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Zen : A Multigenerational Tale

The cover of the book Zen by Shabnam Minwalla in hues of pink and green. Featuring the Taj Mahal Hotel and Gateway of India, Mumbai, as viewed through pillared arches
Zen by Shabnam Minwalla

The only thing that could stop me as I read ZEN by Shabnam Minwalla was the snippets of songs, poetry or quotes at the start of each chapter. I couldn’t help but try to fit the correct melody to the lyrics. Otherwise it was just UNPUTDOWNABLE!

And those lyrics and quotes set the tone as I delved into each chapter.

Then there were the colours…from the endpapers that left me wondering what these shades meant, to the interspersing of the whimsical names as chapter titles or to describe eyes, clothes, fabric, threads, weather, emotions and more, colours played a huge role, painting the words on the page into vivid pictures in my mind. 

While weaving together historical fiction, set against the backdrop of the Independence movement, together with a contemporary tale of our times, set against the backdrop of the CAA and NRC protests, the author seamlessly blends the multi-generational story of Zainab and Zen through a mixed approach of a third person narrative, diary entries, Whatsapp chats and newspaper articles, deftly moving the story along and keeping the reader hooked…as I was!!

It is so skilfully written that I couldn’t help but marvel at how Zen, is a  political, religious and social commentary that addresses a range of issues, all deftly wrapped up in two heart-thumping teenage love stories and one wee little murder mystery. 

From the sheltered lives and arranged marriages of Muslim girls in 1930’s India, to the mixed-marriages of today. From Muslims who were actively part of the freedom struggle, to the inexplicable rise of Islamophobia. From forthright youngsters who know what they stand for, to the spineless of all ages who sway with every Whatsapp forward. From freedom fighters who constantly challenged the rulers, to being ‘anti-national’ for questioning government policies, today. Love stories in secret, unlikely love, forbidden love and a range of characters that highlight the cosmopolitan nature of Bombay past and present, and the city itself as a compelling character…there is much that Zen packs in. 

This is a book that is hard to put down, given how skilfully this is all woven together. What I particularly love about this book is that it will make you pause, forcing you to look deeply at your own biases and perspectives, with honesty. 

As much as this book has addressed stereotypes and bigotry, and especially so, I was extremely disappointed to read the typical casting of a Christian character as a drunkard, the English woman or Anglo-India as the vamp, perpetuating the damage done by these dated Bollywood stereotypes.

The font of the diary pages were so difficult to read that given the fact that I have only just started wearing reading glasses, I wondered if they were the wrong power.

Yet, despite this, Zen is a gem. A masterpiece  of writing. 

It is a book that I am going to be recommending to all my high-school students.

Go on, read it and if you have, do share your thoughts in the comments. 

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