Love, loss, war and the fight for freedom come together in Sharbari Zohra Ahmed’s debut novel

Of all the jazz clubs: Love, loss, war and the fight for freedom come together in an intoxicating cocktail at the glitzy Bombay Duck in Sharbari Zohra Ahmed’s debut novel

In Sharbari Zohra Ahmed’s Dust Under her Feet, Yasmine Khan, 26-year-old proprietor of the Bombay Duck, has created a home away from home for a vibrant cast of characters. There is Asma who imagines herself to be a character out of a Bronte novel, Patience, the good time girl, and Radhika who is light on her feet and has darkness in her mind.

It is Kolkata in 1942 and the city swarms with American soldiers. “Yasmine wanted to create an environment for the American soldiers that was similar to something that might have been in New York — a nightclub with singing, dancing, food and drink,” says Sharbari who was in Bengaluru for the launch of the book.

Dust Under her Feet tells the story of Yasmine and Edward Lafaver, set against the backdrop of momentous events. The 48-year-old author says, “I didn’t set out to write a feminist text. I think these women are feminists. I was focused on the characters and their story, of this independent woman falling for this American soldier in the twilight of the Raj.”

The author and screenwriter says she chose to go back and forth in time “to illustrate the changes in Yasmine’s philosophy and perspective. I also wanted to show her relationship with her son, who we only get to know through her letters to him”.

The Connecticut-based writer insists that people who have criticised the book for looking at feminism, race and gender through a modern lens are misguided. “If they knew anything about the women who would have worked in a club like Bombay Duck, they would see that these women were much more modern than some of the women today. They are financially independent well-educated, politically savvy and schooled in the art of conversation.”

Sharbari says there is no attempt to exoticise India. “I don’t think there is anything exotic about war, famine or deprivation, not to mention institutional bigotry and oppression. The West has a tradition of romanticising the Raj but it was cataclysmic for our people. I didn’t write the novel to make it palatable to the non-south Asian taste. I was focused on authenticity and I hope I have achieved that.”

Love, loss, war and the fight for freedom come together in Sharbari Zohra Ahmed’s debut novel

The research, Sharbari says, was easy and difficult. “The war was the most challenging. There were only two chapters of intense battle scenes. I read two or three very thick books, to write maybe 2,000 words. That is the nature of historical fiction. I went to the National Library in Kolkata and was directed to an annexe with all these thick ledgers of old newspapers from 1941. The newspapers had everything from advertisements for skin products to what movies were playing, what concerts were going on. You got a sense of the news but also a sense of people’s daily existence.”

Even though the Americans treated Indians as equals, they still practised segregation. When Radhika dances for the three boys who cannot enter the club in the alley, it brings out the unfairness out in sharp relief.

“Apart from the scenes between Patience and Yasmine, that is my favourite scene. Yasmine knows she is not allowed into the white-only clubs. And yet she is turning away other people of colour. That scene happened organically, it highlighted the absurdity of the caste system, colonialism and segregation. Everything intersected at that moment which is, I think, also one of the quietest.”

Describing the beginnings, Sharbari says, “Yasmine showed up, started poking at me saying ‘I have a story’. I couldn't get her out of my head. I am still not sure what she looked like. Yasmine is more of a feeling. I started writing 15 years ago. I was a very different writer then, much younger, still idealistic… Many things happened in between, life happened and then I started writing for television and that was a very consuming job.”

Writing for Quantico, a network show, Sharbari says involves “being in a writers’ room, with several other writers. It is so different from the solitary experience that writing usually is. Here I am in the middle of a room with nine other writers yelling about ideas. It was interesting and a terrific learning experience, and taught me to be more versatile and flexible as a writer, which is always good.”

On further television gigs, Sharbari says, “I am working on something. I can't talk about it now. I got hired to write a pilot by an independent producer. I wrote a film called Rickshaw Girl. I adapted it from a children’s book of the same name by Mithali Bose Perkins.”

In the process of adapting the novel into a screenplay, Sharbari’s dream cast includes Kalki Koechlin as Patience and Rekha as Shireen, Yasmine’s no-nonsense mum.

Apart from the screenplay, Sharbari is working on her second novel. “It is called Poverty Lane and set in the present. It is about a Bangladeshi-American immigrant woman from a humble background. She wants to live in this idyllic American town in Connecticut, but the only house she can afford is haunted. She doesn’t care. The ghost, however, has different ideas. It is a meditation on the American dream and how it is illusory. I am also working on a play which is going to be produced Off Broadway in New York in 2020.”

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Printable version | Feb 28, 2020 2:45:29 AM |

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