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Mapping the journey – and a few detours!

When Commonwealth Writers first approached me, at the end of 2012, about taking on a very special assignment the following year, I was bemused but delighted. CW is the cultural initiative of the Commonwealth Foundation, and they were offering me the opportunity to be their first Bangladeshi Writer in Residence.

I had just taken part in one of the first Commonwealth Conversations, a series of panel discussions that Commonwealth Writers have been organising at various literary festivals and events, to discuss a range of thorny topics from self-censorship to gender politics, and a few things in between.

That appearance had in itself come out of an earlier connection. In 2010, my flash fiction piece “Judgement Day” was Highly Commended in the Commonwealth Short Story Competition. The competition theme for that year had been “Science, Technology and Society”, and we had to write our submissions within the specified limit of 600 words. For someone as technologically-challenged as myself, writing about science OR technology was always going to be a tough call. So perhaps, unsurprisingly, I took the more familiar route and focused on “society”.

The result was a story that is more a feminist fable than a sci-fi piece, hypothesising how the institution of marriage might change as a result of technological progress and changes in wider society, and what might remain all too familiar to us in that relationship, as we view it from the perspective of the early 21st century.

But writing fiction, whatever the constraints of theme and word limit, was one thing. I knew that as Writer in Residence, I would be writing a series of non-fiction posts, more like essays. And while Commonwealth Writers were kind enough to give me a free hand as to the content of the essays, I had a sneaking suspicion that they would – logically enough – be expected to be about writing. For a self-taught writer who has come to that identity relatively late, this posed something of a challenge!

In the end, it proved to be a challenging but very interesting experience. At least for me! Thinking through what writing means to me, and what I have learned on the journey so far, was instructive. So without further ado, let me share with you the process of finding a “voice” in Post One: 🙂



Let me start by confessing that it was only recently that I began introducing myself as a writer. In fact, it was only recently that I even admitted that I wanted to be a writer. Despite a childhood spent scribbling doggerel, teenage years that produced excruciatingly bad poetry (in mercifully small qualities), and a surprisingly well-received satirical play that a friend and I co-wrote in our first year of university, it never crossed my mind that I might actually be a writer. I had other plans.

Brought up in a family of activists and feminists, both male and female, in Bangladesh, I had mapped out my professional life early. I was going to work in development, be part of the women’s movement, and try to contribute to a larger goal of some kind. I might as well admit it. I was, and remain, a committed idealist – wilfully ignoring a considerable body of evidence that indicates the wisdom of thinking otherwise.

I was eager to learn as much as I could, so I worked on diverse issues: micro-finance, human rights, adult education and urban development. Gender equality was a common thread running through much of the work I did in organisations that ranged from grassroots NGOs, to well-known success stories like the Grameen Bank and BRAC, to international organisations like Christian Aid UK and the United Nations.

I loved the work, and each experience taught me something worth taking along on my unfolding journey. For years I held down two jobs. I supplemented the less-than-adequate income I earned working for local organisations (which yielded many of my most treasured experiences) by working as a translator in the wee hours of the morning. And for years, I ignored the nagging sense that there was something missing. Until, on a whim that I can’t quite explain, I sent in a piece to one of the English dailies. To my surprise, they accepted my submission – and several more after that. Eventually, I was offered my own column in The Star Magazine, affiliated with leading national newspaper The Daily Star.

Even then, I wasn’t brave enough to think or speak of myself as a writer; I just about carried off the designation of “columnist” with some degree of grace. It all changed when I read a newspaper headline about a 10-year-old girl who had been working as a child domestic in the capital city. Her arrival at the hospital shortly before she died revealed a terrible story of violence and abuse, and one that will be familiar in many parts of the world. I was outraged. I spoke to my editor at the magazine and begged her to get one of their fiction writers to take up the issue. “Why don’t you do it?” she asked.

I was reluctant, because I felt that people who abused children wouldn’t be interested in reading a column where someone told them not to do it. “The only way that they’ll take any notice is if they don’t actually realise what they’re reading at first. It has to be a story, one where they get engaged before they see where it’s heading. And it needs to be written from the child’s point of view, so that other people – those of us who see what happens in these households but too often look the other way – really have to face up to the consequences of what happens when we do that, and start thinking about how we can handle these issues differently,” I responded. My editor understood what I was trying to say, and promised to approach some fiction writers with the idea.

Three days later, I sat down to write my first short story. It was the easiest thing I have ever written, almost as if someone was standing at my shoulder dictating the words. None of the stories I have written since has been nearly as smooth, in terms of the writing process. Far from it! “A Small Sacrifice” tells the story of a village child who is sent to work in the city by her impoverished parents who believe that – as manipulative middlemen often tell such parents – she will have a better life in Dhaka. It describes the girl’s incomprehension when she becomes the scapegoat for her employer’s frustrations, and her struggle to understand why people who appear to have everything that her family lacks still seem so unhappy with life.

