Shabnam Minwalla on Inhabiting Parallel Timelines

By Kabir Basu, Grade 10

The second half of Day 1 of the Neev Literature Festival 2023 began with a most joyous and uplifting performance by Kapil Pandey, encouraging the audience to join in, sing and dance. The mood was set for celebrated, award-winning author Shabnam Minwalla’s session Inhabiting Parallel Timelines; an eager audience waited excitedly to be swept into the worlds inhabited by the characters in Shabnam’s latest novel Zen (Duckbill, 2023), a Young Adult offering published in May 2023 to excellent reviews.

She began speaking of her cousin’s grandmother’s diary—the starting point of the journey towards writing and publishing Zen—and how life in the past is not always what we expect it to be – a young girl in 1920 went through the same tussles with love as a girl in today’s world does. This interesting find, and the involvement of her daughters in the anti-CAA protests, convinced her to write a book – and so, Zen was born.

I was astonished to learn about the amount of research that goes into creating a world within a book. In order to recreate 1920s Colaba, Shabnam had to go searching for a variety of sources – contacting historians, getting ahold of newspapers, and even using dated directories. She captured the essence of the past by employing old maps and populating the world in her book with the lives of people she found in old, grainy, black and white pictures.

What also stayed with me are the parallels that can be drawn between the past and the present. The more things change, the more they stay the same, after all. The book itself deals with the story of Zainab (Zen for short), living in modern-day Mumbai, who finds herself in an unexpected romance. Her great grandmother, also named Zainab, writes in a diary about her family, life, and love. During the sessions at NLF 2023 with Shabnam Minwalla, I was faced with another revelation too – while the present cannot change the past, it can change the way we interpret it.


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