There’s that ‘thin line’ that apparently exists between friendship and love – a line demarcated by passion, intensity, desire. I (and many others, of course) have often wondered how people draw that line, how you know if you’ve crossed it and whether, in fact, it exists at all.
Antara Ganguli’s Tanya Tania is, at its core, a story of female friendship. It starts with two young teenagers, one in Bombay (in the pre-Mumbai era) and one in Karachi, who start to write each other letters in 1991. Their mothers are friends and encourage their daughters to get to know each other. The beginning is a little hard to read, but in a way that actually compliments Ganguli’s writing – Tania Ghosh (in Bombay) is an incredibly annoying, self-obsessed teenage girl with a “serious attitude problem” (in the words of the school teachers I imagine her having).
“A movie about Bombay teenagers? BORING! I mean, not me. Between school and keeping my mom off my back and trying to keep my boyfriend from having sex with me (or anyone else), I really don’t have time to write,” she says at the beginning of her first letter, before she goes on to do just that – write. Her letters are borderline obnoxious, to the extent that I had to push through them, constantly wondering why Tanya Talati (in Karachi) continued to respond, yet wanting to know what they would talk about next.
They get to know each other. Tania gets less irritating and Tanya less formal; the book, like their relationship, gets easier. They talk about their difficult families (Tanya’s American-born mother has serious mental health issues that everyone else is ignoring, Tania’s parents no longer get along, let alone love each other). And, in a confused and subtle way, they talk about politics. College-obsessed Tanya writes at one point, when she is particularly annoyed by Tania’s boy troubles:
“In case you hadn’t noticed, your life is a little different from mine. While you sit around machinating and scheming about boyfriends and social power, the boys I have grown up with are getting death threats. In school these days, we all get nervous when a boy is absent. Musti’s parents have decided to send Musti and his brother to boarding schools in the UK. They are in the UK now, looking at schools. There are rumours everywhere.
No one can fully explain the kidnappings, although our political parties are blaming each other. Natasha said she is going to write her college essay about sectarian violence in Pakistan. It sounds like a good idea on the face of it but I think it’s too superficial. It’s like a black student in America writing about racism.”
That is Ganguli’s real achievement – she brings out complex political realities in India and Pakistan in the early 90s through the lens of privileged young people who in fact want to have nothing to do with it – but aren’t given that choice, despite their comfortable bubbles. And through it all, they get closer, telling each other more and more about their personal lives, moving their long-distance friendship onto the phone as well, writing to each other with a heightened sense of urgency and intensity.
All through this part of the book, Ganguli is playing with time. Each chapter begins with one, just one, letter from Tanya, now in New York, in 1996. Her letters make it clear that there was a serious falling out between the two – they haven’t been in touch since 1992. Tanya’s tone has changed quite dramatically – she is older, more composed, more confident in her words, but just as vulnerable when it come to Tania. Tanya is responsible for whatever went wrong, her letters suggest, though she thinks she deserves forgiveness. But that one letter ends and the reader finds herself back in 1991-2, to the extent that it’s almost a whole new surprise when you get to the beginning of the next chapter and realise again that this friendship no longer exists.
And then the dark side of friendship (which looks too much like the dark side of love for comfort) rears its ugly head. Tania, in many of her letters, talks about Nusrat. Nusrat works in her house; she can’t speak because her brain was affected in an accident. Nusrat and Tania are close – Tania tells her everything. Nusrat is smart and patient, and communicates through the written word. Nusrat is the one person Tania fears judgment from. Tanya’s responses are always curious but formal when it comes to things about Nusrat – a few questions, but no engagement, really. And it’s only at the end that you realise why that should have given you a hint of the troubles ahead.
The last two chapters of the book are devastating – both politically (though you see that part coming: Tania has talked much about the rise of Hindutva – “so boring” – and Tanya continues to see people around her get kidnapped and receive death threats) and personally (for both Tania and Tanya, and for their relationship). It also left me with no sense of where that ‘thin line’ lies – of what it means to love, to want love, to do things that will hurt everyone around you just to hold onto something that feels like love.
It is admirable that Ganguli didn’t feel the need to give us a happy ending, she could have forced one if she tried. What she gives us instead is a glimmer (and really, it’s just a glimmer) of hope in the backdrop of everything going sour, of how to move on without forgetting. And given where we are today, that glimmer is far more realistic than any attempt to tie the hundreds of loose strings that emerged in Tanya Tania, as well as in the worlds it is written about, together.