There are certain meals which though heavy do not satiate our hunger. You feel you simply cannot eat another morsel but at the same time you do not feel full.
The Uncommon Memories of Zeenat Quereshi is like one of those meals. This is a book that pretends it’s been written by the rules, so you cannot pinpoint to what’s wrong with it. So, let’s begin from the beginning! Fair warning: This review may contain some spoilers.
The Premise: Take a look at the title. The Uncommon Memories of Zeenat Qureishi. What are “uncommon memories”? Is Zeenat remembering things that are rare? Or are memories uncommon to Zeenat? Okay, I am kidding, so let’s keep the ambiguity of the title aside for the moment. Let’s focus on the memories themselves. When you tell your reader that a particular concept (or technology or magic) is possible, it does not suffice to say that one of the not-so-relevant characters read it somewhere in a newspaper article. You want your over-the-top fiction to be believable? Then you give it an intelligent explanation. The way it has been dealt with in this novel is, even if the said concept (in this case, thought projection) were true, readers would dismiss it with a smirk. Veena Nagpal simply does not bring credibility to her work.
The Characters: Unlike my usual reviews, I am not going to discuss the main characters here. I’d like to talk about the utterly useless sub-characters. While writing a piece of fiction, not everyone needs to write about a hundred named characters (like George RR Martin). Why did professor Qureshi enter that one scene? Bas aiwe? The story could have progressed without him. What about Zeenat’s dad? Where does he disappear to? What about Khala Jaan? She appears suddenly in Ajay’s thoughts and takes a bullet soon after. What was the point of such a redundant character? What about Jyotirmoy and Anand? To elaborate an extremely obvious gay angle? (extremely obvious are two words I will use for almost everything in this book).
Language: Veena Nagpal dislikes commas with a vengeance. This leaves a lot of sentences looking like this: “Look Zeenat” How does one look zeenat? Is Zeenat an adjective? //There was another one, “Look stupid” where another unimportant character refers to Ajay as a stupid person, but what we read is him being asked to look stupid// Another example is when someone says “Please Allah Rakha,” where the character is pleading to Allah Rakha and not instructing someone to please him.
When a short form appears in the main narrative it takes off the reader’s focus. It does not look like a serious piece of writing. For example, the author writes Hs vs Ms. Expanding H & M would have been better, as with the names of places as well, like K-Bagh, D-Ganj etc. Someone who lives in Delhi may understand these; for the rest, it is better to have the full names of the places.
Repeated metaphors: I love good metaphors. But I hate the same one being used in two different places. An example, Ammaji has been been sitting like “a stout fertility doll” in two places. It just sounds repetitive.
Another one I hate is when an idiom is translated from another language. Like when one of the characters asks. “are we sitting with bangles in our wrists,” I especially hate this idiom cos it means women are good for nothing and can’t be expected to do any work else their glass bangles might break. Well, the character who says it is a pig, so I guess such a statement was expected, but it’s the metaphor translation that I have a problem with.
Pronouns are over used. There are places where you just get confused. Like this: Allah Rakha had been squatting on the floor, pressing her calves.
Allah Rakha is a man (who, I must mention, has been given two introductions) and “her” refers to another character.
Indianism in language was also noticed.
There were some typos, like “Zobair” was written as “Zobari” at one place and “they” was written as “the”.
Layout: It’s all haphazard. The main characters get lost in thought without any warning (or placeholders). This leads to us having to read several paragraphs more than once to clear the timeline confusion. The projected memories are written in italics and the placeholder inconsistency (or their total lack) appears here too. Somewhere in the narration a year goes by and we are not told about it either.
The legend of Chashma Devi is repeated unnecessarily by different characters.
Other flaws: This book leaves nothing to the imagination. It points to an obvious conclusion. You know from the very beginning that the Mehras were innocent (you just know that’s where it’s pointing). You know from the very beginning that Zeenat has had past lives cos Salma conveniently says so in the first chapter. You also know the TV shows are projected memories cos Leena tells you right in the beginning that that’s what they are and that’s all they can be.
And yet it fails to answer so many questions. Like how the hell does memory projection work! Why does Zeenat think (or imply) “I have always loved Ajay” (pg. 19) if she was only fooling him? Also, if she was only fooling him, why does it bother her so much when he’s at Babri Masjid? Why does she lose her temper at the waiter with the parathas? Is she a psychopath among other things (like memory projectionist, for example) Why does she feel her name is not Zeenat? Which past identity is she referring to? Does Khala Jaan survive? Does Salma ever find out why she feels Pirzada is scary? How does Kailash sense Hari Prasad’s presence from a distance if he’s blind? What happens back in London after the bombing? After watching just two episodes, how do people guess it’s the character whose name begins with Z that’s important? What does Nawab Saab do in the end? Where does the Hindu mob come from? Also, look at this equation: Members of Zeenat’s family were murdered; she takes revenge by flirting with Ajay. Murder v/s Flirting? *Applause*!
Okay, my list of questions is growing longer than the novel. *Shutting up.*
Inaccuracies: While I cannot pinpoint to any particular incident, as the Babri Masjid incident occurred a long time ago (early 1990s) and the details are hazy in my mind (I am gonna brush up as soon as I am done with this review (ideally, I should’ve done it before)) but while reading the book, you feel the surroundings are a bit more recent. I just cannot pinpoint to a particular thing but this is how you feel. Or maybe, it’s just the total lack of credibility in the narration that makes you feel so.
This novel begins on a pseudo secular note that tries to appease Muslims and later brings the premise crumbling down by having almost every Muslim sub-character either cheating a close friend or hatching a terrorist plan. And of course we have Swami Agneyanand who’s like that Tapaswi guy in PK.
An extremely heavy, nawabi, masaledar dish, but one that neither leaves you asking for more nor lets you feel your tummy’s full.
Note: A PDF version of this book was sent to me by the author for review.