Today, author Saborna Roychowdhury talks about coming to America from India at the age of 19, learning to fit in to a different culture, the difference between Bollywood tales and real India, and her novel, The Distance. Read more about her novel, which recently won a starred review from Publishers Weekly, at the end of this interview!
IB: The Distance deals with a young Indian woman's "coming of age," immigration to Canada and return to her native country. How much of the story is based on your own experience?
Saborna: All the characters in this book are purely fictional. I am not Mini, and there is nothing autobiographical in this novel. However, like Mini, I am an immigrant who left Kolkata and moved to North America. I look at the American society from the outside, as a foreigner. I used some of my own experience in Mini’s struggles to fit in and carve out her own space in Canadian society.
IB: The characters in the book all seem to represent different sides of India -- Amitav is the communist rebel fighting poverty and corruption, Neel is the striving individualist, and Mini is caught between the two. Do you feel their struggles represent India's struggle?
Saborna: India is in early phase of development and like most other states in similar stage of development is fraught with conflicts and struggles. The struggles come in several different forms. It includes struggles between the India of old (this is pre-1990s India which was influenced by the Soviet central planning system and professed a more socialistic philosophy) and the India of new (which is increasingly individualistic in behavior and globally homogeneous in thought). It also includes the struggle between the process of industrialization and costs of it: the people who are displaced for exploitation of land and natural resources. As one group of people becomes richer from the fruits of such development, another group becomes poorer as they lose their ancient culture, livelihood and way of living. This is a part of the conflict between the old and new, between the social and the individual, the rich and the poor. This is India’s dominant struggle as it continues the development to greater wealth and prosperity: it is the struggle for socio-economic justice and equality.
An example of such a struggle can be what happened in my own state of West Bengal. Nandigram is a rural area about 70 km south-west of Kolkata. The Government of West Bengal, acting on behalf of foreign capitalists, forcefully tried to acquire 10,000 acres of land from the Nandigram farmers for a Special Economic Zone (SEZ) .This land was to be developed by the Indonesian-based Salim Group for industrialization. Farmers of Nandigram were determined not to give up their land. At first they protested peacefully. But one day, the police entered the Nandigram area and tried to obtain the land forcefully from the farmers. What the government did not expect was the massive resistance they faced in the village. The villagers fought back even though the police force was heavily armed. In the police shootings at least 14 villagers died and 70 more were wounded.
IB: Like Mini, you emigrated to America. Could you tell us about the biggest adjustment you had to make when you came here?
Saborna: I came to the U.S. when I was only 19 years old. Back home, I was considered beautiful, funny and popular. I was in my high school drama and dance team. But as an undergraduate in West Virginia, I felt everything about me was wrong. In the restroom, I compared myself with the white beauties putting on make-up in the mirrors, next to me. I felt my hair and skin were the wrong color. I did not shave my entire leg, straighten my hair with a hot-iron or put heavy makeup around my eyes.
I remember in my early days in the U.S.--wearing clothes that were one size bigger than me and shoes that had a few stiches on them. Other Indians took me aside and whispered to me---“You can’t wear this here. In this country people wear fitting clothes and mostly new shoes. Throw away all the old stuff and buy new ones.” That’s was my first exposure to a hyper-consumerist society. I will soon learn and become a part of the quick “use and throw culture.”
In the beginning, I had trouble making friends. I ran around in packs with other Indian students, staying away from my American classmates. My accent, my experiences, my take on most issues was very different from that of my classmates. In crossing the Atlantic, I had somehow lost my eloquence and my sense of humor. I was just the “weird” Indian girl. Maybe that’s why I can look at the American society from the “outside,” the same way Mini does.
But later I will come to find out that despite my initial cultural shock, I have come to a society that is also the most open and accepting of differences. Some of these women will become my best friends and a few of these boys will ask me out on dates. I will come to accept America as the most class-less, least snobbish and most socially mobile society of all.
IB: How often do you get to visit India now, and what is it like to go back?
Saborna: I visit India every two years. Kolkata is a city that changes slowly. Even then I see a conflict between a waning feudal structure and an aggressive capitalism taking its place. I see the older generation still trying to maintain family relationships, customs and rituals the old-fashioned way. They think in terms of extended family and identify themselves as a part of a bigger clan. They try to visit relatives on a regular basis and keep up with the gossip and personal details of the greater clan.
The aging older generation expects the younger generation to take care of them just as they took care of their parents once. In general, they expect the same kind of obedience and respect from the younger generation that they had once shown to their elders. The older generation is also more religious and lean towards fatalism when it comes to decision making.
The younger generation, however, has tasted the fruits of capitalism. Many work for multinational companies where they get salaries their parents can only dream of. Instead of living with their parents, they are moving out and living in their own apartment where they pay a monthly mortgage. The extended family structure has almost collapsed or is collapsing.
The younger generation, which works 50-60 hrs per week, has little patience for their parents’ slow and sentimental world. Lack of time limits their ability to visit or keep up with the extended family. They have also discarded many of the social customs and rituals that their parents still insist on maintaining. This generation is more into new technology and lives a fast-paced, high expense, quick reward type of life. They eat in expensive restaurants, shop in flashy malls and take foreign trips at least once a year. They also rely more on modern science and research in their decision making.
