Annie Zaidi's Gulab offers a macabre surprise

  • Kavitha Rao, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: Nov 29, 2014 15:43 IST

Annie Zaidi's new novella, Gulab, is restrained, ephemeral, delicate. Her characters leave much unsaid; there are telling silences and crucial pauses. Her prose is sparse and minimalist.

All of which suits the subject matter - the mysteries of the paranormal- perfectly.

In the past, Zaidi has written short stories on love, with her 2012 collection, Love Stories 1 to 14. She is also the co-author of the wickedly funny collection of stories, The Bad Boy's Guide to the Good Indian Girl.

Gulab begins in a graveyard, rather ploddingly at first, but it soon picks up speed. Nikunj Seth is searching for the grave of his childhood sweetheart, the stunningly beautiful Saira. But his quest goes awry.

When he finally finds Saira's grave, he runs into Usman, who claims his wife - the stunningly beautiful Gulab - is buried there. Then the oily Parmod turns up, who argues his wife - yes, you guessed it, the stunningly beautiful Mumtaz - occupies the same grave. Nikunj tries to find the answer, and in the process, he finds himself.

Zaidi recreates the eerie atmosphere of the spirit world convincingly. "If they hear your voice and they notice there is no human recipient for our words, they believe that you need someone to talk to. So they respond," says one of the characters, Usman, warning Nikunj against talking to himself.

The general air of spookiness is helped along by Yasmin Zaidi's disturbing pen and ink illustrations, which effortlessly conjure up pouring rain, lonely roads, and haunted trees. The black and white cover, in particular, is stunning; you could almost hang it on the wall.

There's also some wry, unobtrusive humour. All three men worship their wives or girlfriends, and go on at length about how "beautiful" and "simple" they were. Says boastful marble dealer Parmod of his efforts to please his wife: "Everything in the house was pure, quality marble. All the little things, coasters, her dressing table, combs, the bed with its carved back."

Thinks Nikunj: "She must have felt smothered by marble, as if she was buried while still breathing. I wouldn't be surprised if she came back to haunt Parmod. "

One can't help but feel that Zaidi is slyly skewering the way Indian men create a sanitised image of what they would like their wives to be: beautiful, 'homely', with no eyes for anyone but their husbands. In one passage, Nikunj says as much. "I never asked her what she wanted from life. I assumed she wanted me." In the end, the truth comes as a macabre surprise.

One wishes Zaidi had explored further. The intriguing and slippery Saira, in particular, is a figure you never quite get to grips with, and similarly unexplored are some of the other characters. Just as the story seemed to be going somewhere fascinating, it ended. I found myself wishing this was a novel rather than a novella.

Kavitha Rao is co-author of Everything You Wanted to Know About Freelance Journalism

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