Zen by Shabnam Minwalla
Review,  Contemporary,  Historical Fiction

Zen by Shabnam Minwalla -novel about Mumbai in 1935 and 2019

Zen is beautiful, deep, well-written, and creative mix of historical fiction and contemporary novel about Mumbai in 1935 and 2019.

novel about Mumbai in 1935 and 2019

Zen by Shabnam Minwalla

Publication Date : May 22, 2023

Publisher : Duckbill

Read Date : June 3, 2023

Genre : Contemporary

Pages : 635

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Disclaimer – Many thanks to Publisher for review copy.
This post contains affiliate links.


In 1935, Zainab Essanji wants to break out of her restricted life and be part of the independence movement. But it seems that all she is destined to do is embroider and wait to get married.

In 2019, Zainab Currimji, class XI student, is unhappy at getting drawn into debates and controversies which she would rather not be part of. But in India of 2019, how can one not be drawn into these?

In this deeply addictive, sweeping book about the life and times of the two Zainabs, is captured a short history of Mumbai, and of India. Of what we were and what we have become.

Zipping between the past and the present, between midnight’s children and millennials and getting both right, Shabnam Minwalla has crafted a page-turner whose heart is open, inclusive and populated by a host of memorable characters. -Jerry Pinto


novel about Mumbai in 1935 and 2019

Zen is well written and layered mix of contemporary and historical fiction that cleverly blends the lives of two girls with the same name from different time periods, Mumbai in 1935 and Mumbai in 2019, and how political changes in India affect their lives along with family drama and romance.

Writing is beautiful, realistic, and steady-paced with dual timeline. The present is written in third person narrative mostly from Zainab Currimji, aka Zen’s perspective while the past is written in diary format from Zainab Essaji’s perspective. I loved the mixed media format in the book. Apart from the diary format, there is text messages, newspaper articles, and phone call conversations that made the story more interesting and also helped to know other characters better. I also loved black pages that were written from a dead person’s perspective and the identity of that person was revealed in the climax.

The setting of Mumbai is perfectly written. Author perfectly captures the nuance of Mumbai in different era. I also loved the chapters titled under different colors which also played an important role in past Zainab’s life and each chapter opened with song lyrics and snippets from the book.

It’s clear from the beginning both Zainabs are related. I was more interested to see how Zen is going to find that out and what happened to the past Zainab, if she found her happily ever after, how the current situation affects Zen, and if she too can hope to love- amid all the controversies, prejudice and judgments- that too from a boy whose father is extremely right-wing.

I loved both Zen in the present and Zainab in the past. The family dynamic of both Zainabs was equally interesting. I also loved how the author included other characters that both Zainabs meet in their everyday life.

Zainab Essaji is bold, blunt, fiery, rebellious, and risk-taker with modern thoughts and views. It was sad how she was made to marry a person she didn’t know and didn’t see his picture and met him face to face until marriage was close. Even though her chances of being with the person she fell in love were slim she followed her heart and maintained contact as long as she could. The part she played in the freedom struggle was dangerous and yet admiring.

Her relationship with her sister, Fatema was complicated. I didn’t like Fatema who was self-centered, attention-seeker, shallow person. Even though she was best at everything somehow she still was jealous of Zinab and made her life difficult. It created lots of petty drama in the family. The revelation about Fatema near the end was shocking. I didn’t expect that or see it coming. I agree with Zen and sister Abha’s perspective. It was a tricky situation in that time period and I also loved the message told through the stories of both sisters about how not everyone has their happily ever after but we can choose to move forward and how to live life.

Zen in the present is loyal, introvert, and brilliant in history and psychology. She wasn’t as bold and brave as her great-grandmother she was named after but she sure has fire in her and when poked too much it could burn someone and something in her way. She wasn’t a person who liked attention or liked the idea of being amid controversy and debate but she is dragged into it when her best friend, Menka and her friends organized a debate in school against the new NRC and CAA citizenship law passed by the upper chamber of India’s Parliament. She wasn’t a willing participant and yet I loved how she stood up for what was right and did all she could to support her friends. I felt for her when she was harassed by a journalist and how her short conversation was twisted into a newspaper article that affected her image in school and among relatives.

Unlike past Zainab’s parents, I loved how Zen’s parents and family supported her and stood by her side, and in contrary to Zainab and Fatema, Zen and Abha’s sibling relationship was lovely.

