‘There are simply not enough people reading books’

Shazia Omar, author of ‘The Dark Diamond’, tells Namira Hossain what is missing from Bangladesh’s literary scene

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Let’s talk about your latest book ‘The Dark Diamond’. Where did you get the inspiration from?

I got inspiration from a lot of different sources. I visited Lalbagh Fort, I read lots of books – from Game of Thrones to Sufi poetry. Also I saw a lot of Mughal paintings both online and in museums – the internet has made it easy to do virtual tour of museums. The cover is actually a map that hangs in the Met in New York. But mostly, I wanted to explore the time that Bengal was at its’ peak, when it was a hub of commerce. And the map is one that was made by the East India company and it says ‘The Rich Kingdom of Bengal’. There was not much written about that time, I had to piece together a lot of the stories, and it made me wonder why they are not documented. If you try to search for Shaista Khan on Google, most of the hits are about the night Shivaji cut off his three fingers. He was considered one of the richest men of the world and he ruled Bengal for 20 years, yet that is the only story we know and the reason for that is that history or ‘his story’ is always the victor’s story – we rarely learn of the supporting characters.

That is why a lot of women’s contributions in history are forgotten about. Is there a certain way you wanted to portray women in your book?

I was writing intentionally for the audience in Bangladesh and I wanted to have female characters who were empowered, so I did some research on how to fit them in to that time frame. A lot of the Mughal aristocracy, such as Jahanara Begum, daughter of Emperor Shah Jahan and his wife Mumtaz, had actually established madrasahs to educate girls. Women back then had to fight for their right to have education. Even Madeline, an Englishwoman who sails to Bengal, was based on plausible characters; women who had completed the maritime voyage to this part of the world. I wanted to portray her as a cunning character, so I made her a swordfighter.

Did you read a lot as a child? What kind of books did you like?

I used to love Enid Blyton. I think there are some common books we all read, growing up in Bangladesh. I read Shakespeare and classics by Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte and also Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. I went to Scholastica recently and I was surprised at how few literature students there were – but there were also not many in my time. I think there is a lot of focus on their studies, as opposed to reading. I asked them what their dreams were and many of them said they are too young to know. I believe travel and reading are the cornerstones of dreams and maybe that’s what is missing for them.

Where does yoga and your work in development fit into your writing. How do you juggle?

Yoga is what keeps me sane and work of course helps me earn money. But aside from that, it is all our experiences that become fodder for books. Anita Desai was once speaking about how all her books are about household dynamics, and a large part of that is because that is all she had experienced. Suffering is also a noble truth which can be turned into creative energy and I hope we don’t always have to suffer to churn out good books. Being able to travel and meet people also helps. Writing the Dark Diamond gave me the opportunity to meet a lot of interesting historians such as William Dalrymple, Alex Rutherford and many historians from Dhaka University.

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As a writer, you have to be a bit thick skinned. How do you deal with harsh or negative reviews?

That is one of the hard things – the best way to deal with it is to read them with gratitude and learn what you like from the experience. Sometimes a lot of the people who write reviews are part of an establishment, and so may not agree with what you have to say, but it is not personal.

 

What do you think is missing from the Bangladeshi literary scene?

Readers – there are simply not enough people reading books and the kids nowadays are more focused on either their studies or video games. They need encouragement to read stories but they also need more interesting stories, particularly in this area of the world. We don’t have the thousands of bookstores that you find in cities like Calcutta or Delhi even.