Saturday Features

Retelling history

Aug 25, 2018-

Author Sheeba Shah’s love for literature stemmed from her grandmother’s renditions of Nepali folk tales while growing up in Dhangadi. As she grew up, her granny’s tales fell short of satisfying her inquisitive mind and she turned to reading short stories and novels. During her school days in Nainital, India, Shah would read three to five books during the weekends. Even though she was a voracious reader, Shah had never planned to become a writer, but today she is the author of four published books. Her latest work, The Other Queen, a historical fiction based on the life and times of Nepal’s first queen regent Rajendra Laxmi, was released this week.

The Post’s Alisha Sijapati recently caught up with the author to talk about her latest release, the challenges of being an English-language writer in Nepal and her passion for literature. Excerpts:

How did you venture into literature?

I have always been a dreamer. I grew up listening to my grandmother’s tales. I remember being moved by those stories that took me to a different land altogether. These tales induced further imagination in me and I started creating situations with myself as a character. It still happens today.  Eventually, I started reading novels and poems. Back in my school days, we used to get a book from the library every week and it was mandatory for everyone to write a summary of the book. But by the end of the week, I would have not just one book but a pile of them on my table that needed to be read and reviewed. Because most of my friends disliked reading, I would happily do the job for them. That’s how I got into literature. 

All of your four books are written in English. What are the challenges of writing in about Nepali communities in a foreign language?

Working as an English writer in Nepal is not easy. It cannot be a full time job as the English readership in Nepal is very limited. Many Nepali publishers are not all that enthusiastic about publishing English novels. Things are different now than they were a decade ago, but they could be better.

The Other Queen will get translated in Nepali soon and that could sell over 10,000 copies, but for English I would only vouch for 1,000 copies.

What kind of responses have you received for your works so far?

I have received overwhelming responses for my books. It is very encouraging, especially when it comes from women who have read my books and can relate to my characters.

While growing up, what genre did you enjoy reading and which authors helped you grow?

Jane Austen was my favourite author. Her books inspired me to write. The other writer is Anita Desai, her books and characters have always moved me. These two authors inspired me to write women-centric narratives. If it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t be the person I am today.

The subject of your latest book is Queen Rajendra Laxmi, a well known historical figure. What prompted you to write a book based on her?

Little is known about Rajendra Laxmi, except that she was a notoriously romantic, rebellious queen. I came across a book by Rishikesh Shaha which talks about Rajendra Laxmi’s ‘fond sentiments’ for the royal courtier Gagan Singh. This led me to delve more into her character and attempt to find out why she is so notorious in Nepali history. As a writer, I have taken liberties with the subject while keeping the important historical facts intact. There are also a few fictional characters that I have created to make the narrative fluid. But basically, this book is my take on the clandestine affair between Rajendra Laxmi and Gagan Singh.

How long did it take you to come out with the final draft of The Other Queen?

My new book is tangentially related to my debut novel Loyals of The Crown, so it only took me six months to finish writing. It took me about four years of research. I spent days and nights at Kaiser Library trying to get information on Rajendra Laxmi.

Most of your books are women-centric. As a writer, do you relate to such strong women characters while writing?

I think this case is not only limited to me, it is with all writers regardless of gender. In every book or short story you write, some aspect of the characters are definitely connected to the writer. Many people who know me personally and have read my books repeatedly mention part of me being in the stories. A shade of a writer’s character is always found in their book.

How daunting is it for writers and editors to maintain their sanity while completing the book?

Sometimes a writer feels like she is god, and the book her creation. Hence, when an editor meddles with it, the author becomes a little possessive. It might be challenging for the two to find a common ground even in the smallest of things, such as placement of a comma. Hence, finishing a book is a daunting process.

Can you name any book that you’ve read recently that will help inspire today’s generation?

I finish reading over three to four books every month and one book that has really inspired me of late is a memoir written by Tara Westover called Educated. The book is about how a girl who’s kept out of school  leaves her family to complete her PhD from Cambridge University.

Published: 25-08-2018 08:17

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