While genre literature in the subcontinent is now being published more frequently, it isn’t all that often that you come across a ghost story that reminds you (in the best of ways) of those that filled the pages of Urdu digests and magazines from a couple of decades ago. Bombay-based writer Annie Zaidi’s novella Gulab is one such story—clever, funny, and of course, creepy.
Gulab starts with a very unlikely romantic hero—the lead protagonist Nikunj is a sweaty, whiny man packed tight in a formal suit while attempting to say goodbye to the one true love of his life, Saira. Having assumed she had died in an earthquake many years ago when the building she lived in collapsed, Nikunj is shocked when he receives a telegram informing him of her death and burial.
Even though he is now married and settled, he has fantasised about finding her alive many times—the two young lovers had been waiting for the ‘right’ time to tell their parents of their decision to get married for years, until ‘the earth itself took away all the options’ and Saira vanished.
Decades later, a much older Nikunj finds himself in a graveyard, telegram clutched in sticky paw, trying to locate Saira’s grave, as he sweats and stumbles around the place. He meets two men there, Usman and Parmod, who both insist that Saira’s grave is actually that of their deceased wives, Gulab and Mumtaz respectively. Neither of the other men can understand why someone would place an incorrect gravestone over their wives’ graves, neither can understand why the grave is marked with a much earlier date than their wives’ deaths. Nikunj is equally confused because Saira’s grave is not fresh—if she died and was buried years ago, why was he sent a telegram now? Who sent it? He has nothing to say to either of the other men and all three grieve in their own ways, lamenting the loss of the woman whom they loved more than life itself—or so they say.
A mysterious woman in a burqa enters this melee, planting flowers on the same grave. She won’t let any of the men stop her and seems to know more than they do: ‘Nothing in that moment seemed real. There was something caricature-like about it. As if this entire scene was a crayon drawing in a child’s sketchbook.’ She tells the men that none of them truly understand what has happened and while we agree with her, we don’t really understand either—not yet. The actual ghost in this story, that of Saira, appears very little and just towards the very end, even though the central figure in the novella is the dead woman. There are very few other characters in the book and, over email, Zaidi said she added them ‘only sparingly, only if they were necessary to [the] storytelling. I wanted to hold onto a sense of starkness, and isolation, and too many people may have interfered.’
Without any spoilers, what is truly horrific about the ghost is her abject desperation to have what she cannot—in a way, that’s what’s horrific about most ghosts, their refusal to leave, refusal to accept that this life is over. Except this one’s desperation is strong enough for her to take a on a physical mantle for a sort of second and third attempt at life. When Nikunj expresses further confusion, a gravedigger, bare chested in his checked lungi who appears to be the only one in on the ghost logic tells him, ‘but the dead are people, saab. What did you think? Do people stop being people afterwards?’ It is then that Nikunj understands: ‘Dead people slurping chai, or sniffing the air when they walk past a cake shop—this should be a natural idea then. And the idea that they might desire a beautiful body, that their desire should be so intense that they wanted to possess a body, own it, swallow it whole, become it—why did this seem like such an unnatural idea?’
There is much absurdity in Gulab, a sort of irreverent, camp and honest look at society, love and possession. Zaidi discards the idea of the standard romantic hero entirely—each one of the men she has created are emotionally stunted and too caught up with the idea of love to truly understand the object of their affection—the mysterious Saira, whether they know her as Gulab or Mumtaz. Zaidi explains, ‘I was thinking of how much we really know about someone, even if we think we love them, and how invested anyone can be in the desires of the beloved. Especially if those are desires not fulfilled by oneself.’ As much as Gulab works as a ghost story, Zaidi said she hadn’t approached the narrative with that in mind, rather, she approached it as a ‘weird love story, maybe with a bit of atmosphere, a thriller element tossed in but that she does have ‘some questions about the notion of the supernatural narrative.’
Even if you consider Gulab a thriller and not a traditional ghost story, there is one particular element that doesn’t fit again- the frightened, insecure protagonist. Nikunj really is a bit of a disaster—far from the sort of machismo-filled, testosterone driven romantic hero you’d usually find in a thriller or even a ghost story, he’s basically a fumbling, bumbling spoilt man-child, following society’s rules with no thought to other possibilities. Zaidi points out 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’, she says, ‘besides, a middle-aged businessman ought to look, feel, behave, talk like himself. You see men like that, don’t you? Deeply romantic, yet also somehow pragmatic, still carrying around some lost love’s memory, but often bowing to social mores. I wanted such a man as my central protagonist.’
Zaidi has fun with Nikunj, as we all do—he’s so serious he’s funny. ‘I am an emotional type of man. I will be the first to admit it.’ he tells us at the very start, immediately contradicting himself with ‘But I do not cry easily. Only in movie halls. There, I cry freely. But that afternoon, I was ready to cry out of sheer nervousness.’ When unable to physically get about without losing his breath, he admits, ‘I was sure to die of clotted arteries or something else that sounds lazy, making it seem as if I deserved to die.’ He’s even insecure about Usman having a full head of hair, telling us ‘This loss of hair is a terrible loss. It takes away so many things. Your confidence goes down. Young girls who are only five-six years your junior start calling you ‘uncle’. Your worth in the marriage market also goes down.’ It’s not just amusing—it’s refreshing.
Gulab also features a fun, casual mix of languages. Written in English, Zaidi doesn’t hold back with mixing in Hindi and Urdu words and phrases when she feels like it. It’s a confident organic mix that serves her well: the unconcerned use of phrases like ‘Saira’s Bahraich-wali khala’, ‘such a tamasha’, ‘all sorts of dhaandli’ add to what is a very contemporary attitude in many young urban writers from the subcontinent who choose to write in the mix in which they speak. ‘South Asia is so diverse,’, says Zaidi, ‘both linguistically and culturally that If I began to think about dialects etc, I would confound readers even between Lucknow and Mumbai. Besides, every book has its own cultural landscape’. The landscape of Gulab is one that is recognisable easily to a wide audience and that Zaidi has not felt the pressure to alter her narrative style in the hope of reaching a larger audience says a great deal for her—let everyone else catch up to the subcontinent’s style she seems to be saying, because the subcontinent has plenty of it.