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Everything That Belonged to Her:
Interview with Saborna Roychowdhury

By Carin Chea

Author Saborna Roychowdhury is an artist whose written work immerses the reader in a galaxy of curiosity and deep empathy.

Informed by her experiences as young woman growing up in Kolkata, India, Roychowdhury’s stories are poignant and powerful. Undeniably, they honor the beautifully tragic souls who inspired her.

Perhaps the writer’s books are so relatable because they touch upon humanity’s innumerable complexities: Her books are filled with sorrow, yet have eternal hope. They contain moments of fragility, yet her protagonists also soar with great strength.

Roychowdhury is one of those once in a lifetime authors whose comprehension of the human condition is well-rounded and all-encompassing.

Everything Here Belongs to You by Saborna Roychowdhury

Tell us a little about yourself. Where were you raised? Where do you live now?

I grew up in Kolkata, India in a middle-class Hindu family. Like the characters in my novel, I lived in a hundred-year-old house with my extended family - aunts and uncles and cousins.

Our crumbling mansion had two wings and two floors. Years of neglect had left our house in poor condition. The cracked tiles on the floor, the yellowing walls and broken windows were in desperate need of repair.

During the monsoon season, water dripped from the roof and collected in plastic buckets. Blue plastic sheets covered our antique furniture, paintings, old encyclopedias and faded photographs.

Maintaining this crumbling mansion was impossible for our family members. Spiders crawled behind the clotheshorse and termite mud piles went up the wall like dried up riverbeds. The old grandfather clocks chimed at the wrong hours and pigeons nested in the skylight holes.

Though I left Kolkata and moved to America when I was nineteen years old, this house full of history remained alive somewhere inside me. And years later, in my novel, Everything Here Belongs to You, I used this house as the main backdrop.

I live in the suburbs of Houston now. Here my wooden house is relatively new with central air conditioning and modern appliances.

Soft carpet covers the floors and the walls have a fresh coat of paint. Modern furniture adorn my spacious living room and the kitchen has resplendent cherry wood cabinets.

Every week, a lawnmower trims our lawn and prunes the bushes to perfection. The pressure-washed driveway and sidewalk glisten like glass. My existence here in Houston is neat, tidy and hygienic.

Still, when I pick up the pen, I rarely write about the suburbs of Houston. I still find myself circling the same old mansion in Kolkata pining away for what I left behind.

How did a young woman majoring in chemistry become an acclaimed author?

I was looking for a job in Boston. For fun, I thought I’d take a creative writing workshop with GrubStreet. The teacher, Jeff, gave out writing prompts. He was an editor with a big publishing house who had recently left to start teaching.

He said, “I’m going to switch off the light. You’ll meditate for a few seconds, you’ll see a character or face, and whoever comes to your mind, you’re going to write about them freely with no edits or anything.”

When he switched on the light, the face of a girl came on, and it was about a girl who worked for my aunt’s family years ago. She had a tragic story.

That was my first short story. I named it Bengal Monsoon, and I was shy to share it in class. I didn’t know if I could write because I was a chemistry instructor at the time. But, when I wrote the story, my classmates had great feedback and my instructor asked me to send it off.

New York Stories accepted it right away. They gave me a check for $250 and I didn’t want to cash it! I wanted to save it and frame it.

Saborna Roychowdhury

Tell us about Everything Here Belongs to You and what inspired this book.

I had forgotten about Bengal Monsoon and wrote another book, The Distance. But that face, that girl [who inspired Bengal Monsoon], stayed in my mind.

She was a maid at my aunt’s home. Every month her father would come from the village and take away all her wages. His demands never ended. He needed more money for the roof or for new blankets.

The girl was very, very sad. She used to cry and say to my aunt, “What does he think of me? Am I his bank?” My aunt was a kind person, but she didn’t know what to do.

One morning at 6 am, the girl wasn’t coming down even as my aunt called for her. My aunt went upstairs to look for her and she found her hanging.

She had taken a sari and formed a noose. She was hanging from the ceiling fan. Her body was still warm and my aunt tried to revive her.

The girl’s father came to the house and blamed my aunt for the death. They asked for her money. I’ll never forget the commotion. People were throwing stones at her house.

