By Sabrina Fatma Ahmad
6 questions with Maria Chaudhari
Earlier this year, Hong Kong-based Bangladeshi writer-scholar Maria Chaudhuri launched her first children’s book Nobo Opens a Door at the Dhaka Lit Fest. The book, a product of Ignite Publications, was conceived in collaboration with Nobo Dhaka. Chaudhuri, who also has a novel Beloved Strangers, and has numerous essays, features and short stories been published in various collections, journals and literary magazines internationally, recently spoke to MW Bangladesh about her literary ventures.
Congratulations on Nobo Opens a Door. It was such a great read. Could you tell us how this collaboration with Nobo Dhaka came about?
Nobo Dhaka is a socially aware enterprise that promotes preservation of cultural heritage and traditions of Bangladesh. In line with their philosophy, Nobo’s owner and my good friend Silmat Chisti, had the idea of launching a Nobo Doll in the likeness of the simple fabric dolls of our childhood. This led her to the second idea of bringing Nobo to life with words. That is how she approached me about the conception of a book series based on the character of a young girl called Nobo. I was delighted and honored to work with Silmat and to feature her one-of-a-kind brand through the development of a character whose narratives would reflect the socially aware, explorative and progressive ideologies of Nobo Dhaka. Our visions gelled well as I too have long wanted to create, through my writing, a forum for the younger generation of Bangladesh, to talk about some of the ‘cultural faux pas’ they often face, when they struggle to reconcile tradition with the more global norms that they are exposed to in their daily lives, lives which are infested by social media, global travel, western television and video games. Dhaka now is a teeming metropolis of diverse values, morals and subcultures. Children growing up here subscribe to a consciousness that is irrevocably different from those of the previous generation. Our job is to pass on culture and tradition to these youngsters in a way that makes sense to them, within the current framework of their reality. That is exactly what I’ve tried to do in this book and it will continue to be the essential thrust of the entire series, though the narratives will vary in theme and context.
What message do you hope your readers will take away from the story?
First and foremost, I hope that my little readers will identify with the character of Nobo. I hope they will find in Nobo’s spirit, the adventure and innovation that they need, to thrive in ever-evolving Dhaka City and the world at large. There are too many stories of superheroes with physical powers and while they all have their place in correcting wrongs and standing up for what’s right, life isn’t just about putting out big fires or aspiring to impossible standards. Through Nobo, I wanted to create a kind of social superhero, if you will. I want a child to start thinking of regular human qualities such as imagination, resilience and empathy as ‘powers’ that are terribly important to cultivate in order to create a kinder and happier world.
Secondly, I want children to understand that culture and tradition are our guides, not our prison guards. I hope they will realize that we can enjoy and adopt older traditions in newer ways, because that is, in fact, the natural order of how things grow and move forward through the generations. Last, but not least, I want Bangladeshi children growing up abroad to learn about their heritage through a lens that is more easily relatable to their multilingual and multicultural lives.
Do share with us your experience of working with the talented Kazi Istela Imam. The finished product was great!
I am ever so grateful for this compliment because Istela and I worked really, really hard over the illustration process. She is a warm, generous, charming person and an artist of remarkable talent. To be perfectly honest, we found Istela a bit later than ideal (with regards to printing deadline) and I don’t think anyone else would even have taken on such an elaborate project, given the tight timeline we set in order to launch the book at the Dhaka Lit Fest. Not only did she agree to do it (even though she was swamped with other work), but she did it with so much heart and gusto. We worked closely – though we were in different time zones – and it was a process filled with creative ardor. She understood the narrative well and made every effort to bring the character and story to life through her beautiful illustrations. She was ever receptive and attentive when I explained my vision and context to her and never tired of trying things in different ways, multiple times. I simply couldn’t have asked for someone more talented, cooperative and resilient to work with, for my beloved Nobo. I cannot wait to work with her again.
Do you have any insights to share about the publishing experience in Bangladesh? What can we do better?
Nobo Opens A Door is my first publishing encounter in Bangladesh. My first book, Beloved Strangers, was published by Bloomsbury International. Once again, working with Ignite Publications under the expert supervision of Madiha Murshed, who is also a childhood friend from school, has been an experience I am grateful for. Throughout the publication process, my input was carefully considered, and my needs met, to the best of everyone’s abilities. Ignite has published quite a selection of children’s books in both Bangla and English and I found their guidance and insights to be reliable and based on good knowledge of the local market. I suppose the only thing I would ask of any publisher – local or international – is to build and share a concrete post-publication, marketing plan with the author because the post-publication process is just as important, if not more so, so than the pre-publication work.
Your novel Beloved Strangers dealt with themes of rootlessness and the search for home. Has your perception of the idea of home changed since it came out?
What I am more cautious about now, is perhaps, my perception of the terms ‘rootless’ and ‘home’. Because rootlessness takes its own roots and becomes an entity of its own, making a home in people like myself. On a physical plane, I suppose I am still rootless in a way. Hong Kong is the fifth major city I’ve lived in, and while I am reluctant to pin it down as my last stop, I love its diverse and unique conundrum set amidst serene green mountains and waterfalls. I miss Dhaka too, her scents and sights alive in my cells, no matter where I am. I often crave to return to New York or Los Angeles as I am particularly attracted to the landscapes and lifestyles of these cities. And these days I find myself dreaming of moving to a quiet beach town in Thailand or a little vineyard in Italy. So, you see – even my dreams of homes are rootless, suspended somewhere in the distance between desire and possibility. But at a psychological level, I tend to be less disturbed by the ebb and flow of my existence between several countries and cities. I am unfazed by the continental span of my aspirations for an ultimate and final home. I have learnt to embrace and even enjoy the rootlessness. This is my story, and I am as curious as anyone else to see where it takes me.
What’s next for Maria Chaudhuri?
2023 looks like a very exciting year for my work. We are discussing the prospects of Nobo as a series. I am working on an eclectic collection of short stories that are thematically related. And I have just started conceptualizing a multi-disciplinary and multi-lingual narrative, set in Bengal, that will infuse baul songs with historical fiction. In many ways, this rootlessness that we just discussed is a blessed source of inspiration for me, so may the stories keep pouring forth.