or Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting, in its refusal to moralise, to condemn or to preach. Like Junk and Trainspotting, Graffiti deals frankly with drugs, sex and violence in an idiom which mirrors the speech-talk of its protagonists.
Veerapen and his best friend Jason get their kicks by ‘happy slapping’. This recent phenomenon is a misnomer in the same way that ‘eve-teasing’ makes sexual harassment seem like a harmless pastime. ‘Happy slapping’ means assaulting a stranger on the street, and capturing the incident on your phone camera. Unlike mugging, the main aim is not to rob the victim, but to film their humiliation. The pictures are then shared and bartered: their value increasing according to the nature of the incident – the ‘daringness’ of the perpetrators, the violence of the assault. There is no getting away from the fact that it is an irredeemably nasty activity, and Veerapen and Jason’s gleeful, adrenalin-fuelled attack of a middle-aged commuter returning home, leaves a very bad taste long after the book is over.
The book, written entirely in the first person, is peppered with UK teen-slang and insider terminology, but its pacy and racy enough to carry the story through. What’s more likely to puzzle an Indian reader is the hard-edged alienated subculture in which Veerapen and his friends are immersed, the world of ASBO (Anti-Social Behaviour Order), chavs wearing hoodies, dealers at the school gates, smoking dope and dissing teachers, smoking and sex:
“‘Should I give her one?’ he repeats.
‘Why not?… You should see how she looks at me.’
‘And how does she look at you?’
‘Like she wants to eat my dick.’
We laugh like a pair of duffuses.
‘Well,’ I go, in my posh voice, ‘speaking as someone who’s already sampled the goods, I’d say she’s well worth boning.’”
But for all his bluster, Veerapen is no thicko. Smart enough to head the High School Challenge team, and focussed enough to be a runner with championship potential. However, if both those things sound nerdy and un-cool, Veerapen soon disabuses you of the assumption that he is either: “I’m a good boy really, but I won’t lie about it; I like the street violence around here,” he admits, “It’s probably one of the reasons I’ll never move out of Surrey.”
He trains on the sly with Casey, a professional trainer until he was branded as a paedophile and turfed out of his job, his house, his life. Casey is what Veerapen calls a PPP – a Paedo in Public Position. It’s not often one gets to read a sympathetic portrait of a ‘kiddy-fiddler’, but Veerapen’s genuine affection and respect for his mentor – fuelled mainly by their shared sense of outsiderness – is both touching and tragic. Far more so than the main story – that of Veerapen’s love for Moon and her subsequent death.
The story begins the day after her funeral, and is told in a series of flashbacks piecing together the events that lead up to her murder. In places the back-and-forth of the narrative trips the reader up, like jump-cuts in an over-edited film. For a sociological peak into alienated urban British youf-culture, and you like your realism with plenty of grit, you could do worse than Graffiti my Soul. Not for the faint-hearted.