After I wrote The Distance, I felt that these two characters had not left me. I felt like I had left something incomplete, that the girl wanted me to complete her story. So, I brought her story back to this book, but I wrote a different story and made her Muslim.

It’s a different story, but with the same desperate situation. It’s about a girl who works as a maid and her father comes every month to take away her wages. She definitely feels the class difference. She knows she doesn’t have anywhere to go.

The same frustration and prejudices face her. That girl was a spark for my novel. She haunted me. They don’t leave you until you honor them.

What would you say is the central message behind your latest book?

I wanted to ask why religious extremism and violence are tearing apart communities in India. It was important for me to explore why people get involved in this religious extremism that encourages violence. I wanted to identify its leading causes.

In my book, I talk about poverty as a root cause, but also blame lack of employment, education, healthcare, lack of political power among Indian Muslims.

In recent times there is increasing surveillance of Indian Muslims youth similar to the rise of Islamophobia in the U.S. after 9/11. Violent ideology can attract disaffected youth who face daily prejudice and discrimination.

That’s amazing! How long do you think this book was percolating in your mind?

It took me 5 years to write this book. Then I met my agent, who is Julie Stevenson from Massie & McQuilkin. She’s a fantastic agent. She does tremendous editing work. She had me edit the book for 3 years.

She said the book had to be chronological, and that (from the beginning) show a very close relationship between the maid and the girl so when their lives diverge - with potentially devastating consequences - the reader can feel the tension and loss.

When I first wrote the story, some sections were in omniscient third person and other sections were in close third person. Julie asked me to use close third person and toggle between two central perspectives.

When I finished the book, it was sharper, tighter, and more cohesive. She wanted me to only keep the events that moved the story forward. Anything - I mean, any little thing that wasn’t related to the story at all were taken out. That broke my heart because there were so many beautiful chapters I had to take out.

Editor, Laura Chasen also helped me tremendously. Laura sent me 19 pages of editorial notes. The level of detail in those notes was insane. I give her half the credit for this book. Some people come into your life like angels and Laura was one.

What would you say to your younger self?

I’m glad I made this journey because it completely changed my perspective. Growing up in a middle-class Hindu family in Kolkata, I saw young children come to work in our house.

I thought nothing of it, as it was normal for children to work like that. My mother used to call them her daughters, but she always made a clear distinction between them and me.

They weren’t allowed to sit on the furniture; they had to sit on the floor. They weren’t allowed to eat from my cup or dish. They had a separate bathroom. My mother would enroll the children in a free school, but I went to a very good English school.

That was the norm and my mother didn’t think anything about it. She was upholding the norms and standards of her social class.

As a child I didn’t question these norms at all. When I came to the US and saw the society from the outside, I understood the cruelty behind it. I understand it now, but I wouldn’t have if I stayed in India.

Are there any upcoming projects you’d like to tell us about?

I’m currently promoting Everything Here Belongs to you.

I may bring back The Distance. The book was in the market for 3 months when the publishing house went out of business. In the future I’d like to revisit the book and market it.

How would you describe the book?

A lonely Muslim maid, Parul, comes to work for a middle-class Hindu family. She struggles with the dynamics of Muslim roots and the only family she’s ever known (the family she works for).

She was sold by her father to a middle-class Muslim family where she is always treated like a 2nd class citizen. When she comes of age, she begins an affair with Rahim, a radical Muslim man, who poisons her mind against the Hindu family.

When an American boy, Michael, comes to live with the family Rahim tells Parul to sabotage him. At this point, Michael has fallen in love with the girl of the house, Mohini. Parul, the maid must choose between the loyalty to her sister (Mohini) and the baby growing inside of her.

Rahim won’t marry her unless she follows his order, and having a baby out of wedlock is a scandalous thing in Indian culture.

Who would play the protagonist if your book was made into a series?

Have you seen Never Have I Ever on Netflix? That girl. She would play Mohini.

I also wanted one of the finest actors of world cinema, Irrfan Khan, to play Rahim but he passed away recently.

To keep up to date with Ms. Roychowdhury’s latest events, please visit www.SabornaRoychowdhury.com.

Hollywood, CA

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