There’s a Tanya Talathi in Karachi and a Tania Ghosh in Mumbai. This is a story based on letters “exchanged” between them from February 14, 1991 to December 9, 1992. If either of them is conscious of the fact that the first letter was written on Valentine’s Day, it is not reflected in their correspondence. But the date of the last letter coincides with the horrors of the Bhendi Bazar riots post the demolition of Babri Masjid. The mothers of Tanya and Tania were friends, having attended the same college. But one is American and the other is Indian. The American one leaves her husband (and a son) in Pakistan to live in the US with her daughter, Tanya. Tania’s mother and father are constantly quarrelling over trifles.
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Tanya who lived in Karachi before her parents separated decides to write to Tania who lives in Mumbai. A total of 72 letters are exchanged over a period of around 23 months. There are references to the strong presence of a mother by both of them; Tanya has a twin brother called Navi, Tania has an elder brother called Sammy; Tanya has a servant/attendant called Chhoti Bibi while Tania has one called Nusrat. Chotti Bibi, whom Tanya tries to teach basic mathematics and chess, fled from her village after she bit her husband on their wedding night; Nusrat is deaf and therefore unable to speak. Tanya wants to go to the US for higher studies while Tania is content with studying in Mumbai.Tania in Mumbai has a boyfriend called Arjun and Tanya in Karachi has one called Ali Naqvi. Both the boyfriends are the best looking guys in the college. There are references to sexual activity and the dislike for it – on the part of one or the other – and then the realisation that Ali Naqvi is gay. The letters speed back and forth between Karachi and Mumbai in a sort of compulsive assurance of one’s existence, to the other – or is it oneself.
If the reader is confused it is not surprising.Besides the uneasy feeling of reading somebody’s private letters, there is confusion more confounded. The letter dated September 1, 1991 is not addressed to anyone– though Tania’s name appears at the end of it. Did Tania forget to address the letter to her friend? Or was it immaterial whether she addressed it at all? Then on November 7, 1992, Tania writes to Tania. While the contents point towards Tania’s authorship one wonders whether it is the printer who has inadvertently added to the confusion.Or was it intended by the author – as a reflection of the mental state of the protagonist(s)?It is therefore remarkable how Fatima Bhutto,quoted on the front cover, claims,“I was on the last page before I knew it”. Aquestion,though, keeps bugging the reader: Are Tanya and Tania really two different persons? But ShobhaaDe’s quote on the front cover saysthat this is a “narrative that immediately draws you into the intimate worlds of a complex friendship”.Which implies the presence of at least two persons. And De cannot be wrong.
The question remains, pesters. The stream of correspondence stops around the time of the riots in Mumbai. Then after around three-and-a-half years, Tanya resumes her writing from New York – not expecting any replies from Tania in Mumbai, and saying so. From February 4 to May 29 of 1996 she indulges in a sort of manic monologue, knowing that Tania will never answer. She refers to herselfas having been in a “hospital for mad people”, and to sessions with a therapist. For no reason other than in furtherance of obfuscation, the authorintroduces these New York letters by dispersing them haphazardly among the earlier correspondence of 1991-92. The reader’s mindwould need to be extremely organised, if the book is to be read in one straight session and understood – so as to reach the end before “I knew it”. The last letter in the collection is from Tania in Mumbai is on December 9, 1992: the day on which Nusrat disappears.
The therapist that Tanya goes to in New York, calls it “transference” when she describes scenes from the Bhendi Bazar riots, when she claims that she has never been to Mumbai in all her life. In fact, Tanya “sees”and describes the route taken by Tania from her residence through the riot-torn areas in search of Nusrat, as clearly as she sees the old man lying naked across the threshold of a shop and Tania turns her face away from his genitals, “like softly spreading wax between his legs”. In fact this image continues to haunt Tanya for years. In a splendidly short spell of lucidity, Tanya describes the city of ghosts that Mumbai had turned into and the eerie silence that billowed around her as she crept along the streets – the silence of fear – only to be broken by the raucous cries of the gangs of fellow-citizens turned into marauders and predators. She describes how the “silence feels slick” to Tania as clearly as she talks of the smell of the dead, their bodies lying over each other in illicit embrace.
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At the end there is only Tanya in Columbia University, only Tanya graduating with the highest GPA.There is only Tanya screaming out in her letters from New York: what happened to you happened to me!
This is when Tania in Mumbai decides to write the first of her letters to Nusrat … wishing her a happy birthday. Nusratwould have been eighteen. The one who was killed in the Bhendi Bazar riots.