Wednesday, October 15, 2008

An Interview with Author Shobhan Bantwal

Today I have the pleasure of publishing an interview with Shobhan Bantwal, author of The Forbidden Daughter and The Dowry Bride. Readers will not be surprised to find me fascinated by a culturally-aware thriller that describes unfamiliar customs- thankfully unfamiliar in this case (see Qiu Xiaolong for related examples from China). After some background material on Shobhan and her latest novel, I'll dive into the interview, and then close with an excerpt from The Forbidden Daughter.

Summary of The Forbidden Daughter

When a young widow refuses to comply with her in-laws' dictate to abort her unborn child, will her rebellion turn out to be the greatest mistake of her life, or a blessing in disguise? This is the story of one mother’s valiant fight to protect her daughters in a society that often frowns on female children, and the only man who will help her in her battle when the stakes become impossibly high. The Forbidden Daughter is woven around the hot-button social issue of vanishing girl children in contemporary India, where gender-based abortions and female infanticide continue to be practiced in some areas despite laws to ban the practices.

About Shobhan Bantwal –Shobhan Bantwal is the author of The Dowry Bride and The Forbidden Daughter. Both novels are set in India and released by Kensington Publishing Corp. Shobhan’s short story titled Where the Lotus Grows is scheduled for publication in an anthology in spring 2009 and the proceeds will be donated by the publisher, Freya’s Bower, to a battered women’s shelter.

As a freelance writer, Shobhan frequently writes columns for India Abroad. Since 2002, Shobhan’s articles and short stories have also appeared in a variety of other publications including The Writer magazine, Little India, U.S. 1, Desi Journal, India Currents, Overseas Indian, New Woman India, Kanara Saraswat and Sulekha. Her short stories have won honors and awards in fiction contests sponsored by Writer’s Digest, New York Stories and New Woman magazines.

For more information about Shobhan Bantwal’s virtual tour, visit:

The Forbidden Daughter can be ordered at:

You can visit Shobhan Bantwal at her website –

Nearly Nothing but Novels: the Interview with Shobhan Bantwal

NearlyNothingbutNovels: How do you try to manage the balance between political statement and artistic vision in your writing?

Shobhan Bantwal: When I first took up creative writing, I had no idea that I would develop an interest in political-social issues and use them as a platform for my stories. I was contemplating various themes, and dowry abuse in India seemed like an interesting topic, with just enough controversy and substance to form the crux of a dramatic tale with romantic elements.

However, as I started to do some preliminary research into the deeply-entrenched dowry system and the use and abuse of it in Indian society, I was both shocked enough and curious enough to decide to make it my main theme.

To answer your question, I find myself teetering on a high-wire when I make my political statements the central motifs of my books and at the same time attempt to entertain my readers with good, page-turning stories. As long as I remain focused on the fact that I write “fiction” and my writing is not a scholarly treatise on the social-political issues, I am able to factor them into my stories, and to my satisfaction.

NNBN: Do your female protagonists represent an idealized vision of women who may develop in India, given time and circumstances, or are they characters who are truly part of today’s Indian society in significant numbers?

SB: My female protagonists are my vision of the ideal Indian woman—strong yet flexible, shy yet bold when necessary, kind yet selfish enough to protect what is hers, astute yet possessing an innocent and naïve quality that makes readers find her likeable enough to root for her.

However, in present-day India’s environment of higher education and emancipation, there are such women in abundance. They are the trailblazers ones who are brave enough to break away from meaningless traditions and forge a new path for other women to follow.

One such example is a young woman named Nisha Sharma, who in 2003 became so disgruntled by her future in-laws’ unreasonable demands of dowry from her parents that she rebelled against tradition and had the groom and his family arrested in the marriage hall, in the presence of the wedding guests. She became an instant hero, not only in India, but in many parts of the world where women are allowed little freedom to speak their minds. There are plenty of Nisha Sharmas in India today.

NNBN: What kind of real freedom of expression does Indian society provide to artists, especially women?

SB: Despite being very 21st Century in technology, fashion, and culture (to some degree) freedom of expression to artists is still rather restricted. Although those restrictions are imposed on both sexes, in the male-dominated atmosphere of Indian society, it is the women who face more harsh criticism of artistic expression than men. A woman painter who portrays nudism is likely to face censure from the moral police more than a man. A woman writer who features controversy or supposedly “puts ultra-modern ideas” in women’s minds is sure to provoke conservative folks.

A number of instances, where certain movies and books have been banned in India, and a beauty pageant that was disrupted by picketers because it debased Indian women are examples of how there is no true freedom of expression in certain arenas.

Again, there are a few women who are rebellious enough to break the mold and start a new trend in every form of artistic expression.

NNBN: How serious is the Indian central government about reforms that challenge traditional values in favor of human rights?

SB: The Indian government is very serious about protecting human rights. For years, legislation to ban dowry, gender-selective abortion, and discrimination against females in the workplace has been enacted progressively by the government. And yet, the number of cases that are tried is very few, and the ones where justice is served are even fewer. One of the reasons for this is a weak judicial system bogged down by bureaucratic rules. The other reason is raging corruption in the law enforcement community, where the police and other departments are willing to look the other way even in cases of blatant abuse.

NNBN: What are the personal repercussions of your powerful stance in favor of women’s rights?