It was lovely to see how this usually tongue-tied, introvert teenager was so open and comfortable with Yash who came to attend a family wedding to which Zen’s family was also invited. The banter between them was lovely and I liked the tension and chemistry as well. Their romance was like Romeo-Juliette as Yash’s father was extremely prejudiced and right wing while Zen and her family were literal.

Yash wasn’t likable at first and his reason for not talking with his sister was ridiculous but I liked how being with Zen changed his perspective. I liked how author kept that aspect realistic. It didn’t make him stand against his father or totally changed his views, he still held on to his middle ground where he could see the wrong but refused to act on it but, at the same time, he wasn’t willing to compromise happiness he found with Zen, what he could have with Zen, and was willing to give their relationship a chance.

The theme and layers were amazing. I love how the topic was realistic and moreover, I love reading it from Indian Muslim’s perspective. The political movements during the independence in Zainab’s diary is interesting. I have read about historical figures who played a major role in independence but I haven’t read about small groups and communists working for independence. It was interesting to read how they worked and British spies who used people to figure out what communists are planning. It had a darker edge with the murder as well but the author also included women’s lives in that time period, especially of Muslim women raised in a conservative family, and they feel being roped in the controversial and dangerous political movement. Their feelings were realistic and touching.

In present time it covered the controversy related to CAA, NRC, NRC, NPR citizenship law passed by the upper chamber of India’s Parliament in 2019 and how that once again brought forth the bitter Hindu-Muslims differences that we still can’t shake. I loved how the law was explained why it was a problem for Muslim people and why they felt threatened by the law.

Portrayals of right-wing parties and people with extreme right-wing perspectives are very much real. It’s sad to see there still are people who think India should be a Hindu nation and how Muslims are treated as second-class citizens, how the CAA and NRC citizenship gave power to right-wing people making it okay to discriminate the other religion that basically is a minority, how media and certain powerful people used it to gaslight the differences and people were jailed and stopped for speaking the truth. The author also included the mindset of extremely liberal people as well and I loved how through Zen’s life, the author showed how a person who is half-Muslim felt being dragged in the controversy and how some Muslims couldn’t see their future.

Even with all the serious topics and themes of the book, there are many lighthearted, positive and uplifting scenes. I loved how brave and strong the women in this story were. I enjoyed all twists and turns. I couldn’t guess what would happen to both Zainabs in the end. All the revelations were surprising and even though the author didn’t give happily ever after to both main characters there still is hope and love in their life. The end is satisfying and uplifting. Even though this was 600 pages long I still wanted to know next phase in Yash and Zen’s life and how COVID affected their relationship.

Overall, Zen is beautiful, deep, well-written, and brilliant mix of historical fiction and contemporary about Mumbai in 1935 and 2019 that perfectly blends Mumbai’s history with its present.

Book Links

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[Just in case you don’t know what’s CAA and NRC – CAA: The Citizenship Amendment Act. NRC: National Register of Citizens. CAA gives eligibility for Indian citizenship to illegal migrants who are Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians (i.e., non-Muslims) from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh who reached India before 2015. NPR+NRC gives us the right to have rights. Apart from voting rights, citizens are entitled to fundamental rights such as equality, freedom of speech, non-discrimination, freedom of assembly, freedom of religion, etc. They have a right to permanently reside in India. For that every person has to have their ID card, birth certificate and documents that proves they are Indian citizen.

The fault with this is many people still don’t have documents even though they are born here. Another thing is these documents are easily destroyed in natural disasters such as floods or fire in which case it is impossible to get the identity proof for those who haven’t digitalized their documents. And there are many other reasons why these laws was seen disastrous and were compared to the Nuremberg laws passed in Germany in 1935 which stripped Jews of their citizenship. You can read more details HERE.

Right now this law is passed and approved but isn’t implemented. As to fully implement it government have to follow the process of National Population Register (NPR) according to which the population is counted and registered every Ten years in different categories that also tells the number of population in certain religion and cast and stats and so on. Last it was counted in 2011 and it should be done in 2021 and just when they should have started working on the population count they brought out this law, the controversies started, rumors are spread through WhatsApp and then COVID came just at the right time making government get away with their decisions which are far from sensible.]

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Hi, I'm Yesha, an Indian book blogger. Avid and eclectic reader who loves to read with a cup of tea. Not born reader but I don't think I’m going to stop reading books in this life. “You can never get a cup of tea large enough or a book long enough to suit me.”


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