Nikunj Seth was in love with Saira Husnain. Their love had started young, yet remained strong. They were determined to make their differences work. But one tragedy struck after another, making them wait for the opportune moment to broach the subject of marriage. Then the earthquake occurred and Saira Husnain vanished from Nikunj’s life.
Life went on and Nikunj got married, settling down. Yet each day he felt utterly bereft. He fantasized about finding Saira again. Her dropping in on his daily life, eloping to build a life together where no one knew them—these were routine thoughts. He had kept day-dreaming until Nikunj received a curious telegram. Saira was dead and he was requested to attend her funeral.
Annie Zaidi, with her restrained prose which conflates English with Hindi and Urdu vernaculars, manages to evoke many emotions. The dialogue is robust—undulating through the languages expertly. That, along with the tenebrous and eerie atmosphere espoused by graveyards, incites a feeling of uneasiness. The narrative, fascinatingly, has a distinct impression of a stage play, which does not come as a surprise considering Annie is an award-winning playwright.
The story, in its initial phase, seems to be just a weird love story where a dead woman’s lovers come face to face—an inspiration which Annie acknowledges comes from a publication in her college magazine. But it develops into a mystery thriller as each lover brings with them conflicting, almost paradoxical information. The dramatic turns as the events unfold are indubitably riveting.
The central character Nikunj is a sweaty, whiny, middle-aged man packed tightly in a formal suit. He is deeply romantic, yet utterly pragmatic. He pines for his lost love, carrying the memories with an onerous devotion while capitulating to social pressures and moving on. Zaidi cited that this was all very much intended in an attempt to break away from cliches: “I don’t like the idea of all protagonists being young and/or attractive, for one.” Nikunj is a facsimile of men we observe in real life.
The supporting characters act in quaint ways, which seldom culminates into absurdity. They are distinct from each other and prudently included in the story as necessary. Among them, there is Pramod, a bellicose bigot, who marries Saira but does not acknowledge her to his family and wife. There is Usman, a butcher—easy to anger, quick to be violent. He knows Saira as his lovely and dutiful wife Gulab. And then there is Rani, stoic and mysterious, the key to the whole mystery.
The cornerstone character, Saira Hasnain, is a presence shrouded in deliberate mystery. The lust for life left the spirit of Saira to linger. A lust so strong that led her to live several more lives. Through this character, Zaidi illustrates the crucial idea voiced by the gravedigger: “but the dead are people, Saab. What did you think? Do people stop being people afterward?”
Annie Zaidi playfully banters about simple truths. One cannot ignore that Zaidi is cleverly castigating the way men create an idealized simulacrum of their lovers and wives in their minds—the image of a woman who is beautiful and unwaveringly dedicated to him. In a most cogent passage, Saira asks, “It is strange, isn’t it? How a man can know nothing about a woman and yet claim to love her.” While elsewhere, Nikunj confesses, "I never asked her what she wanted from life. I assumed she wanted me." Zaidi boldly swats away the typical notions of the romantic hero, as each of the men in the novella is emotionally myopic and addled by the idea of love that they cannot separate the person of their affection from an object of passion.
The novella has a few issues, though. Zaidi often does not approach writing with a complete plan of the narrative in mind. It is not only a ghost story, or a love story, or a mystery, or a thriller but an eccentric mixture of them all. The pacing also varies, having a trudging start and the ephemeral length of the novella which sharply rushes to a halt in the denouement.
Notwithstanding these minor issues, Gulab is an excellent novella in which a plethora of intriguing ideas and social truths are delivered in a clever, funny, and creepy tale. It is sure to entertain one for an evening. But with added attention to the careful planning of the narrative, the novella could have had the edge to become a masterwork of fiction.
Masud Hoque writes reviews for Arts & Letters.