What a lovely title to a book ‘And We Remained’ is. There is a sense of contented incompleteness to it, like ellipses leading to an invisible forever-after. Yet, it may signify a conclusion; a three-letter full stop with the finality that only Fate can bring with it. A finality that could be a happy one, or one coloured with nostalgia, or even pathos. I liked it, for the curiosity that it created. But the very next moment I read the sub-title ‘An absorbing story told differently …’ and a hmm escaped my lips. I wish the author, Asad Ali Junaid, had not included this phrase, that too on the cover. By being fed thus, the reviewer’s eye was instantly trained on these two aspects – story and narration, as were her heightened expectations.
‘And We Remained’ is set in Bangalore in the late 1990s, in an India seeing socio-economic changes and on the precipice of another century walking in. The book circles around five friends – Sahir, Sandeep, Gopal, Anand and David – and the women in their lives, especially Wardha. The story is told in two ways – as first person narratives by the main characters and alternatively, through email exchanges between them when they are out of their Engineering colleges and spread across India, USA and UK, working or hunting for work. And women. You will receive this book like you do the regular cup of coffee from college canteens – with love, heartbreak, prison, politics, drinking and strip clubs all in the same bean, written in a language that is simple, young, conversational, often slangy, definitely lacking lyricism but certainly not correctness. But when you read, you will also find that little something which keeps the book different from the ones published around this theme. I found two such things.
A story ‘told differently’
I liked the narrative technique Asad attempted in his novel. Two parallels – of life in two different phases of time – run from cover to cover. The account of the engineering college days is in first person, with each main character speaking directly to us readers in alternate chapters. These narrations bring forth each character’s individual voice as well as portray the friendship that keeps them as one. While there is no heavy duty drama or deep streams of consciousness surrounding these peeps into their minds, you will find an occasional dose of philosophy – on love, women and even on Philosophy itself; a very raw and young version to my old mind, but one I could relate to from my much younger days. I liked what Sandeep says at a difficult turn in their job placement days – ‘I had come across a quote by Dr. Wayne Dyer: Your life is but a parenthesis in eternity. We felt smaller than these parenthesis then …’
The other parallel is of their working life’s experience, some years hence, and through a series of short mails with the date and time in place; much like quick conversations but which not just propel the story forward but also give the book an ample dose of humour through their back-slapping camaraderie. Anand is advising Sandeep on women, their favourite topic – ‘Look at your age, and your tummy too. There is a difference between making things happen and things happening on their own. You will otherwise have to start trusting your mom to initiate things…also, when nothing works, PRAY. There is immeasurable power in it. I will pray for you, and you please pray for yourself and, for a change, everybody pray for our good old Sandeep to find one for himself. After that we can pray for each other’. The humour is simple, unpretentious and sans effort.
But the most interesting bit was how these conversations, happening from within different continents, become cross-country nuggets documenting cultures which these 20-somethings in their salad days of working have come to occupy.
In the ‘Synopsis’ of the book that the book carries, I had pencilled the portion which mentioned that their intertwined stories are told in the backdrop of ‘a fast changing society’ and a ‘nation in flux’. I wanted to see how, if at all, this is brought forth by Asad. It is, and that is the second good point about this book.
Foreign shores and a ‘Nation in Flux’
From the advent of emails to the crowning of Facebook, from the Twin Towers falling to the education system in India, from South India’s freestyle dance ‘dappan koothu’ to Bollywood in the UK and from an India where sex is dirty to a USA where strip clubs are just free expression, the email interactions between Sahir, Sandeep, Gopal, Anand and David chronicle and document a context not just children from the 90s but those living today would nod their heads in agreement to.
We come to know of an India where ‘examples (for anti-ragging) were needed and we were made into examples’, falsely, and post 9/11 paranoia in the US where ‘everyone in law enforcement … had become very touchy’. We see how ‘being treated like aliens’ is as common in another country as it is in our own, and while finding friends is easy, finding work not so. While a sleeveless top on girls in their engineering college is a blue moon and mothers still keep a tab on their sons' phone calls, Sahir’s experience at “Mardi Gras” with women lifting their shirts for a bead necklace in return contrasts the societies for us, as it impresses upon these young minds how different the world outside of their own is. We see repressed an Indian psychology itching to shed the tag of virginity with none the courage to, except to discuss it over mails, and to no avail. We are told of education in different countries, with most people in India (where ‘we were “trained” and never “taught”) never understanding why Sahir is ‘studying philosophy (in the US), especially after I have finished BE in Electrical Engineering’ and with a mother who declares to the world that ‘If you are thinking of studying any further I will jump off the second floor of our house’. And then, a hint of winds of change, from Valentine’s Day to job opportunities, crossing the seven seas to enter our country which was taking baby steps out of the box.
And amidst all this emailing over a decade, what is also chronicled is age - ‘the most telling sign of receding youth is not balding or a paunch, it is when you do not feel like laughing as much any more.’
I do remain a little disappointed …
Notice how I am yet to mention Wardha and love and love story? While ‘And We Remained’ is a story told differently, the story itself is not so ‘absorbing’. On the third page of the book we hear Sahir musing ‘Stories about love did not end like this … Or did they?’, almost asking us to keep our pens and papers ready to note down if this story ends as any different from the usual college romances.
Like a song on repeat it runs from freshers to elections to fests to freshers to elections again. Wardha fails to attain the significance that is promised her at the end of the book, especially since the group of friends have ample other women to talk about. While the picture presented is real, the love angle of the story is damp and could have been done away with completely, especially since the ‘seriousness’ of the relationship between Wardha and Sahir does not come across successfully. If I were to talk of endearing relationship portrayals, I would say that nothing beats the camaraderie between Sahir, Sandeep, Gopal, Anand and David or the beauty of the relationship between Sahir and Sandeep. While it is true that ‘the line of trouble brewing … was common across all our hands, a part of our kismet’, pretty Wardha fails to make place in the reader’s mind. My question at the end of the story is one which David asks Sahir too – ‘Why have you given Wardha such importance in the book?’ Except, I would ask why have Wardha here at all?
Another aspect that could have been done better is characterization. Despite unique ways of expression and language through their mails and narrations, the characters seem to merge into one another and not stand out as unique individuals beyond a point. Perhaps because the characters lack depth. (Or maybe, I was much deeper even as a college kid.) Was this done in keeping with the mood of the book, which mostly hovers around the happy-go-lucky? Also, the author’s idea of referring to so many students and teachers as ‘types’ and shoe-boxing them did not help. Yes, they are real but how would you as a creator shape them beyond typical if you yourself call them ‘types’ multiple times in the book? And that is why the aim of the story to show ‘four different points of view on something that happened in our lives’ partially failed.
‘And We Remained’ remains a light and entertaining read ending on a sweet note and affirming the bonds of college friendship, exactly what its author intended it to be. That there was never any ambition to make it anything other than what it is is apparent. I connected with the book not because it is a masterpiece in the world of writing and Literature but only because I have been through it all when I was in college. So in that sense, it is a fun way to re-visit days of your own freshers’ party and college elections, breaking hearts and finding new ones. I do have to give it to its author for being the one-man army behind the book – writing it, designing the cover and then publishing it too.
I wonder what he eats for breakfast!
Title: And We Remained
Author: Asad Ali Junaid
Publisher: Asad Ali Junaid
[This review was commissioned by the author. All views are my own.]