Sharbari Zohra Ahmed’s debut novel Dust Under Her Feet (2019) had its Bangladeshi launching ceremony at the Department of English and Humanities of BRAC University, recently. This was a packed event, filled with students, writers and academics. Seema Amin, a lecturer in the department, began the conversation by commenting on the dialogical voices that people find in the novel’s unusual setting -- a nightclub in 1940s Kolkata (then Calcutta). This was followed by a conversation between Aasha Mehreen Amin from The Daily Star and Sharbari, with the author shedding light on the theme, the setting and the way that the story unfolds.
In the ensuring conversation with the audience, Sharbari brought to focus the largely untold story of the Asian front of World War II, where the Japanese, having already entered Burma, were on the threshold of Bengal. The advent of American soldiers in Kolkata has the added effect of the local population experiencing the rising imperial power, who, on the surface, were friendlier and more benign than the crusty British colonialists. This dramatic background provides an apt setting for the story. The combination of American soldiers, Bengali nightclub entertainers and the background of the war sparked the audience’s interest, and hopefully, the novel will have a good readership in Bangladesh.
The author also shed light on the vagaries of writing as a Bangladeshi-American woman in the US -- the kinds of expectations that publishers have, the difficulties of going beyond ‘mangoes’ and ‘spices’, as well as overcoming the prejudices faced by Muslims. To find a voice that is true to the writer’s own interests is difficult enough, coupled with finding a platform that is willing to hear that voice. Coming to Dhaka from a tour of literary festivals in India, (New Delhi and Kolkata), and special book events in Bangalore and Kolkata hosted by her publishers, Sharbari was very upbeat about the reception of writers like herself in the region. She has already started working on her second novel, while at the same time writing a screenplay based on Dust Under Her Feet.
Sharbari Zohra Ahmed is a successful writer and director, known for her plays Aimee Undercover (2008), Raisins Not Virgins: Abdul (2005) and Duniya(2009), a short story collection (published by Daily Star Books) The Ocean of Mrs Nagai, as well as being one of the co-authors of the TV series Quantico. The novel bears the stamp of her experience in theatre and television, and can easily be adapted into a film.