The year is 1991.
Boys in Tanya Talati’s class in Karachi are getting death threats. Her brother has been packed off to their grandparents’ house in Murree after someone came knocking at 3 am and left his weekly schedule scribbled on a sheet of paper, by the hour, by the day, with the doorman.
In Bombay, Tania Ghosh finds that exciting because all that is happening in India is a cross-country chariot race by “a guy called Advani”.
“...he says we should stop apologising for being Hindu. He’s got a point, why should we apologise for being Hindu? I’m not going to. Except I’ve never actually heard anyone apologise for being Hindu,” she writes to Tanya.
Tanya and Tania are born into privilege. Tanya lives in Clifton in Karachi and Tania in Breach Candy in Bombay. Their mothers went to Wellesley College together. Tanya, who is half-American, is nursing a sports injury and on her mother’s suggestion decides to write to Tania. About life in school, about the American colleges she would be applying to, and if life in Bombay is anything like in the movies.
Tania isn’t ambitious – at least not in the sense of making it to Harvard. She is brash, outspoken, impulsive, emotional - “a stupid, kind heart” who doesn’t believe in the “the crappy stuff” that the poor can’t be “cool”.
But her life is neatly divided into those who bore and those who don’t.
In her reluctant reply to Tanya she declares her to be a “BP” (Boring Person), tells her how hectic her life is in Bombay between school, keeping her mom off her back and her boyfriend from having sex with her or anyone else.
“I really don’t have time to write to you,” she writes back.
Yet, to kill the loneliness of their lives, they confide in each other, the stories of shame and pride, the stories of love and hate, the stories of ambition and drudgery, the stories of people – the other-halves across - who are just as sane or insane. The same “bullshit people”.
The two end up exchanging 67 letters between February 1991 and December 1992 - baring their hearts till Tania’s parents’ dining table fights - what Akbar did right to what Aurangzeb did wrong - spill onto the streets of India and culminate in the demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya.
It’s a traumatic time for both girls.
Tania is no longer the most popular girl in school, her boyfriend has told everyone he has had sex with her, she has announced to her mother that she doesn’t want to study in America, and Nusrat, the maid, isn’t quite behaving as the best friend she had become by making little entries in the notebook. Nusrat cannot speak, but is Tania’s advisor on worldly affairs – boyfriend problems to how to avoid filling out admission forms to American colleges.
And Tanya, in between taking care of her mother who is now a bag of bones and cries all the time, including when she sees plants wither, has to worry about depleting family finances, worry about getting a full scholarship to America.
Her best bet under the circumstances is Choti Bibi, the maid, a school dropout, who is on the run after a brief marriage, mortified of cops who she thinks will come after her for biting her husband’s hand. If Tanya could help Choti Bibi clear her exams, everyone in America will be impressed; she was her “ticket” to the best American college.
It is difficult not to get affected by the girls’ letters - written in long hand, from a time when it took an average of 10 days to get letters across the border, on stolen leaves from a father’s letterhead, or on the back of grocery lists, long drafts cut short to keep lengths reciprocal, arrows shooting towards several “PS-es” in the corners.
Tania’s brashness hits hard.
She can’t understand why her parents are constantly fighting over the BJP being good or bad for the business community when their own daughter’s life is being destroyed in school - “Stupid BJP, stupid Congress, my parents should have them for children.”
Tanya who is dealing with a depressive mother, a father who chooses to ignore her existence and saves up money only for his son, is achingly mature - “Ali says he is fida over me. My father is fida over the hospital.”
Often the book resonates the times we are living in.
There are a lot of disruptions going on in Mumbai, Tania writes to Tanya, explaining the difference between morchas and naka bandis. “A morcha is when there are lots of people out on the road looking angry and chanting stuff together. A naka bandi is when they stop all the cars on the road.”
The line for boys in Tanya’s school is shrinking, they are all running away to the UK and America. One boy has been shot dead. Tanya sums up the angst of this sisterhood in a letter: “Sometimes I think Pakistan is my mother, your mother, both our mothers together. Impossibly tender one minute, carelessly cruel the next.”
Antara Ganguli’s novel is full of spunk. She escapes the trap of churning out black and white portrayals and succeeds in capturing the unlikely friendship between two girls divided by borders, killing stereotype after stereotype with panache and humour.
Tania: “I can’t even vote. My voter ID card has the picture of a GUY on it and he’s not even cute. It’s totally upsetting.”
Tanya: “I have always been (cool) but it’s only because of my golden hair and white skin which is not even mine, it’s my mother’s.”
Often Ganguli speaks as Tania. Or so it seems. The Bengali connection, the taking down of surnames of classmates. “Her interest in India-Pakistan started with the 1992 riots when she wrote down the names of the girls in her class to identify who was Hindu and who was Muslim,” reads Ganguli’s brief bio on the book jacket.
Read more by this author: Lounge Opinion: One year after the Delhi gang-rape
Tania does the same, trying to crack religious codes through surnames right after the Bombay riots.
Somewhere in there, this is a story of hope. Of a future. Of peace.
Ganguli says so in her acknowledgements, “Thank you Bombay and Karachi for being the beautiful, ugly, horror-ridden, life-giving cities that you are, stubbornly holding on to the banks of the grey Arabian, promising everything, giving everything and taking everything. No riot will destroy you and no one idea will overpower you. Here’s to you and here’s to the children who grow up in you.”
“Tanya, Tania” is one of those books you feel sad about when you have turned the last page. It is difficult to delink and you worry about what would become of the two girls. But you know they will fare well because they share the same gene pool. Of a “bullshit people”.