For almost three years, author Shabnam Minwalla oscillated between the past and present. Not just in tenses. But as part of her monumental research that went into her latest Young Adult novel, Zen. For months, she dove into the 1935-1936 archives of The Bombay Chronicle, the English-language newspaper started by lawyer Pherozeshah Mehta, pored over the listings of one particular Colaba road in The Times of India Directory of Bombay City and Presidency, researched the technical aspects of the colour industry, as well as reading a family diary by a “long-ago girl”. The result transports the reader to two pivotal time periods in Indian history through the perspectives of two teenagers.
What emerges is a portrait of Zainab Essaji, a 19-year-old girl who is engaged to be married, but it is 1935 and her heart is firmly aflutter with the independence movement and the charming K. And the story of Zainab Currimji aka Zen. In 2019, when India’s youth began to rally against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), she is more worried about school, composing music and Yash, a new boy in her life.
A story of teenage love
Zen is an amalgam of Bombay and Mumbai, an intersection of historical and contemporary movements of India, underscored by a generous dose of pop culture that held sway in the 1930s and the 2010s. But at its core, the four perspectives of Zen, Zainab, Yash and one mysterious figure tell a story of teenage love.
Writing a love story didn’t come easy to the award-winning author who is known for her fabulous tales of mystery, horror and humour. “Writing romance was pure horror!” Minwalla confessed. “I’m shy about these things, it didn’t come happily to me. I was really grumpy, and so many times, I felt I had to stop. But I would wake up the next morning and Zen would be back in my head.”
Zainab’s story came easily to Minwalla, courtesy a family diary of a 19-year-old girl. “What stuck my cousin and me was just how modern her tone was,” Minwalla said. “And how much like any of us she sounded.” At the same time, Minwalla was writing a non-fiction book, Colaba: The Diamond at the Tip of Mumbai, and suddenly – “I started imagining this girl wandering in my head, walking down the cotton green in her odhna and ghaghra.” She mentioned the diary to her editor at Duckbill, Sayoni Basu, and both of them felt that this girl’s voice needed to be out there.
But the story needed something more and enter: Zen. Who it turns out was harder to write. Minwalla watched her three daughters passionately advocating at the anti-CAA protests, and she began thinking of a girl going to the protests as well. Zen, however, is reluctant to be part of anything too controversial, even though she feels sick when she hears about what’s happening around her.
Suddenly, dinner-time conversations at home are laced with “ominous abbreviations” like CAA, NRC and NPR, and her best friend Menka is enlisting everyone for a school debate, “Are We Killing Our Constitution?”. Add to that the complication of Yash, who has just come from the US to attend a wedding – complete with shiny kurtas, choreographed dances and flirty guests – a multiple-day shindig that Zen’s family has been invited to as well.
A space for conversation
The two relationships feel doomed from the start – Zainab is engaged to be married, yet she yearns for Khubchand, the singularly beautiful stranger from Lahore, a secret she needs to keep from her sister, Behn Fatema. Yash’s father is the perennial conservative Hindu patriarch, while Zen’s mother married a Muslim man, an event that caused ripples in the family. “Yash,” Minwalla says, “was the most difficult character to write. He was a lot more obnoxious, but then I thought if Zen loved him so much, he couldn’t be like that.”
And that’s the beauty of Zen – in today’s polarized world, it offers a bit of a meeting ground where in spite of two very different ideologies on both sides, there is a space for conversation, for listening, and
for the possibility of love of all kinds. And of course, lots of arguments, amidst stolen kisses. Yet Minwalla said she was careful not to stray on any side of the debate, while writing honestly about different communities and the genuine fear of the other.
But the romance that Minwalla writes is really hers, with the city of Mumbai, a love that resonates in most of her books whether it’s What Maya Saw, Murder at Daisy Apartments, or Zen. In this book, she takes us through 1930s Colaba as her mother browses at the Army’s Navy Store, and Zainab gets butter from New English Dairy, and buns from American Express Bakery. There’s a jazz band playing “Stardust” at the Yacht Club where only Europeans were permitted to enter, the excitement about the release of Devika Rani’s Jawani ki Hawa at Imperial Cinema, and Zainab admiring berry-blue taffeta at Yvonne Dressmakers.
While Zen is busy hanging out over carrot cake at Kala Ghoda Café, buying blue chart paper at Janata Stores, and walking down the roads of Colaba Market with Yash reminiscing over snippets of history. “Bombay is my forever protagonist,” Minwalla said. “I cannot imagine writing a book set elsewhere. It makes me happy. Even the so-called dire bits of the city make me happy. It’s a wonderful place.” Minwalla pored over The Bombay Chronicle and The Times of India Directory of Bombay City and Presidency (which had addresses of buildings, shops and listed professions as well) to understand the era – what were the lives like, what kind of clothes people wore, what were their houses like, where did they shop. She also mined her mother’s memories, apart from her recipes, including that of sheer kurma.
All of this is set to music – Bollywood, jazz, Christmas songs, as well as classic and contemporary tracks including The Smiths, Nancy Sinatra, Vampire Weekend, and Kishore Kumar. A playlist is available on Spotify, and it’s highly recommended that you play the tracks alongside the chapters.
From the end papers to the end, Zen is a gorgeous, compelling read. It’s also a bold, sweeping story, one that’s telling of our times, and our history. Yet, it’s funny, poignant, and has moments of mush, and really echoes the nuances of being a teenager. Minwalla’s editor Basu read the first draft in 16 hours, sending a midnight email to the anxious author saying she loved it. I read the 600 pages over two consecutive flights and an overnight stay. That’s because the book’s an extraordinary one, memorable just like its muse, Mumbai.
Zen, Shabnam Minwalla, Duckbill.