The story generated many responses after it was published, and it made me realise the power that fiction has to reach out and draw a response from the reader. How it can be used to advocate for certain values or perspectives. I should add though, that I don’t think that using fiction solely as a form of persuasion is a good idea at all. The best writing comes from a story that is deeply felt by the writer. It is that depth of emotion, and the authenticity of the narrative, that ultimately touches the reader. That isn’t something that can be engineered. A discerning reader will easily see through something that is just calculated to manipulate their emotions.

Ultimately, a writer needs to be who he or she really is on the page, and that can be terrifying. Even as it is exhilarating when you are surfing the wave of words and feel completely in control. Because authentic writing involves being vulnerable, putting a piece of your soul on the page and knowing that anyone can read it and judge you for being who you are. Then again, the hard truth is that that’s probably the only way any of us will ever come up with our best work.

This article is reproduced with permission from Commonwealth Writers. Any feedback or comments are very welcome at the CW website at:

You can read more about my work here:

My author page can be found here:

Jaggery Issue # 2

Issue # 2 of Jaggery is up today!! Includes fiction , poetry,  art and so much more.

you can read Issue # 1 here. 

Along the Yamuna with Surender Solanki

The Yamuna river flows in northern India, starting at the Yamunotri Glacier in Uttarakhand and streaming down towards towards Delhi. According to ancient Hindu scriptures, the banks of the Yamuna flourished with a steady population living peacefully. Now, those same banks are relatively staid until one reaches the national capital, where a twenty-two kilometer stretch is rife with industrial waste and pollution. Despite government attempts to clean it up, this portion of the river continues to degrade, but not necessarily wither away. Indeed, there are people at work and play here, and photographer Surender Solanki captures these moments with sensitivity and appreciation.

Solanki has traversed this polluted corridor ever since he was a child, going back and forth between west and east Delhi. A recent art school graduate, Solanki does not own a camera but has nevertheless managed to gather 15,000 images over the course of eight months. The intimacy of his portraits, as well as the spontaneity of respective riverside inhabitants, are a testament to ingenuity and practicality. You can view a selection of his portfolio in the February 2014 edition of Caravan here.

Recalled: Wendy Doniger’s book ‘The Hindus: An Alternative History’

In a perfect world people would get offended by books etc… and thereby learn to 1) tolerate and/or 2) write a counter book or at least an op-ed about why they are offended and why no one should read said book. And that would be it. Everyone would be left to make up their own mind. Unfortunately, a topic such as religion seems to open the door for a ridiculous type of passion which either leads to 1) book banning 2) book burning or 3) both. And lest the Western World think it’s just those countries that do such things, here’s a list of recent books banned in the U.S. (during 2000-2009). The latest book to be recalled and pulped in India is Professor Wendy Doniger’s non-fiction book ‘The Hindus: An Alternative History‘. Obviously the problem here is an ‘alternative’ history. The orthodox Hindu community in India likes the history they have and do not want it challenged or questioned. Should a history, in this case a religious history, be challenged, be allowed to be questioned ? I suppose those upset are asking if there is  nothing sacred left in the world? But I fear that adherence to ‘sacred’ leads to ‘dogmatism… Unfortunately Doniger’s publishing house, Penguin India, relented  but lest this be seen as ‘being soft’ let me add  that in the furor following Salman Rushdie’s ‘Satanic Verses’ his Japanese translator, Hitoshi Igarashi, was murdered. Standing up for what is right is all very well but is it worth losing your life over? A vital question, I think, given the polemical world we are increasingly finding ourselves in.

Here is Doniger’s Statement:

Statement from Wendy Doniger: (bold, mine)

I was thrilled and moved by the great number of messages of support that I received, not merely from friends and colleagues but from people in India that I have never met, who had read and loved The Hindus, and by news and media people, all of whom expressed their outrage and sadness and their wish to help me in any way they could. I was, of course, angry and disappointed to see this happen, and I am deeply troubled by what it foretells for free speech in India in the present, and steadily worsening, political climate. And as a publisher’s daughter, I particularly wince at the knowledge that the existing books (unless they are bought out quickly by people intrigued by all the brouhaha) will be pulped. But I do not blame Penguin Books, India. Other publishers have just quietly withdrawn other books without making the effort that Penguin made to save this book. Penguin, India, took this book on knowing that it would stir anger in the Hindutva ranks, and they defended it in the courts for four years, both as a civil and as a criminal suit.They were finally defeated by the true villain of this piece—the Indian law that makes it a criminal rather than civil offense to publish a book that offends any Hindu, a law that jeopardizes the physical safety of any publisher, no matter how ludicrous the accusation brought against a book. An example at random, from the lawsuit in question:‘That YOU NOTICEE has hurt the religious feelings of millions of Hindus by declaring that Ramayana is a fiction. “Placing the Ramayan in its historical contexts demonstrates that it is a work of fiction, created by human authors, who lived at various times……….” (P.662) This breaches section 295A of the Indian Penal Code (IPC). ‘Finally, I am glad that, in the age of the Internet, it is no longer possible to suppress a book. The Hindus is available on Kindle; and if legal means of publication fail, the Internet has other ways of keeping books in circulation. People in India will always be able to read books of all sorts, including some that may offend some Hindus.”

