Antara Ganguli’s Tanya Tania is like being in Karachi and Bombay at the same time. It is like being there at a time when these two cities were both ugly and beautiful. Reading it you have that same feeling you have when you butter your toast and it falls butter-side down. As you read the deep soulful and fun letters Tanya from Karachi writes to Tania from Bombay you know this can possibly not end well, for wherever there is a deepening of friendship there is envy; jealousy and, well, also evil. As these two girls come of age they also want to belong to each other, except Tanya wants to belong more to Tania more. This is a story about what happens when love is lopsided and skewed and how much damage you can create for the one who loves you slightly less.
Whereas Fatima Bhutto found the book to be a page-turner, I found it very intense and I put parenthesis in my readings just so I could make the inevitable pain of the two pen pal’s separation bearable. I had to armor my heart before I raced to the end. Each letter made you dive into its response with fervor. We can recall how we waited endlessly for letters in that era of postage stamps and mailmen. The letters reminded you of how intrusive emails and WhatsApps are now – they give you no opportunity to crave them – instant messages settle into your life like dust in your eyes on a beach.
Ganguli could have let us know how similar Bombay and Karachi are but instead she showed us. She showed us with the sea, with the streets and with the people who manage our houses. The backdrop against which these letters were set was tenacious and wanting – the mess one’s parent’s generation creates because they know not how to navigate intimacy and ambition.
Ganguli was equally descriptive in defining how marred these two young girl’s lives were with the politics of India and Pakistan that sat in each other’s laps but never looked in each other’s eyes. She defined with varying color, hue and light how countries turn fascist and how utterly normal lives turn grey and murky overnight almost. In just a few strokes of her paintbrush, Ganguli shows us everything utterly putrid about class struggle; religious bigotry and the disregard with which South Asian families raise their daughters compared to their sons. It doesn’t matter what side of the border you find yourself – almost always a neglected child will be a girl.
You go through two thirds of the book thinking it is about Tanya Tania but it is not. It is about Nusrat. Nusrat in her silence and her meditations and her words is so utterly beautiful. You are haunted both by her softness and her smell. Ganguli’s wordsmithing is evident throughout, but the part where Tania wonders why Nusrat smells so good despite being poor, is the most reflective of all.
You know you’re reading a good book by the number of times you toss a finger in it and stare at walls: for me it was over a dozen times in this book. You think you know the girls and then they go ahead and do something that makes you realize they are far more abysmal than the letters they write. Like when Tanya cut up her brother Navi’s tennis racket. We’ve all felt the absence of parents, even if it was emotional absence. In Tanya Tania’s life you inhale it till it settles in your lungs like a metastasized ball of cells – there to stay on till you end up how Nusrat did.
A letter back and forth would have been boring. Ganguli never let that happen. Like a fast bowler who changes pace, she flipped them around just so you’d love the results, but not so much that you were dizzy. Everything changed so gradually about these girls lives that they became the exact opposite of who they were when they first wrote each other with the reluctance of a child being dragged to the first day of school.
In the first day of a writing fiction class I took, I was told never choose similar names of characters in a book. Tanya Tania tossed that rule into the sea that people crapped in. It was a wonderfully refreshing experience to get to know that these two girls were as different as night and day and yet only an alphabet separated their first names.
Makes you think, more than anything, how words grow to be so powerful, how friendships become obsessions and how dearly we hold on to the idea of someone loving us enough to write to us.