Zen by Shabnam Minwalla (Duckbill, Penguin) is an ideal book to snuggle with over a weekend. This is a page turner that has so much packed into it, and yet, it all flows so effortlessly and comes together beautifully. At the heart of the story are two young girls- both named Zainab. Their lives intertwine in unimaginable ways though they are separated by decades in time.
Zainab Essaji, living in the Bombay of 1935 wants to be a part of the independence movement. At the same time, she fights against a patriarchal set up and tries to find her true self. Zainab Currimji lives in the same area, but now the city is called Mumbai. She is a standard 11 student, an affluent but level headed girl, trying to find her place in the world. Both Zainabs collide in unimaginable ways.
The narrative moves between a diary written by Zainab of the past, along with the story of Zainab of the present. Other endearing characters are also a part of this endearing tapestry. There is a lot going on and many themes are addressed- human rights, discrimination on basis of religion, freedom to love, bigotry, the power vested in young people, and so much more.
The setting of the story is Mumbai, so much so that I felt that the city was a character in itself. We see Mumbai in all her glory and gore. Replete with the old-world charm of areas like Colaba in the 1930s to the modern metropolis it has become, the city has a strong presence in the narrative.
Minwalla is a master of her craft. She has a pulse on the YA readership and senses the zeitgeist of the times. She also captures the essence of the past. Her portrayal of the inner words of the protagonists shows a deep grasp of their psychology. She effortlessly weaves in a gripping narrative, suspense, romance and pressing concerning political issues in a hard to put down tale! This one’s a clear winner for both YA and Adult readership.