SB: Being an Indian-American writer whose books are published in North America only, not too many copies of them have reached India yet. My readers are primarily non-South Asian, which means not many censorious folks have had a chance to read my books. To that end, personal repercussions have been minimal (to date). Nonetheless, as more of my books reach readers outside the U.S. and Canada, the potential for personal attacks is likely to increase.

Having said that, I have to admit that a handful of Indian-Americans have sent me some scathing comments. They are critical of my portrayal of the darker elements of Indian culture and supposedly distorting the magnitude of certain practices.

NNBN: How do you place the issue of women’s rights in terms of the other injustices and tragedies that beset the various cultural and religious groups in India, both within themselves and against each other?

SB: In most cultures, injustices and the resulting tragedies are often interrelated. Women’s rights violations are a direct result of conservative beliefs that stem from lack of knowledge and education, which comes from poverty and lack of resources, which in turn hinges on overpopulation.

To this day, many Indians believe the woman is at fault if she produces female children, when science clearly states otherwise. In male-dominated societies like India, girls are looked upon as a liability whereas boys are assets, future bread-winners, leaders and caretakers of the elderly. However, with more education and forward thinking, the tide is slowly turning, leaving hope for women to rise to the level of males.

The more serious issue in the 21st Century appears to be not so much social evils as religion, which has taken on a new and intimidating stance. Whereas Indian society in the past was secular and tolerant of all religions, today the Hindus and Muslims are warring with each other more frequently. This could lead to unforeseen and more virulent socio-political problems, especially for children and families of mixed marriages.

NNBN: Given an understandable resistance to outside influence by any cultural group or country, what would you have the international community do, if anything, to improve women’s rights and combat social injustice in India?

SB: The U.N. and human rights organizations around the world are capable of penetrating the walls of resistance in conservative cultures to some extent. If enough publicity is given to the types of topics I write about, these organizations could do more research into the subjects and offer assistance to the victims. These worldwide organizations have the size, the budget, and the clout to delve past the barriers erected by cultural and religious groups in any part of the world.

One of the reasons I write about socio-political topics is to bring awareness to them amongst people who have no knowledge of them. My readers often thank me for making them aware of something they had never heard of.

NNBN: What are the most obvious effects on Indian society brought about by current improvements in the standard of living, at least for some?

SB: With the IT industry’s boom since the Y2K revolution started in the late 1990s, India’s middle class has seen a phenomenal growth in its standard of living. But the secondary and more promising effect is the proliferation of education. In an effort to fill the multitude of high-tech jobs in a growing global market, both men and women have enrolled in technology courses and acquired advanced degrees. As a result, more young women are now in high-income jobs similar to those once held by men. This type of economic independence has also spawned social and political independence for women.

NNBN: At the same time that Indians increasingly embrace and benefit financially from what we might inaccurately call “Western” technology, including science and engineering, is there any evidence of a shift towards Western values? Or, perhaps, is this technology viewed as an indigenous Indian development, carrying with it no foreign connotation or influence?

SB: With the influence of Western technology there has been a gradual shift towards Western culture. Pubs or bars have mushroomed in large cities in India, allowing the younger generation to socialize in places where once there was no place other than home to go to after work. Bollywood movies now have more Western themes with the characters wearing Western clothes and vacationing in Europe and the U.S. They eat and drink non-Indian foods and drinks, they dance in swank clubs, drive imported automobiles, and the Hindi dialogue is generously sprinkled with English words, especially Americanisms.

However, the picture is not all positive. Drugs, alcohol, and excessive spending on luxuries are some of the problems that are being experienced in India in recent years.

Thank you for hosting me on your popular blog. Additional information about my writing, recipes, photos, and events is available on my website:

NNBN- and thanks to Shobhan for being kind enough to answer my questions! Now from her latest novel:

Prologue for The Forbidden Daughter

Oh, Lord, I beg of you.
I fall at your feet time and again.
In my next incarnation, don't give me a daughter;
Give me hell instead . . .

Folk Song from the State of Uttar Pradesh, India


“Your child will come at the harvest full moon,” the old man said.

Jolted out of her dark, melancholic thoughts, Isha Tilak looked up, and stared in astonishment at the man who had uttered the startling words. He was obviously addressing her, because there was no one else in the immediate vicinity.

His strange remark captured her attention, thrusting aside her private musings.

“It is called Kojagari Purnima. It is the night when Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and abundance, descends from her heavenly abode to bless her devotees,” he added, stroking his luxuriant salt-and-pepper beard that more than compensated for the total absence of hair on his large, misshapen head.

He was supposedly a sadhu—a sage or holy man. He was certainly dressed for the part in his faded saffron robe—typical garb for Hindu holy men. Perhaps because she continued to wear a baffled look, he smiled. The simple motion transformed and softened his austere face, creating deeper furrows in his gaunt cheeks. “Yours will be a female child who will bring light and abundance to the people around her.”

She shook herself out of her stunned silence. It took her a moment to comprehend his words. Then natural curiosity took over, prompting her to goad him, test him. “How do you know my child will be a girl?”

He ignored her question. Instead he said, “Your daughter comes as a gift from Lakshmi, so she will enjoy prosperity and many comforts in her life, and, being generous, she will share them with others.”

“But my in-laws think she’s a curse,” Isha informed him, the bitterness in her voice hard to conceal and the despondency in her tear-swollen eyes a testimony to her despair. “In fact, they have forbidden me to have this child.”

“I know,” he said, with a thoughtful nod. “I am also aware that there is something which some evil doctors use to eliminate female children before they are born. It is one of the many scourges of kaliyug. Modern society.”

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