Antara Ganguli’s Tanya Tania is like being in 1990s Karachi and Bombay [Mumbai] at the same time, a time when these two cities were both ugly and beautiful. As you read the deep, soulful and fun letters that Tanya in Karachi writes to Tania in Bombay, you come to understand that this cannot possibly 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 to Tania more. This is a story about what happens when love is lopsided and skewed, and how much damage you can cause to the one who loves you slightly less than you love them.

What is initially a means to kill boredom ends up becoming letters fraught with death and despair, yet also filled with life-affirming stories.

Writer Fatima Bhutto found the book to be a page-turner. I found it to be very intense, and I put parenthesis in my readings just so I could make the inevitable pain of the two pen pals’ separation bearable. I had to armour my heart before racing to the end. Each letter makes you dive into its response with fervour. The story brings to mind nostalgia for the era of postage stamps and postmen, a time when we used to wait anxiously for letters to arrive. The letters themselves remind you how intrusive emails and WhatsApp messages are now — they give you no opportunity to crave them. Instant messages settle into your life like sand in your eyes at the beach.


As letters fly back and forth, a simple friendship turns obsessive


Ganguli could have told us how similar Bombay and Karachi are, but instead she shows us. She shows us with the sea, with the streets and with the people who manage our houses. The backdrop against which these letters are set is tenacious and wanting — the mess one’s parents’ generation creates because they know not how to navigate intimacy and ambition.

The author is equally descriptive in defining how the politics of India and Pakistan — two countries that sit almost in each other’s laps, but never look into each other’s eyes — have marred these young girls’ lives. She defines with varying colour, hue and light how countries turn fascist and how utterly normal lives turn grey and murky almost overnight as a result. With just a few strokes of her artistic paintbrush, Ganguli shows us everything that is putrid about class struggle, religious bigotry and the disregard with which South Asian families raise their daughters as compared to their sons. It doesn’t matter on which side of the border you find yourself — in the subcontinent a neglected child will almost always be a girl.

You go through two-thirds of the book thinking it is about Tanya and Tania, but it is not. It is really about Nusrat, Tania’s maid. Nusrat in her silence and her meditations and her words is utterly beautiful. You are haunted by her softness and her scent. Ganguli’s word-wizardry 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 place a finger in it to mark your place and stare at the walls: for me it was over a dozen times. You think you know the girls and then they go ahead and do something that makes you realise they are far more abysmal characters than the letters they write, such as when Tanya cuts up her brother Navi’s tennis racket. We’ve all felt the absence of parents, even if it is emotional absence. In Tanya’s and Tania’s lives you inhale it till it settles in your lungs like a metastasised ball of cells — there to stay until you end up like Nusrat.


[…] If I was even half as obsessed as you, my mum would love me. Actually she’s the one making me write back to you but she told me not to tell you that. But I’m super honest. [...]— Excerpt from the book


A letter back and forth would have been boring. Ganguli never lets that happen. In the manner of a fast bowler who keeps changing pace, she flips them around just so that you love the results, but not so much that you become dizzy. Through the letters you come to see how everything about the girls’ lives changes, until they become the exact opposite of who they were when they began writing to each other.

On the first day of a fiction-writing class I took, I was told never to choose similar names for characters in a story. Tanya Tania tosses that rule into the sea. It is a wonderfully refreshing experience to get to know that these two girls are as different as night and day, and yet only a single letter of the alphabet differentiates their first names.

It 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.

The reviewer is co-founder of the Women’s Advancement Hub

Tanya Tania
By Antara Ganguli
Bloomsbury, India
ISBN: 978-9385436505
224pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, April 23rd, 2017

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