'A Girl Like That' by Tanaz Bhathena:The rebel heroine

Brilliantly told story of a girl as scandalous in death as in life

Updated - April 28, 2018 05:34 pm IST

Published - April 28, 2018 04:00 pm IST

Tanaz Bhathena’s debut novel A Girl Like That is about a 16-year-old orphan Zarin Wadia, born in Mumbai, now living in Jeddah, with her maternal aunt and uncle, Khorshed and Rustom Wadia. Zarin is considered half-Zorastrian as she is the illegitimate child of Khorshed’s sister. Zarin’s parents die while she is a toddler and she is adopted by the Wadias.

Zarin never considers them her family particularly since her Masi is always hostile towards her. It becomes an excuse for Zarin to turn rebellious — she smokes and prefers the company of boys in school. She is vilified by almost all except by her childhood friend from Mumbai, Porous Dumasia, who reappears in her life after 12 years and remembers her as the girl “of the cautious smiles and shy waves”.

A Girl Like That begins with an accident on the expressway in which both Zarin and Porous are killed. Their souls float above, watching the scene unfold beneath them. The story of the girl who is “as scandalous in death as she has been in life” is told via flashback and the shifting points of view of friends and relatives.

Zarin’s story highlights issues of sexist double standards in a society where women always need to be chaperoned by a male relative while 15-year-old Abdullah, Zarin’s boyfriend, can take decisions on behalf of his 40-year-old mother in his father’s absence. A Girl Like That also raises questions about teenage sexuality and date rape, and the vulnerability of girls in a patriarchal society, where it is unlikely that the woman will be believed if she complains of rape.

Bhathena is a first-generation Canadian immigrant writing about the South Asian community in Saudi Arabia. She began writing because she wanted to see more people like herself — Bhathena belongs to the largely invisible Parsi community — featured in literature, thereby raising questions about South Asian identity and the diaspora in world literature. A Girl Like That does precisely that, and with aplomb.

The writer is an independent international publishing consultant.

A Girl Like That; Tanaz Bhathena, Penguin, ₹399

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