If the story was told only from Zarin’s point of view, the chances of monotony creeping in were high.
When I heard this book’s name A Girl Like That by Tanaz Bhathena, I was curious to read it as the title has that intrigue factor. I found the cover too quite intriguing.
The story starts with the scene of a wreckage on the Al-Harameen Expressway in Jeddah, a Nisan crumpled like a Pepsi can, and 18-year-old boy Porus Dumasia and 16-year-old girl Zarin Wadia inside the car are dead. The two hover over the scene of the accident as spirits/souls, watching their families: Zarin’s masi and masa and Porus’ mother being questioned by the Saudi police.
Most of the story is told in flashback, a few days after her mother who worked as a bar dancer, dancing to the remixed versions of popular Hindi songs died, four-year-old Zarin comes to live with her maternal aunt and uncle, a childless couple who adopt this illegitimate girl, giving her their surname and filling in the blank left by her father, who was a hitman for a Mumbai don. A father who abandoned her mother and her, running away to Dubai where he was shot dead.
For two years Zarin lived with her aunt and uncle in Cama Parsi colony in Mumbai till her uncle accepted a job as an assistant plant manager for a meat-packing factory in Jeddah (Saudi Arabia). Jeddah with its shimmery coastline, giant roundabouts and brightly-lit malls, where the air was hot and dense and somehow always smelled of the sea, plays a major part in the story, becoming one of the characters.
In Jeddah, Zarin studies in Qala Academy where she is a square peg in a round hole, making more enemies than friends. In Class 1, her classmates find out that she lied about having parents, in Class 2 she showed up with short hair and weird brown leggings, in Class 9, they smelled cigarettes on her.
Mishal Al-Abdulaziz, the meanest girl in Qala Academy, becomes Zarin’s bete noire and archrival and things reach a boiling point when Zarin starts dating Mishal’s elder brother Abdullah, the sports captain of the academy. She dumps him after a fight then hooks up with his good friend Farhan Rizvi, the head boy and school heart throb.
Zarin is the kind of girl most parents warn their daughters not to befriend and sons not to date. She is a girl with a penchant for skipping school on Thursdays, going on long drives with guys, smoking cigarettes, blowing rings in the guy’s face, spending time with him kissing, chatting and eating, before being dropped off a block away from her apartment building, moments before the school bus arrives.
Zarin meets Porus, a boy she had briefly met in Mumbai, when she stayed with her aunt and uncle. Porus has come to Jeddah after his father’s death, working in a deli run by an old Palestinian, where she runs errands for her aunt. Zarin and Porus pick up threads of their brief childhood friendship, with Porus becoming her self-appointed bodyguard, warning her when she dates Abdullah and Farhan. Porus is not just in love with her, he is her saviour too.
The book makes for a good read, for a story that doesn’t have a single thriller element, it’s racy and interesting, giving a close glimpse into the life of a teenage girl in Saudi Arabia, revealing a wonderful new world to the readers. Though I did find Zarin a bit of a rebel without a cause and someone who liked to live life on the razor’s edge. I also found her frivolous, her stubbornness and wilfulness were utilised to irritate her aunt rather than for anything else, giving her aunt peptic ulcers by staring back at boys when she is asked to lower her gaze or turn her face away.
What works in the book’s favour are the four narrators: Zarin, Porus, Mishal and Farhan, each one pushes the story further, weaving their own personal lives into the narrative. This element really worked for me. If the story was told only from Zarin’s point of view, the chances of monotony creeping in were high. In this way, the variety of narrators adds the much-needed spice into the story.
Rachna Chhabria is a Bengaluru-based children’s author and a freelance writer