I won third place in my age category in the first Commonwealth Essay Competition I participated in. I was 14. I won 120 pounds, and my parents made me buy a gold necklace with it. (I would have splurged on random stuff if left to my own devices). It was a great milestone for me and after that, since 2006, I started writing for local magazines. Now, I’ve sent in an entry for the 2015 Commonwealth Short Story Prize. Let’s see what happens. The results will be announced at the end of May 2015.
Here’s what the judges had to say about my 2004 essay:
Nearly all the essays in the book review category were complimentary. This splendid diatribe made one think that we have a future critic in the making–authors beware! There is nothing to recommend, it seems, in this unfortunate book and we are told of its failings in well-chosen words. Even the description of the plot is used to demonstrate shortcomings. It is hard not to become convinced by the essay writer’s scorn and disappointment. That said, Iqra has a lightness of touch and an underlying wit which allow her to write such a devastating critique and get away with it!
Here’s my winning essay:
Topic: “What book have you either liked or disliked? Why did you like or dislike it?”
It was the summer vacation and monotony was driving me mad. So, I hit the bookstores, scouring the shelves for some series new to me, or the works of any writer which I had not read. Good fiction is soothing for a mind lethargic with boredom. A friend who was passionate about the “Goosebumps” series recommended a book to me. It was “Let’s Get Invisible!” by R. L. Stine.
After reading the book this became apparent: I did not see eye to eye with the friend who had recommended the novel to me. It was not according to my taste; too bland and frivolous to be delightful. It did not possess the charisma which many books had; the charm which made me read them repeatedly.
The plot revolves around Max, the protagonist and narrator of the story. He and his friends discover a magic mirror in the attic, and they soon find out that there is more to it than meets the eye. It is capable of granting temporary invisibility to whoever uses it correctly. The children play with it, but whoever stays invisible for a long period of time is drawn into the mirror and held captive there, and his reflection replaces him in the corporeal world. In the end, the imprisoned children are released when the mirror is broken, and the reflections go with it.
Now you might be wondering that what was so disagreeable about the book that it served as an impetus for me to write this essay. There are many reasons why I do not rate it amongst the treasured books of my collection.
The first thing I must point out about the novel is that it is supposed to be frightening. I singled it out from the other “Goosebumps” books because I wanted to see if there were other ways to scare people other than with monsters, devilry, carnage and the suchlike. The storyline is far from bloodcurdling. I read the book expecting to be scared afresh with every turn of the page. Instead, I was left waiting for something to happen. The plot tends to abate rather than arouse interest. It is the kind of book one can gladly stash under the
bed and forget. There is nothing horrifying or alarming in “Let’s Get Invisible!”, unless one tries to count the innumerable false alarms that mark the end of almost every chapter. As an example, say: a boy crosses a room enveloped in absolute darkness, and something howls…and it turns out to be his idiotic kid brother. The first false alarm gives the reader a satisfactory jolt; the second is easy to predict, and at the third one it becomes a monotony; another aspect of the continuous ennui that inhibits every last line of the story. It might terrify a five-year-old when told as a bedtime chronicle, but to me there is no element of terror whatsoever. If one selects a book because it is categorized under “horror”, then what is the use if it fails to instill any sort of fear at all?
It is not worth wandering in the bleak world of Stine’s magic mirror, because it is composed of nothing truly new. Invisibility and magic mirrors are among the trademarks of fiction. Creativity is extremely valuable.
Some writers are so good at writing stories that along with making their plots strong, they express, portray and elaborate very well. Such authors compose books with such dexterity and ingenuity that the reader is spellbound from the beginning to the end. All of us have read such masterpieces: stories with narrators so charming one cannot desire to quiet them or worlds so richly painted one does not want to leave. I am afraid that “Let’s Get Invisible!” cannot be rated so highly. It is simply too mediocre and insipid to be pleasurable; it takes only a moment’s contemplation to tell whether you like it or not. If one seeks literary bliss, it is better not to read this book.