A Girl Like That by Tanaz Bhathena
Published by: Penguin Random House
Fiction, Young Adult 378p
Rating: 4/5 stars
Sixteen-year-old Zarin Wadia is many things: a bright and vivacious student, an orphan, a risk taker. She’s also the kind of girl that parents warn their kids to stay away from: a troublemaker whose many romances are the subject of endless gossip at school. You don’t want to get involved with a girl like that, they say. So how is it that eighteen-year-old Porus Dumasia has only ever had eyes for her? And how did Zarin and Porus end up dead in a car together, crashed on the side of a highway in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia? When the religious police arrive on the scene, everything everyone thought they knew about Zarin is questioned. And as her story is pieced together, told through multiple perspectives, it becomes clear that she was far more than just a girl like that.
This beautifully written debut novel from Tanaz Bhathena reveals a rich and wonderful new world to readers. It tackles complicated issues of race, identity, class, and religion, and paints a portrait of teenage ambition, angst, and alienation that feels both inventive and universal.
Before I come to my review: a huge shout out to Vivek Tejuja for this review copy of Tannaz Bhathena’s novel.
The book summary of A Girl Like That tells the reader in no uncertain terms that it is going to be about Zarin Wadia who lies dead in a car crash on a highway in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Also dead along with her is 18yr old Porus Dumasia. The first chapter of the book not only describes the gory details at the scene of the crash but different reactions of characters that we are to read more of in the pages that follow: Zarin’s maternal aunt and her husband, Porus’s mother and the religious police (referred to as muttawe’en or Hai’a who enforces Sharia law). The religious police play an integral part in the book and in the lives of the young students at Qala Academy with their strict policing on how and when young people venture out and how they dress. The fear that many characters feel about them gives the reader a sense of claustrophobia and dread. But while the religious police do not end up playing the villains of the piece, one grapples with who really are the villains in this book. Is it the abusive and slightly frayed out and neurotic maternal aunt, Zarin’s Masi or is it the silent Masa who will not intervene on Zarin’s behalf? Who is at fault is it when society judges Zarin for the way she is or when it judges her mother for becoming a cabaret dancer and then getting involved with a hit man who is of a different religion?
A Girl Like That is not a regular coming of age Young Adult novel but one that features young people and their self absorbed lives but also questions every bit of societal hypocrisy, prejudices and rules that judge people without ever giving a chance to hear out and understand the ‘other’. It is a disturbing read but one that is necessary in the times we live in where we all jump at any given chance to judge and other someone who is different.
As each main protagonist recounts his/her back story in context to Zarin, the reader gets to see just how heavily the odds are stacked against her: a highly competitive Mishal who has her own demons to fight with and who is totally antagonistic to Zarin; two testosterone fuelled and handsome boys who rush into flings with Zarin, one of them going on to harm Zarin, Porus and then himself in later years. These young characters, their interactions and frictions with one another and then the adult world where Zarin is only a misfit, someone to be tagged with ‘a girl like THAT’; is what forms the core of the book.
Tanaz Bhathena’s debut novel packs quite the punch and I will certainly watch out for her writings in the future. I would certainly recommend A Girl Like That as serious reading and discussions amongst parents and children, teachers and students and for book club discussions.