Message in a Bottle

Antara Ganguli’s novel about two girls on the cusp of adulthood is a work of courage and grace

Written by Anushree Majumdar | Updated: September 17, 2016 1:54 am
Tanya Tania, Antara Ganguli, Bloomsbury, Tanya Tania Antara Ganguli, book review, indian express book review Bombay is obviously cooler than Karachi, her school is cooler, and Tania Ghosh is the coolest, hottest, most desirable girl she knows, with the best-looking boyfriend in school.

Book: Tanya Tania

Author: Antara Ganguli

Publisher: Bloomsbury

Pages: 215

Price: Rs 180

February 14, 1991: Tanya Talati’s first letter to Tania Ghosh is written on letter paper stolen from the former’s father’s stationery. The tone is tentative, a careful testing of waters before she decides to wade into a friendship with a Bombay girl, so far away from her own home in Karachi. Their mothers are friends from Wellesley College, and Tanya is mostly immobile in bed after breaking her leg during a school hockey match; hence, the letter. Tania’s reply, dated March 2, 1991, is a hasty, boastful note scribbled on the back of a grocery list; she asks if Tanya plays hockey in a salwar kameez, because she sounds like a “Boring Person” in Pakistan who is obsessed with getting into Harvard. Bombay is obviously cooler than Karachi, her school is cooler, and Tania Ghosh is the coolest, hottest, most desirable girl she knows, with the best-looking boyfriend in school.

This is the start of an unlikely friendship between two school girls, divided by borders, and yet drawn together by their need to share what it really feels like to be on the threshold of adulthood; to feel so young and yet so old; so wary, so very tired at the same time. What is a letter if not a fragment of life and time and memory spilled out on paper, almost like a message in a bottle? And who is a friend if not the one who receives it, shares their own hopes and dreams, and tosses it back into the sea that separates them?

Antara Ganguli’s epistolary novel is a sparkling work of courage and grace. It is a remarkably honest coming-of-age of two young characters, who could easily be dismissed as different as chalk and cheese, but on closer inspection, could possibly be two sides of the same coin. Clifton in Karachi and Breach Candy in Bombay are bastions of privilege; both girls live in ivory towers that shield them from the world outside, with only their respective domestic helps, Chhoti Bibi and Nusrat, to confide into. Now, with these letters, they have each other.

Spilling their lives on to paper, Tanya and Tania chronicle the big issues — boyfriend trouble, school politics, sibling rivalry — as well as the little things — a crumbling marriage, the blurry concept of sexual consent, sudden financial hardship. And as the months go by, a storm is brewing. Communal sentiments run high in India and Pakistan, and by December 1992, Tanya and Tania find that there’s much more to one’s name than just their immediate identities.

Ganguli’s achievement lies not only in crafting the distinct, original voices of her main protagonists, but also introducing secondary characters such as Chhoti Bibi and Nusrat who are equally unforgettable. In Karachi, Chhoti Bibi has run away from an ugly marriage and harbours an ambition to become Bibi, the senior housekeeper, one day. Nusrat in Bombay is mute but sharp as a tack — she is Tania’s conscience-keeper, her moral compass when the teenager gets waylaid by too much scheming.

The girls’ relationship with their respective help is, perhaps, more revelatory than their pen friendship. Ganguli steers clear of platitudes because the inequality is real; no matter the politically-correct words we may use to bridge the gap, no matter how young one may be, there’s no escaping where one comes from. Ganguli uses the intimacy of these friendships between the girls and their help to explore the intersection of class, gender, sexuality and sense of agency in modern India and Pakistan. By doing so, she joins the likes of Thrity Umrigar (The Space Between Us) and Daniyal Mueenuddin (In Other Rooms, Other Wonders) who have located the domestic help in their work in the foreground, and not the margins of their narratives.

If there is one gripe about Tanya Tania, it is that some of Tania’s letters are written in present-day teen-speak — it jars with the otherwise accurate tone of the novel.