IB: Americans are probably most familiar with India through literature such as The Raj Quartet or A Passage to India, or through Bollywood films. The former captures some of the country's past, the latter its current gestalt. What is missing from these portraits of India that you'd like Americans to know about?
Saborna: India is a land of many hues and colors. There is the ancient India of emperors and kings, there is the India of the raj and there is the India of present times. My focus is on the India of today, as compared to The Raj Quartet or A Passage to India which depicts the India of the raj. Compared to these books, my books reflect a much more democratic and pluralistic India, in which the female character is well educated and conscious of the implications of her choices and is divided by them. Quite a few Bollywood movies are also driven by the choices of the male “hero,” with the female “heroine,” playing a noticeably passive role. On the other hand, the women of India are strong. India had one of the early female heads of state (the Prime Minister in India). Female students are some of the top performers in Indian exams. My protagonist, Mini, is educated and socially conscious. She is analytical and a keen observer of changes around her. So I want the Americans to know….they will find a protagonist in my book who is very different from the Indian women they see in Bollywood movies.
IB: Could you tell us a little about your writing journey -- how you decided to become a writer, what motivates you, what you hope to accomplish with your writing?
Saborna: I had just moved to Boston and I was looking for a job. I thought taking a fiction writing class would be fun. I took my first fiction class at Grub Street, Boston. There I met Jeffrey Kellogg, who was a very supportive and inspiring teacher. In a writing exercise, he asked us to close our eyes and think of an image and then bring it to life with our words.
“Write about what you see and feel. Who is in the picture? What is he/she like?”
The image that I saw that night was that of a fifteen-year-old maid who once worked for my aunt back home in Calcutta. Her father used to come every month to collect her wages.
The girl often complained to my aunt how her father never thinks of her wedding or her happiness--just uses her as a supplier of paper notes. My aunt was worried about her and tried to mediate between the father and daughter, but the father was not ready to listen.
One day, my aunt found this teenage girl hanging from the ceiling fan in her little terrace room. Her body was still warm and her breathing shallow. My aunt did CPR on her. By the time the doctor came, the girl passed away in my aunt’s lap.
The father and political party supporting him ignored the suicide note and demanded a large sum of money from my aunt. I knew that night that I had to write the girl’s story. When it came to sharing the story with my class, I was worried. I was a chemistry teacher --this was my first attempt at writing a short story. But my teacher, Jeff, gave me great feedback, and other people in my class seemed to like the story a lot.
“Send it off to a journal for publication,” Jeff urged me. “See what happens.”
So it was because of his encouragement, I mailed the story to three journals. Within a month New York Stories called and said they want to go ahead and publish my piece. I did not know anything about Pushcart prize or nomination then. I was happy the story was published. At the end of 2004, I received a letter from New York Stories.
“Each year New York Stories receives 3,000 manuscripts for consideration. We publish approximately 25. We nominate six, the best of the best, for the Pushcart prize, and yours, we are happy to say, was among them…” (Danny Lynch, Editor) When I showed the letter to Jeff, he said, “Getting a Pushcart nomination for a first short story is highly unusual. It’s time for you to write your first novel.”
IB: What's next -- are you working on anything in particular right now?
Saborna: I am working on my new novel, Parul’s Wish. It is an intimate story of love, betrayal and redemption in the context of over-arching political and social themes. Parul and Munni, grow up in the same Hindu household in Calcutta, but Parul is Muslim, and works as the maid, and Munni is her employer’s daughter. While Munni’s life is cushioned and blanketed from all sides with a proper education, bank balance, big house and middle class status; Parul battles with poverty and an uncertain future. This growing distance between them will one day result in a terrible betrayal that will alter their lives forever.
“Roychowdury’s debut is a story about India’s growing pains told through the microcosm of a young woman struggling to find love and purpose...Through Roychowdhury’s rich detail and illuminating dialogue emerges a protagonist who is caught in a love triangle and the conflict between rigid traditions and western freedoms. The book also smoothly incorporates the countless facets of modern India, with an abundance of cultural references neatly packed in.” Publishers Weekly, starred review.
“…a love letter to India itself….” South Asian Review
Torn between the tradition-bound India of her grandmother and the new, striving country of her peers, young college student Mini searches for love and meaning in gritty Calcutta. Attracted at first to Amitav, an idealistic rebel whose risky attempts to help his countrymen fill her with admiration, Mini is ultimately repulsed by his naivete and unwillingness to see beyond his own personal passions. When her parents begin the process of arranging a marriage, she doesn’t resist. With her new husband, Neel, she moves to Vancouver, discovering all the wonders of life in a developed country. But material comfort only makes her yearn with ever-growing intensity for the things she’s left behind, and when she returns to her native land five years later, she becomes acutely aware of the distance between dreams and reality, longing and fulfillment, love and sacrifice.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Saborna Roychowdhury was born and raised in Calcutta, and moved to the U.S. for her undergraduate work in chemistry. She now lives in Houston and teaches at Lone Star College. Saborna has been writing short stories since 2001. In 2004, her short story, "Bengal Monsoon" appeared in "New York Stories" magazine and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Since then she has contributed to Quality Women's Fiction, Chillibreeze, Hilltown Families, The Four Quarters Magazine, and TheWeekendLeader.com. Her article "Having a baby changes everything" was listed in the "Top Stories from Around the Web" by SF Chronicle.