One of my most anticipated reads of 2018 was A Girl like That by Tanaz Bhathena, and I wasn’t expecting it to be so emotionally devastating, and hard hitting. But, alas. Here we are.
Right in the beginning, we know that Zarin and her friend Porus have died in a car crash. Their spirits sit above the scene of the accident, hovering, and floating, looking down at their own lifeless bodies, and wondering what’s next? Everyone, from the religious police to Zarin’s classmates, are suspicious? Was Zarin having an affair with Porus? Was she trying to run away? The rumors just keep getting nasty. The story is a build up leading to the cause of their death. It’s more about what happens before then what comes after.
Set in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, Zarin is an orphan who is brought up by her uncle and aunt, and is the unlucky recipient of her aunt’s physical and mental abuse. Her uncle is just an enabler, often acting as a pacifier between Zarin and his wife. Zarin, in an attempt to ridicule and mock her aunt, starts playing around with boys, often flashing smiles in malls. This soon becomes an escape for her since her family has been tainted ever since she was born. Her father was a gangster and her mother was a cabaret in a Mumbai bar. After their deaths, Zarin along with her uncle and aunt moved to Jeddah, to start a new life. But things as we find out, are only getting worse.
There are several important themes that Tanaz has covered, and all of them are substantial considering the times we live in. Bullying has become a culture, and the mental and physical impact of being bullied is catastrophic. We see how Zarin is always the topic of discussion, is slut-shamed and has her modesty questioned at every step of the way. At home, her aunt’s over-protective and controlling nature do more harm than good, and the romantic liaisons Zarin has only prove detrimental to her in the long run. Other themes such as domestic violence, sexual assault, and mental illness have been incorporated in a way that reflect the hypocritical nature of the society at large, and how this regressive nature has affected young minds.
The story has been narrated from several povs which was surprising and refreshing to read. We have Abdullah, Zarin’s ex-boyfriend, his holier than thou sister, Mishal, who has sworn to tarnish Zarin’s reputation and Farhan, the popular guy who takes every girl for a ride with his money and good looks. The story as a whole is narrated by Zarin and Porus, respectively. We see the life of two youngsters and also understand the story as outsiders.
You couldn’t win anyone’s approval by trying to fit in or even by doing what they expected you to.
Zarin is a rebel, unafraid yet scared, to whom love has evaded. She is terrified of loving and is in search of a home she fails to find. Porus, on the other hand, has been the hand that keeps lifting her, protecting her from every obstacle, yet finds himself in a war zone, a conflict between his love, Zarin, and the world that has other demands. However, Zarin’s attitude towards Porus often annoyed me. Her reckless nature and lack of concern for Porus, even as friend just didn’t make sense to me. This is the only issue I feel could have been dealt with in a more mature way.
Memories can be like splinters, digging into you when you least expect them to, holding tight and sharp the way wood did when it slid under a fingernail.
Tanaz’s writing is beautiful, extremely vivid, with powerful insight into the society we live in. It talks about teenage alienation, their fears and angst while also tackling issues of race, caste and religion. A Girl Like That By Tanaz Bhathena is a powerful and disturbing debut, and a fresh voice that is sure to create ripples.
There were times, however, when stories came alive. When someone who you thought you’d never see again stepped back into your world and knocked the wind out of you.
Author: Tanaz Bhathena
Publisher: Penguin India
Source: Review copy.
Sixteen-year-old Zarin Wadia is many things: a bright and vivacious student, an orphan, a risk taker. She’s also the kind of girl that parents warn their kids to stay away from: a troublemaker whose many romances are the subject of endless gossip at school. You don’t want to get involved with a girl like that, they say. So how is it that eighteen-year-old Porus Dumasia has only ever had eyes for her? And how did Zarin and Porus end up dead in a car together, crashed on the side of a highway in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia? When the religious police arrive on the scene, everything everyone thought they knew about Zarin is questioned. And as her story is pieced together, told through multiple perspectives, it becomes clear that she was far more than just a girl like that.
This beautifully written debut novel from Tanaz Bhathena reveals a rich and wonderful new world to readers. It tackles complicated issues of race, identity, class, and religion, and paints a portrait of teenage ambition, angst, and alienation that feels both inventive and universal.