On Books & Reviews

An unputdownable novel painting Bombay of 1935 and 2019

A deceitfully daunting read, ‘Zen’ by Shabnam Minwalla is best picked during a restful weekend. Once you start reading the book, there is no option but to finish it.

Beginning with a late night flight landing in Bombay, it takes you through the city with its sounds, smell and colour, transporting you to right into the setting. Not knowing where the book would lead you, what sets the tone and mood for each chapter are the colourful captions and the occasional song shared right before the chapter begins. On the surface, ‘Zen’ is a love story, running in parallel, of two young women in different times, but as the plot uncovers we find ourselves engrossed in the politics of the time, forming opinions in our head and yet rooting for the couples.

Besides the engaging plot, what really draws you in is Shabnam’s use of words and colours.

Whether it’s her use of exaggerated words for modern-day Zainab Currimji a.k.a Zen’s reactions like goggled, harrumphed or juddered or her Wodehouse-like similes such as ‘a look as sharp as a board pin’ or ‘wisps of sadness that were stickier than cotton candy’, the choice of words almost gives a physical dimension to the narrative.

Colours are freely used to depict all kinds of things from clothes to emotions, to coded messages to even the chapter headers. Whether it’s Yash’s rust-colour kurta when he first meets Zen, Zen’s watermelon-red kohlapuri slippers which propels their story forward, or Zen’s mood which is ‘as grey as the charcoal scrub in her bathroom cabinet’, the use of colour brightens the reading experience.

In the older Zainab’s case, colour is integral to the plot. Set in 1935, at the wake of the Independence movement, Zainab Essaji yearns to play her part in the freedom movement. When her handsome new neighbour asks her to pass on the colour-coded messages to her brother, little does she know that she is doing just that.

Besides the lucid language, interesting use of words and colours to pepper the narrative, what makes Zen a must-read is the realistic portrayal of its characters — there is love, but not the kind where you ignore your individuality, there is the question of mixed identity and standing by it and there is agency for women despite which age they belonged to. The book reads like a classic when Zainab’s relationship with the mysterious K is being scripted and switches track to ‘Normal People’ when it comes to Zen and Yash’s relationship. Zen has a mixed identity of being half Hindu and half Muslim but she stands by her identity even if it meant having deep ideological differences with the only man she ever felt herself with. Both the Zainabs lived within the boundaries of their familial setup but their free-spirit and individuality were never undermined.

How do the lives of the two Zainabs intertwine? Who is the mysterious person that ties all the loose ends? Read the novel for all the answers and read it for the Bombay it describes, for the beauty of language, for making you fall in love again and again and again.

Book Zen by Shabnam Minwalla
Publisher Duckbill, an imprint of Penguin Random House India
Will be published on 29 May 2023

On Books & Reviews

Darkness: Contemplating on Bhisham Sahni’s Tamas

 Bhisham Sahni's TamasThis was supposed to be the second book I read for the New Book Readathon in September. With tight deadlines and life spiralling out of control, reading time was limited to a sentence here and there each day.

But I’m glad I could finally get down to completing this book.  Over though, its after-effects aren’t. I have just been constantly thinking about the title of the book – Tamas – which means darkness. There couldn’t be a more beautiful title to sum up this book.

The plot is set in a village near Taxila, in undivided India, just before Independence. The British are on their way out but the Indians haven’t stopped revering them. It’s easy to instigate a fight between age-old relationships when everything is simmered with religion. It’s easy to make the damage permanent when political parties are divided on religion and not merit. It’s easy to force one’s point of view down someone’s throat when their life depends on it. Has this changed? Have situations changed? For certainty not. Our country is still divided on religion politics. The Congress is accused of being pro-Muslim whereas the Muslim League can simply be replaced by our own right-wing fanatics now.

The darkness that was cast with the British – divide and rule – is so sharp in our nation’s history that even after so many year’s of independence it still looms in the shadows questioning every decision we make. I always thought was there a time when people co-existed in the same space rather than have little pockets of similar communities in the same city. When I read Indian language literature, I know that there was a time when they did live together and I sort of begin to understand why these little pockets exist. Not because of mistrust but because of fear. Fear for one’s life in my mind is the worst fear to live with. I sometimes wonder how our previous generation faced it.

Coming back to the book, it’s lengthy and has many layers. As the ‘riot’ progresses and the way the book ends, you are left to wonder who really instigated it and for what? What did they get by destabilising an entire generation of people? As the Babri Masjid verdict will be announced tomorrow at 10.30 AM, I hope our nation has grown slightly more sensible…


On Books & Reviews

A book worth experiencing…

Cobalt Blue Cobalt Blue by Sachin Kundalkar

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

If there is one English word to describe how you feel while reading this book it would be inexplicable.

Cobalt Blue needs to be experienced. It can’t be read, can’t be spoken about. The book blurb mentions that a paying guest becomes a part of the Joshi family and overturns the life of two siblings after he vanishes. It’s more. It takes you on the journey of how one copes with grief. What are the defence mechanisms one uses? How does someone recuperate or not? What pain is? What shock is? What does it feel to be deserted?

These inexplicable emotions that often goes unexpressed have been penned down with immense clarity by Sachin Kundalkar and have been translated with equal brilliance by Jerry Pinto. You feel like the writing has done justice to the emotions on display.

If you are going through a rough patch. Do pick up the book and give it a read. If nothing, it helps you reason with yourself and gives you the support that you are not alone.

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On Books & Reviews

Lanka’s Princess: Not so memorable after all

Lanka's PrincessLanka’s Princess by Kavita Kané

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

My review may be biased as I prefer the Mahabharat epic to the Ramayana of which she is a part. I found her characterisation uniteresting and unrelenting when compared to a Menaka in Menaka’s Choice or an Urvi in Karana’s Wife. But like I said it could be my bias towards the epic; the reason why I’m yet to read Sita’s Sister.

Surpankha or Meenakshi reminded you of someone who is beyond reason and needed a moment of catharisis to even consider a different viewpoint. It reminds you of a lot of the younger generation today who think the world is out to get them and fail to even consider or notice that the people who care are only looking out for them. As such this fast-paced book will appeal to certain lot of people but failed to leave me behind with something.

Worth a read if you are looking for a different point of view for the known epic.

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On Books & Reviews

Reviewing The Trouble with Women

Seven tight stories. Each equally haunting. Deftly written by Meghna Pant, The Trouble with Women is a must read for who like their stories slightly dark and real. Meghna takes very obvious situations which women in India can usually relate to and portrays them with a removed eye.

You can almost feel the character’s anger, pain, guilt or stress as may the case be. You feel frustrated at Bilal for the way he treats his wife and daughters, you get Zoze for his heartlessness, you are anxious about what will happen if Nikhil finds out and if Sahil’s sister actually goes ahead with what’s going on in her head. You are pained by what Sexy puts herself through to feel liberated and angry at Paalan’s father for the way he treated his mother and definitely you feel sorry, really sorry, for that young girl who has to use her femininity to rise the corporate ladder despite her talent. 

The trouble with woman actually is we think and feel too much and this short collection of stories makes you go through a myriad of emotions in a short span of few days. Each story is way too heavy to read one after the other. And you need that time to think, argue and calm your mind before reading the next one. The book is available on the Juggernaut app and is conveniently priced.

Contrary to perception that nothing can replace a physical book, reading on the app is pretty user friendly with the only irritant being the scroll. If a message or an email needs to be answered while reading, it’s a task to switch without losing your line. Other than that, all is well.

Do scroll through the book and let me know what you felt about it in the comments below.