Prime Edition

Gulab

Annie Zaidi

HarperCollins India

Pages: 190 Rs. 350

Is it possible to think of a future with a dead woman?

Annie Zaidi’s latest is an atypical ghost story. The gradual accretion of detail and the author’s typically astute handling of relationships will keep you turning the pages breathlessly, writes Aditya Mani Jha.

ADITYA MANI JHA  13th Sep 2014

Annie Zaidi (right) in conversation with Sathya Saran at the Mumbai launch of Gulab

friend who I'm no longer in touch with once told me that ghost stories can only be appreciated if you believe in the supernatural. According to him, it was impossible for the hard-nosed cynic to enjoy a ghost story or indeed, stories with any supernatural element in them, like superpowers, rebirths and so on.

But there was a kernel of truth in his short-sighted statement: a good ghost story depends upon a certain trade-off achieved by the author, between the familiar and the alien, between empathy and fear, between this world and a hypothetical other. (Even the stereotypical appearance of a ghost in visual media depends upon achieving this balance.)

Annie Zaidi's Gulab is a near-perfect ghost story and one of the things it does so well is achieving this balance. It is perfectly paced and uses its ghost shrewdly and sparingly.

The novella begins with the protagonist Nikunj arriving at the funeral of Saira, the great love of his life who he couldn't marry. Zaidi makes it clear that by itself, this isn't a grand romantic gesture. It is more like a really guilty man who is trying to overcompensate for what he sees as a direct consequence of his past weakness. Nikunj is not a man who fought and lost his battles. He lost because he never bothered to fight, to seize the reins of his life.

"I've lived with these 'maybes' for fifteen years. All this time, I never lost faith. Not once. I can swear to that. I lived in hope. Even after I let Mamma persuade me to meet Sucheta. Even after I agreed to the wedding. Even after the children were born. I kept thinking, it isn't too late. If I could find Saira, I would also find a way."

The “rules” of the altered universe are not what Zaidi’s really concerned about. What she wants is to show how obsession can encroach upon the boundaries of reality, how each of us carefully construct our own beta versions of the truth every single day of our lives. Sometimes, these beta versions have surprisingly persistent bugs.

This passage also hints at a somewhat uglier truth: Nikunj is a classic case of the middle-class bourgeois man "waking up" and demanding the sublime in an existence that he has designed to be quotidian, predictable, slow. There is no doubting his sincerity, but somewhere along the line, his desire for Saira and his desire to "transcend" his paunchy, tedious life have fused into one. But it's too late now: even his day-dreams have found their way into Nikunj's daily planner.

"Over and over, these imaginary encounters played inside my head, like a set of favourite movie clips. I had worked out all the possibilities that might possibly lead me to her. In every instance, I had worked out what to do afterwards, how to keep her with me."

Once at the funeral, Nikunj meets two other men who are also, like him, grieving over a dead woman. Soon enough, Nikunj realises that there are very apparent connections between Saira and the two other women in the picture here: Gulab and Mumtaz. The other grieving men, Usman and Parmod, are basically aspects of male obsession.

he Usman-Gulab love story is Zaidi's little joke at men who insist on infantilising their better halves. The comic relief that Usman provides is short-lived; through him, we recognise the streaks of madness that are never far from the scene when one is in love. When Usman speaks about Gulab's innocence and her Spartan ways like a stuck record, we realise that this is all that he is convinced about in the world. He is a man adrift in an ocean of his own making. Nikunj realises that in his search for the truth about Saira, there is a chance he might end up like Usman. But the die has been cast and Nikunj's pent-up frustration with his life forces him to push further and further until he is face to face with Saira's secret.

The conclusion of the book may not be to everyone's taste. Indeed, like most good ghost stories, not every detail is explained in full. The "rules" of the altered universe are not what Zaidi's really concerned about. (In any case, these technicalities often end up as social media debate fodder, rather than contributing anything meaningful to the book.) What she wants is to show how obsession can encroach upon the boundaries of reality, how each of us carefully construct our own beta versions of the truth every single day of our lives. Sometimes, these beta versions have surprisingly persistent bugs.

I have now read Zaidi's reportage (Known Turf), her poetry, her short stories (Love Stories #1-13), a play (So Many Socks), even Sunset People, a lovely little Manta Ray mini-comic that she wrote, illustrated by Rajiv Eipe. Writing crisp, honest, incisive dialogue (and interior monologues) comes naturally to her. This, above all, holds the key to her adaptability.

I started to read Gulab first thing on a Sunday morning and ended up finishing it in two great greedy gulps, bookended by brunch and late lunch. Whether you believe in ghosts or not, you will be charmed by this little gem of a novella.

 
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