‘Society conditions women to be apologetic’

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BY: Divya Kala Bhavani

A perusal of the striking cover of A Girl Like That is enough to pull readers in; a brown-skinned girl wearing a headscarf and bright pink lipstick and mirrored green shades as she observes a Middle Eastern structure; it showcases the contemporary global identity, indicating we are a signature of where we grew up, how we were brought up and where we are headed.

And with author Tanaz Bhathena having been born in India, raised in Saudi Arabia and Canada, A Girl Like That harmonises this quite well. “I wanted to write a book set in Saudi Arabia with a focus on middle-class Indian expats, who were also teenagers,” she starts, “I’d read a lot of books set in the Kingdom, but none of them explored this particular demographic and it was one I was pretty familiar with, having grown up there. A Girl Like That began as a short story.”

She acknowledges that while it’s not entirely based on personal experience, a lot of the setting and culture described in the book comes from memory.

Warring internal landscapes

The epicentre of the story is Zarin, a layeredly tenacious girl who’s enduring society’s whispers about her. Zarin, who’s an orphan as the result of an harrowing accident, resides with her aunt and uncle with whom she experiences strong differences in culture and behaviour. Ultimately, while Zarin is seen as a troublemaker, it’s her voice that will make her loved by universal readers. According to Tanaz, Zarin’s voice came to her as naturally when she decided to bring to life a Parsi character. “She was different from me in personality,” she comments, “she had an incredibly strong voice, and she wasn’t afraid to be herself, even when she made mistakes. It was the latter part that I focused on while writing the book — her courage and absolute refusal to accept anyone else’s definition of who she was.”

‘Society conditions women to be apologetic’

Just a glimpse of the language within the book, observes Tanaz’s natural grasp for intrinsic behavioural analyses. “Initially this book included adult perspectives with backstories about Zarin’s parents and her aunt and uncle. Whenever I write a book, the first question I ask myself is ‘Why is this character behaving this way?’ and these backstories helped me a great deal when it came to understanding the relationship dynamics between characters. Upbringing also plays a major role in shaping your personality and that’s what helped shape Zarin’s internal landscape.”

Gender debates

And it’s from lessons, large and small, throughout the story, that continue to see Zarin both thrive and fail as any well-constructed protagonists do. A Girl Like That contributes to the aggrandisement of unapologetic women in both popular culture and day-to-day life.

“Society conditions women, in general, to be apologetic for far too many things—even things they are not at fault for,” she states, “It’s part of the reason glass ceilings and gender-based pay differences still exist. What I love about Zarin’s character is how she refuses to apologise for who she is even when things get tough and that’s what I hope to encourage with A Girl Like That.”

And such stories teach plenty about the under-valued and under-practised notions of self-love; that people will not necessarily love those who do not love themselves. While Zarin goes through waves of self-doubt and frustration and triumph, it makes her relatable to any reader, regardless of gender too.

The story is distinctly told through two perspectives: that of Zarin and that of Porus, a boy who cares deeply for her — a nice switch-up for readers.

A well-read young woman, Tanaz, often draws on favourite novels and essays she’s stumbled upon as a reader. “My favourite novels often make me think about the world I live in. I hope that A Girl Like That will do the same for readers and also spur discussion about gender discrimination and why it still exists in modern society.”

‘A Girl Like That’ by Tanaz Bhathena (₹399) is available at leading bookstores across India.

Courtesy The Hindu

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