Book Review: Gulab by Annie Zaidi

I recently reviewed Annie Zaidi’s novella Gulab for TimeOut Delhi. I’m reproducing the content here but you can also access the original post using this link.

Book Review: Gulab

Annie Zaidi gives us a quaint retelling of an unfulfilled romance.
GulabAnnie Zaidi’s novella Gulab is a quick read combining tropes of unrequited love with those of the paranor­mal; an association quite removed from the usual romance plot. Gulabnarrative begins promisingly with the first-person narrator, Nikunj, making his way to a gravesite to pay his respects to his long lost love, Saira, nervously retelling their story as he prepares to see her for the first time in 15 years.

This ordinary journey for closure takes on extraordinary shades when the site at which Nikunj’s Saira is believed to have been bur­ied turns out to be the final resting place of two other women. To fur­ther complicate matters, another woman, Rani, appears at the same gravesite claiming to know the woman buried beneath the mound of recently turned earth. What ensues is Nikunj’s quest to uncover the identity of these women and the mystery behind how their lives seem eerily associ­ated with his own Saira.

Zaidi intersperses this pursuit for the truth with sketches of the women believed to be buried in the same grave, through the recollec­tions of the men who loved each of them. The story is further imbued with the complexities of religion and communal strife with the nar­rative’s major characters belong­ing to different religious denomi­nations. There is also fleeting reference to a devastating earth­quake that ripped through the town where Nikunj and Saira lived and caused their permanent sepa­ration. Nikunj refers to the year of the earthquake as one during which he determinedly searched for Saira, but failed to find her. It was with the belief that Saira had perished in the earthquake that Nikunj moved on and eventually married his wife Sucheta and had two children with her.

Limiting the events of the story to a mere 24 hours, and the length of a novella, Zaidi attempts to con­struct a complex narrative within a very limited time frame. As a result, the development of charac­ter and plot are equally impacted. Sequences such as the physical fight that takes place between Parmod and Usman, both claiming their wives are buried at the same site, takes on almost comical tones and seems like an unneces­sary distraction from an already intricate plot. The narrative space given to a mysterious gravedigger who seems to know more than he lets on is similarly disruptive, failing to add what I imagine was an intended dimen­sion of suspense to the story’s supernatural aspect.

It seems that the most compel­ling facet of the story is subsumed by an attempt to maintain an aura of the otherworldly. Although the story revolves around Nikunj and Saira, it is only his reminiscences of their love that we as readers have access to. Zaidi alludes to the improbability of the flawless image of Saira that Nikunj car­ries with him, as do Usman and Parmod of their own wives. At the risk of giving too much away, it would seem that the women Saira becomes in her afterlife, as described by Rani, appear far more believable than the one-dimensional objects of desire that the male characters mourn at the graveyard. As the plot develops toward Nikunj’s eventual discov­ery, Saira comes across as a full-fledged woman full of desires and unfulfilled aspirations and capable of making choices that lead to their actualisation. Gulab seems to question ideas of permanence through the transient manifesta­tions of Saira’s personalities and how death of a loved one can cloud our assessment of their personas when they were living, breathing beings. However, the intricacies of the plot’s mystical dimensions rel­egate this feature of the narrative to the backburner.

Replete with dialogue and reminiscing monologues, Gulab is a story that would work well on stage. As a novella, the plot tends to drag in parts and seems forced into a format longer than suited to the story. All the same, in a genre overburdened by trite plots of love and loss, Zaidi gives us a quaint retelling of an unfulfilled romance that reaches beyond conventional notions of the normal in its desire to be realised.

Annie Zaidi Harper Collins India, R350

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