From Karachi to Bombay, with love

A new novel tells the story of friendship tainted by sectarian violence in India and Pakistan

In the midst of reading Antara Ganguli’s new book, Tanya Tania, another novel, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, comes to mind. It’s not the story which stirs the recollection, but the epistolary nature of the two novels. How often do you find books that tell you entire stories, solely through a chain of letters? Thanks to the slowly vanishing craft, anything that preserves such a memory is welcome.

For 36-year-old Ganguli, it was her love for writing long letters as a teenager that helped define this novel. But, there was a larger, overriding picture that served as the backdrop for the book.

Antara Ganguli’s Tanya Tania is a collection of letters exchanged between the daughters of friends from college, on either side of the border. PIC/Iresh Zaker
Antara Ganguli’s Tanya Tania is a collection of letters exchanged between the daughters of friends from college, on either side of the border. PIC/Iresh Zaker

Tanya Tania, which is set for release next month, is a collection of letters spanning six years, exchanged between Tanya Talati in Karachi and Tania Ghosh in Bombay — daughters of best friends from college — living amid the simmering sectarian tensions in Pakistan and India, in the aftermath of the demolition of the 16th century Babri Masjid mosque. “The Mumbai riots of 1992 affected me deeply,” recalls Ganguli, who at the time was studying at Fort’s JB Petit High School for Girls.

“As a child, I grew up in a blissfully oblivious environment because my family was not religious. And suddenly, because of the riots, I was unable to meet a person, without immediately registering or at least wondering what their religion was,” she shares.

Ganguli, who was all of 13 then, even remembers writing down the names of the girls in her class to identify who was Hindu and Muslim. It’s not something that she is proud of, but Tanya Tania helped put to rest those unfounded identity issues that tormented her childhood. “I’ve always had this fantasy where women of the sub-continent engage with each other as ‘persons’,” she says.

The need was fuelled by her personal involvement with women in the region. Ganguli, who currently works in Dhaka, with one of the largest international development organisations, is closely involved with women empowerment programmes for students and female migrant workers.

Her career in international relations ensured a peripatetic life, as she travelled to over 14 countries, many of which were regions in the sub-continent.

“What I learned was that there isn’t much of difference in the lives we women lead, the kind of politics we live with and the negotiations we make. Some of my roommates in the US were from Karachi, and the issues that we talked about were more or less the same. In a way, this book of letters came from that realisation,” adds Ganguli. Interestingly, her close friends, two of whom share the same name — Tania — and hail from the two countries in conflict, inspired the characters of her book. “The name will hopefully raise questions about similarities in lives across all sorts of borders.”

The writer took over a year to complete the novel. “But, it has been in the process since the riots. I always knew that I wanted to revisit the stories,” says Ganguli. She, however, wouldn’t like to reduce the book to a story only about the riots. “It’s a story about two girls becoming women.”

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