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A Girl Like That by Tanaz Bhathena Is the Feminist Writing We Need in Today’s Society

There are many books that are written about women and the way they are either sexualised of demonised for their bodies in the society. Many women have to deal with lecherous stares, harassment, and worse, just because they do not subscribe to the guidelines of respectability that the society has created.

A Girl Like That by Tanaz Bhathena is one of those rare books that gives the woman a voice. This is a story about a sixteen-year-old girl, and her travels in the world. 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; 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.This is a book that will titillate you and prod you to read the next page, as fast as you can.

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Read an excerpt from Tanaz Bhathena’s A Girl Like That here:

There was something about the boy's back that caught my eye, that made me pause on the way to the used-books stall and watch him string lights over a painted wooden stand at the annual school fair the summer I turned fourteen. Hours later, when the air cooled and the sky darkened, the lights would ash red, blue, green, and yellow and hordes of students would squeeze into the parking lot at Qala Academy’s boys’ section in Sharayah to stuff their faces with popcorn and cotton candy, buy bangles and DVDs, and throw darts at colored balloons to win cheap two-riyal toys made of old sofa foam and lint-covered velvet.

Maybe it was the translucent white polyester of his shirt that revealed the absence of the white undershirt worn by most schoolboys. Or the breeze that pressed said shirt to the long, smooth indent of his spine: a tunnel that trailed from nape to waist, flanked with thick muscle on both sides. Or maybe it was simply the novelty of being able to leisurely stare at a boy, without Masi constantly hovering around me like an overprotective bulldog.

“She’s growing up fast,” I had often heard her complain to Masa. “Too fast.”

Too fast based on the looks she said I got from boys and even from some men at the deli, the supermarket, and the mall. From the way I walked, my “hips swaying like a loose woman’s,” if the boy that followed me home from the DVD store when I was eleven was any indication—even though at the time I had not known what it meant to be a loose woman.

Too fast, like my mother. A woman who, even as a teenager, wore no sudreh under her clothes and tied no kusti around her waist. “How could she?” Masi’s voice would boom through the house, as loud as a priest’s at prayer time. “With those small - small shirts that she wore? ‘It wouldn’t be fashionable,’ she would always say.”

According to Masi, the story of my birth could have been made into a tragic film for Indian parallel cinema. My mother had worked as a bar girl in Mumbai, a woman who danced to remixed versions of popular Hindi songs in a shower of Gandhi-faced rupee notes, accompanied by drunken compliments and whistles. After my great-grandfather’s death, it was the only way she could make money to support herself and her younger sister, my masi—not that Masi was ever grateful. My father worked as a hit man for a Mumbai don. He and my mother fell in love, did not marry, but had me. Then my father abandoned my mother, went off to Dubai, and got blown up by a pair of guns. The End.

There had been several articles in the newspapers about my father’s death. “Fugitive Mumbai Gangster Shot Dead in Dubai.” “Massacre in Deira.” “Suraj Shinde’s Final Salaam.” On a trip back to Mumbai, I looked up these headlines one afternoon in the archives of a public library and even managed to find a small color photo of him—a broad-shouldered man with a square jaw, warm brown skin, and a frown exactly like mine. My mother’s death, on the other hand, was not documented anywhere, except perhaps in a Mumbai morgue. I would hear Masi talking to the Dog Lady about it at times over the phone—how some of my mother’s bar patrons had shown up at the funeral—until the talk inevitably turned to me and the way I behaved after my mother died. “Never even cried, that girl,” Masi would always say. “You’d think she had no feelings whatsoever. She makes me so angry sometimes. Keeps egging me on until I hit her.”

My uncle had never approved of her hitting me. I had heard them fighting about it once a couple of years ago, when she’d left a bruise on my cheek for failing a Math test. But apart from that, he rarely, if ever, intervened about any other form of punishment Masi doled out. My disobedience was something he didn’t approve of either; he often told me that Masi and I would get along better if I listened to her more, if I tried harder at school, if I didn’t make her so angry by being argumentative. In any case, Masa could never stay mad at her for long. The night they had argued, Masi woke us up with her screams. “I won’t let you!” Masi’s body jerked upward as she struggled against my uncle’s grip on her wrists. Her teeth gnashed. White drool gathered at the corners of her lips. “She isn’t—she isn’t going with you!”

I’d watched Masa gently coax her out of the episode, the way he had several times before in Mumbai. “It’s okay, Khorshi. It’s okay. Did you forget your medicine again?” It took him two hours to make her take the pills and then soothe her back to sleep, crooning an old Hindi love song. A lullaby for a grown woman. Neither of them seemed to notice that I was there, watching from behind the partly open bedroom door. I, on the other hand, never screamed when I had a nightmare. Neither Masa nor Masi knew about the cold sweats I woke up to late at night when I first came to live with them in Mumbai, or the ones I sometimes woke up to even now in Jeddah. Most nights I dreamed of my mother, saw candles glowing, tasted chocolate cakes on my lips. “Smile!” she would say, and a flash would go off repeatedly, until I woke up with a start. Other nights, I would have different dreams. Scarier ones of a man tossing me up high into the air. A loud cracking sound. A woman’s scream.

But then, just as quickly, the mornings would come and Masi’s voice would rise, sonorous in prayer. I would turn once more into the Zarin they knew—a girl who no longer cried or jumped back in surprise when her aunt gave her a beating. One day she made me so angry that I stuffed my underwear in a clothes drawer, allowing the navy-blue cloth of my academy kameez to touch my skin without hindrance, resisting the itch of the rough cotton. It had been worth it to hear Masi screech when she saw the outline of my nipples through the cloth—even more satisfying than the way her face purpled each time I winked at a boy at the mall or exchanged smiles with one at the supermarket.

It no longer mattered what Rusi Masa said in her defense— “She means well!” or “It’s for your own good!” By then, I was fourteen and I already knew the truth: that Masi’s protectionism stemmed not out of a genuine concern for my well-being, but from a paranoia of having males around me, especially those who reminded her of my “good-for-nothing gangster father.”

It was basic psychology, Mishal Al-Abdulaziz told us at school. Girls were often attracted to boys who reminded them of their fathers, and boys, in turn, to girls who reminded them of their mothers.

These selected portions have been excerpted from A Girl Like That by Tanaz Bhathena, published by Penguin Random House India.

Tanaz Bhathena was born in India and raised in Saudi Arabia and Canada. She is the author of A Girl Like That and The Beauty of the Moment (forthcoming in 2019). Her short stories have appeared in various journals including Blackbird, Witness, and Room.

A wanderer at heart, Tanaz can often be found travelling to different countries, learning bits and pieces of a foreign language, and learning from the cultures she comes across.

You can buy A Girl Like That here.

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