This is your first time at the Dhaka Lit Fest, in fact your first time in Dhaka. Was it everything you had expected?
I’ve been waiting to come to Dhaka for a very long time. Sadaf, one of the DLF directors, is a very dear friend, and we’ve been conspiring to make it happen for a while. I’m very glad that to be here, for a number of reasons. It’s such an amazing gathering of some of the best creative minds and the greatest thinkers who are writing and speaking today. It’s a wonderful venue for international dialogue and cultural exchange.
I personally feel a very strong bond with Dhaka. My father lived here as a child and my mother keeps coming back to Dhaka and has a very close connection with Bangladesh, so altogether it has been delightful.
You and your mother Nabaneeta Dev Sen are working together on a book, called Mother Tongues. Could you tell us a bit about this project?
Both Ma and I are very excited about this book, which will trace my family’s intellectual, political, and literary traditions, told through the stories of the rule-breaking women in my family.
Women of different generations and backgrounds maneuver around societal structures with a kind of strength. Do you think women share a similar kind of strength, despite age, time, and privilege?
I think it’s more about what one’s conditioning allows one to voice. There are women of privilege who are conditioned in such a way that they never, in fact, resist, or protest. There are women who struggled throughout their lives and have raised their voices against all odds.
Sometimes it’s true that if you have all the tools for an articulate argument with which to protest -such as education, or a public platform – you’re equipped in a certain way. But equally, if you have struggled against forces of inequality that women of all backgrounds have to deal with, that too can equip you for the protest in a different way.
I think more and more it's becoming clear that girls and young women from various backgrounds, no matter what their stories are, are feeling comfortable raising their voices, and that’s a wonderful thing. But we still have a long way to go.
With all the societal norms set up against a backdrop of subordinating women, how can we raise children, both girls and boys, with the strength instilled in them to fight the inequality?
It’s really important to encourage girls, as well as boys, to speak up. I think what is important to resist is the notions of what a “good girl” or a “bad girl” is. It’s essential to encourage children to ask questions, and to argue. It’s important to talk at a very young age.
In my last session (Mambi and the Forest Fire and Not Yet!
), I was talking about children’s books, but I was also talking to them about equality, and about the fact that whether you’re born a boy or a girl, or a Muslim or Hindu or Christian, or from India or Bangladesh, you’re all the same, and you have the same rights.
The important thing is to plant critical ideas without really using didactic words. Notions of equality, fairness, justice, these are things which can be planted very early in a child’s mind. And as a parent, you need to do that regardless of your child being a boy or a girl.
For girls to be able to resist, it helps a lot if boys give them their support. When talking about the next generation, we don’t want to just talk about the girls we’ll be raising, but also the sons we’ll be raising.
What have you got in the pipeline?
From here, I’m going to the Bookaroo Festival in Delhi, where I'm doing four sessions with children. The second book of Mambi will be coming out next year; the first book was about equality, and this next one will be about diversity and tolerance. Mambi's character is also the heroine of a novel for children to be published in Italy by Feltrinelli. And other than Mother Tongues
, I’m writing a book called Earth Song
with Paris-based illustrator Kris Giacomo. This book about climate change is supported by the Institut Francais, which has brought Kris and me together for a writers' residency to develop this project