Ondaatje’s Bricolage

Two indelibly good writers, one magnificent conversation: Michael Ondaatje, author of The English PatientAnil’s Ghost, and The Cat’s Table, engages in a dialogue with Amitava Kumar, author of Nobody Does the Right Thing and A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of His Arm a Tiny Bomb. Although they initially begin in a classic interview style, the back and forth of the Q&A slowly mutates into an easy conversation, perfectly apt given their setting amidst the 2012 Jaipur Literary Festival in India. Fortunately for those of us not able to fly into Jaipur, Guernica magazine has adapted and archived their conversation. Here is Ondaatje reckoning with the ‘bricolage’ of his work:

. . . I’ve tried in my novels to have various points of view, various speakers, various narratives, so it’s more of a group conversation as opposed to a monologue. But politically I also don’t believe anymore that we can only have one voice to a story, it’s like having a radio station to represent a country. You want the politics of any complicated situation to complicated in a book of fiction or nonfiction . . . I am still someone who’s very influenced by collage as an art form. The great writer Donald Richie who lives in Japan talk about the distinction between East and West: the Western novel is very organized, it’s very logical, there’s a logical progression, there’s a chronological progression, and there’s a safety in that. Whereas if you look at Japanese film, it is made up of collage or bricolage, it is made up of lists, and suddenly when you stand back from the lists you begin to see the pattern of a life.

Read more from Ondaatje and Kumar here.

50 Great Sites All Writers Need to Check Out

As the new year begins and writers make resolutions to write more and market better (or market more and write better :), here’s a list of websites you might want to look into with social networks,  content tools, marketing resources, author community sites, writing publishing blogs, publishing and crowd funding resources, education and inspiration etc…  Which do you recommend?

Mirza Waheed on Kashmir, Visas and Control

I will never forget my Kashmiri Aunts distress when they were not able to get visas in time to visit their dying father in Pakistan. They even missed the funeral. I have grown up surrounded by visa issues between India and Pakistan, as well as the state of Kashmir. Novelist Mirza Waheed’s essay ‘The Torturable Class’ is a wonderful piece on state control and how extraordinary fear is instilled in ordinary people by ordinary means. Please read it.

from ‘The Torturable Class’

 In the summer of 2012, I received a phone call from the Indian High Commission in London. It was odd. I hadn’t applied for a visa or any such thing. My wife and three-year-old son had, however, and had been waiting nearly three months. We were scheduled to visit my home in Indian-occupied Kashmir for my sister’s wedding, which was drawing close. We had been anxious and had written to friends and acquaintances to ask if they could help. We knew the drill, of course: for many “cross-border” couples—I was born and raised in Kashmir, my wife in Karachi—the trip home is an annual or biannual ritual of humiliation that must be borne if one is to see one’s people.

I told the voice on the phone that my wife was away—at work at the BBC World Service—and they could call her on her mobile phone. They did; a certain Mr. K told her they’d like to speak with her about her visa application; could she and her husband come for a meeting?

read full here in Guernica, a magazine of arts and politics



Pankaj Mishra and Kamila Shamsie in Conversation

A very thought provoking conversation on Guernica between Pankaj Mishra and Kamila Shamsie. They discuss the political novel, what it is and is not, why American novelists are not  political (are they fearful, Dave Eggers suggests), and what it means for a writer and novel to be ‘political’.  I think a lot of ‘American” writers need to be enraged about the income and class inequality in America, let alone what is outside of their borders (influenced by them/govt). But the stories being told are, usually, about adultery and drug abuse and not being as happy as the pursuit of happiness has promised– writers who’ve grown up in suburbia…. not so much they they are disengaged but that they are engaged with their ‘world’, their circle is smaller….? However some of the best writing remains on black/white/race… i.e. socially engaging. Also I think it important to remember that American fiction published is based on what American readers want to read therefore what American publishers will choose to publish… and so love stories between vampires and werewolves…

from the conversation:

Pankaj Mishra: Today, practically every country outside the West is undergoing an intellectual, political, and cultural churning, from China to Bolivia, Egypt to Indonesia, but we haven’t really had, after the 1960s, a major oppositional culture in Western Europe and America. The Occupy movement was so startling and welcome partly because it was the first such eruption of mass protests in decades.

read full here

Happy New Year

A Happy and Productive 2014 to readers and writers everywhere!

from the Jaggery Staff