Author Interview with Saborna Roychowdhury
Acclaimed author Saborna Roychowdhury's latest novel, Everything Here Belongs to You, is a captivating exploration of love, betrayal, and redemption set against the rich tapestry of Indian political history and culture. In the vein of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, Roychowdhury draws from her own family's experiences, weaving a spellbinding narrative that delves deep into the complexities of Indian social relations and identity.
In an era where issues of identity and culture are at the forefront, Everything Here Belongs to You presents a timely and thought-provoking examination of the intricate relationships between diverse cultures and social groups. With masterful storytelling, Roychowdhury challenges readers to confront their own biases and prejudices, urging them to embrace the beauty and diversity that make our world so vibrant.
Roychowdhury's voice as an Indian-American author offers a fresh and unique perspective on the experiences of the different religions living in Kolkata, India, shedding light on their joys, struggles, and aspirations and making a vital contribution to contemporary literature. Everything Here Belongs to You stands as a testament to the power of storytelling and serves as a poignant reminder of the significance of diverse voices in shaping the literary landscape. It also illustrates the relevance of diverse perspectives in literature.
Continue reading for an exclusive interview…
Tell us a bit about your background.
I was born and raised in Kolkata, India, and moved to the U.S. for undergraduate work in chemistry. I was only 19 years old then. My father had recently passed away and my family had fallen into difficult times. I knew I had to succeed in the foreign land and get them out of their bad situation. So there was a huge responsibility on my young shoulders.
I was ready to work long hours, endure physical pain and survive in the USA at any cost. After my undergraduate work in chemistry, I wanted to go to graduate school and get a doctorate degree. In college, I worked 25-30 hours a week on various campus jobs to support myself, in addition to a heavy course load. Family responsibility and an uncertain future kept me on my toes. Survival was my only mantra, my own happiness buried under the burden of duty.
The conditions in universities where I worked were inhospitable and hostile. I slaved for long hours in the chemistry labs but my advisors were fiercely critical of my work. At this stage of my acquaintance with Western education, I didn’t understand racism, inequality, and institutional racism at the gut level. I blamed myself for the criticisms, threats and insults I experienced on campus. The mildly veiled insults violated my self-respect. They made me feel less agile and less confident.
I didn’t know what to do with the private heaviness that I carried around with me. I couldn’t afford to look back and I couldn’t figure out how to look forward. That’s when I started keeping a journal and penning down my thoughts. My journal became my escape, and I carried it with me everywhere I went. Though I didn’t know it then, I was taking my rage, sorrow and pain and weaving them into my words. This was the beginning of my writing journey.
What was the impetus for writing “Everything Here Belongs to You”?
After 9/11 there was mounting Islamophobia in America. Mosques were burned and Muslims beaten. Women in Hijabs were attacked in New York subways. Muslim women were being forced to hide their Muslim/religious identity. This broke my heart. Their faith was being used as a weapon against them.
How could Americans think all Muslims were to blame for the action of a few? If anything, Muslims were the victims---they were getting a bad name. And later from my Hindu relatives in India, I heard deep satisfaction. “Just wait and see,” they said. “America will show them.”
It was then that I wanted to explore why young men and women get involved in religious extremism that results in violence. I wanted to identify poverty as the root cause but also blame lack of employment, education, housing, political power, and anti-Muslim bias in society. Violent ideology can seem seductive to disaffected youth who suffer everyday discrimination.
How would you describe the book?
A lowly Muslim maid working for a middle-class Hindu family struggles between discovering her Muslim roots and conforming to the only family she’s ever known. Her struggle leaves a path of destruction that she could never have foreseen.
Parul is a Muslim maid sold by her father to a middle-class Hindu family. She lives comfortably among the family but is always treated like a second-class citizen. When she comes of age, she meets and starts a love affair with a radical Muslim, a jihadi, Rahim. He poisons her mind against her Hindu family and toward America. When the Hindu father brings an American boy to live with them while he trains for the Olympics, Rahim brainwashes Parul into sabotaging the American boy however she can. The American boy, Michael and the young Hindu daughter fall in love after a rocky first few months living together. The story unwinds as the readers learn more about the background of each of the characters and comes to a head when Parul commits her final betrayal at the end of the novel.
What perspectives or beliefs do you hope to challenge with this book?
Growing up in a middle-class Hindu family, in Kolkata, I have seen very young children from rural families come to work in our house. Even though my mother called them her daughters, she always made a clear distinction between her own children and the maids. The maids were not allowed to sit on the house furniture; instead, they sat on the floor and ate and drank from separate plates and cups. They also had a separate servant bathroom on the first floor. While I attended a prestigious English medium school, the maids were enrolled in free government schools. My mother always said, “You have to go to college. The maids will study for a few days and drop out.”
What the middle class in India thinks as normal and acceptable behavior is actually biased and cruel. It is this kind of behavior that alienated the maid, Parul over time and pushed her to betray the family. It’s time that the Indian middle class takes a hard look at its norms and standards and become more inclusive.
Were there therapeutic benefits to modeling characters after people you’ve known?
I modelled Parul after a girl who worked as a maid at my aunt’s house in Kolkata years back. She was abnormally thin and weak, her eyes always filled with sadness. Every month her father came to collect her wages. In addition to taking most of her salary, his demands on her never seemed to end. He asked for money to treat his asthma or repair his house. The girl often complained to my aunt about her father’s conduct:” Will I keep supplying paper notes to my father till the day I die?” she asked. My aunt felt helpless before her grief.
One day, we found her hanging from the ceiling fan in her little terrace room. She used her sari as a noose.
Images of this girl and her father did not leave me for years. It was as if the girl wanted me to tell her story. So, I decided to make the girl and her father characters in my story. It was only after I finished their story that I felt less impeded inside as if a heavy burden had been lifted from my chest. By writing their story I set them free and unburdened myself.
What part of the book did you have the hardest time writing?
Creating an American teenager boy from a military family was not easy for me. I had to pay particular attention to Michael’s dialogue. While everyone else in the book has the voice of a non-native English speaker, Michael had to sound convincingly American. So, I had to be careful with his sentence structure and choice of words.
What surprised you most about writing the book?
The story took unexpected turns as if being pulled by an exterior force more powerful than me. I generally have an idea about who the main characters are and what’s going to happen next. But then I found some minor characters suddenly started to become important in the story asking for more attention and trying to take the story in a new direction.
What do you hope to readers take away from reading the book?
In the end, I hope my readers are left with greater empathy for each of the diverse characters that inhabit this story and ask themselves what they would do if they were caught in the narrative of this book. I hope my novel will help the readers heal from the intolerance, religious extremism, and violence that has fractured contemporary society.
What are you currently working on?
I’m so busy promoting this book that I haven’t had time to think about my next project.