A dark diamond in the sky: Shazia Omar on cursed gems & historical heroes
One would think that a yoga teacher, a CEO of a company and a mother has enough on her hands already to keep her super busy. But that's clearly not the case with author Shazia Omar. She is two books and a play down and her latest book Dark Diamond has just hit the stands.
In Dark Diamond, Omar takes us back to Mughal Bengal on the, what I would love to imagine as chiseled, shoulders of the Mughal Viceroy of Bengal in 1685 - Lord Shayista Khan. His one prized possession - the dark diamond Kalinoor (excuse the obvious nomenclature) - has a terribly bloody history.
Khan has to suffer the burdens of the cursed stone, while also making sure that Bengal is, to put it simply, not ruined. "With a French beauty, a Portuguese pirate, and a Bengali dancer as his allies, Shayista must find a way to save his enlightened Empire from his enemies - and to keep the dark diamond out of the hands of a diabolical Pir..."
Catch spoke to Omar about Dark Diamond and her plans ahead. Here's what she had to say:
JS: How did Dark Diamond come to be?
SO:Dark Diamond was the love child of three recent interests. Mughals, the history of Bengal and Sufism. I wanted to know more about all three.
The Mughal era is a fascinating mix of art, culture, beauty and war. I didn't study history in school so I saw this as an opportunity to read up on a period I was interested in. My father is from Lal Bagh, so I often visited the Lal Bagh Fort and heard of Shayista Khan, the Mughal Viceroy who built it, but there was not much literature on him.
After digging deep, what I found was an incredible character. He was a successful leader who turned Bengal into a centripetal force of commerce and culture. He believed in plurality, poetry and progressive thinking.
I am glad to see children at school are now studying Bangla history but our text books can be quite dry. It would be wonderful to see more engaging material produced to bring past periods to life. I find it sad that most of our accounts of history go only so far back as the 1971 war, but we have much deeper roots, rich ancestors, a legacy. Thus I decided to write the Dark Diamond.
Despite Bengal's rich relationship with Sufism, I find today's youth know very little about mystic Islam. The Quran is said to have an outer, inner and secret (Sufi) meaning. I wanted to explore this more, in the light of the growing religious intolerance, to see if history could shed some light on how these divergent paths could coexist.
JS: When you started reading more into Bengal's history, where did you start?
SO: My research for this book took a few years. I read many books including William Dalrymple's White Mughal and The Last Mughal, Richard Eaton's The Rise of Islam and the Bengal Frontier, John Richards' The Mughal Empire, Tapan Raychaudhuri's Bengal Under Akbar and Jahangir, Fergus Nicoll's Shah Jahan, Joshua Ivinson's Diamonds and East India Company, Alex Rutherford's Empire of the Moghuls, Abraham Eraly's The Mughal Throne, Indu Sundaresan's The Twentieth Wife, Richard Wise's The French Blue and others.
I gleaned some juicy facts from a PhD titled Life and times of Shaista Khan by Noopur Sharan of Allahabad, 2005, that was not available in print, for which I had the opportunity to visit the marvelous British Library.
Furthermore, the Chair of the Dhaka University History Department, Dr. Sonia Amin, read the manuscript to check for any historical errors. I also spent some time in the Lal Bagh Fort itself and the museum housed within.
JS:Was it hard to flesh out a character who doesn't have much written about him in history books? Or was it easier?SO: The fact that history doesn't write much about Shayista Khan may be a reflection on the lack of importance given to the Bengal region, despite its prosperous trade. It may also be a reflection on the choice of historians to focus only on the Emperors themselves.
However, what I found more difficult to create were the female characters whom history says nothing about!
Strangely enough, history repeats itself. So many of the enemies Shayista Khan fought continue to plague us in present day Bengal. We are playing out many of the same battles, in slightly altered forms. These enemies are forces that oppose inclusive growth and progress.
For example, the Corporation is an institution that just began to bear its ferocious fangs in 1685 and Shayista Khan tried to fight it. He tried to defend the local economy and the artisans of the land from the East India Company and parasitic zamindars.
Today, we find international buyers bleeding our garment girls dry through rich garment company owners in much the same way. The social model has not changed.
Shayista khan also fought theUlema which had become radicalised and intolerant under the influence of Aurengzeb and were trying to suppress freedom of expression and thought. Today, I am encouraged to see that the people of Bangladesh are trying to fight radical forces, but one must ponder over the geo-political forces that fuel this endemic battle so that it continues across eras and consider how better to truly lay the grounds for a loving and compassionate nation.
Finally, Shayista Khan battles his own demons of desire, attachments and aversions.
JS: Also, tell us more about the Kalinoor
SO: I find diamonds fascinating. They sparkle but they have no intrinsic value. Rather, they are valuable because we ascribe material worth to them. This makes diamonds interesting to explore.
Why as a culture do we chase material goods, rather than spiritual growth, and how far we are willing to go for this pursuit? Throughout history we find accounts of large diamonds with curses attached to them. Kohinoor is one, another is the French Blue, and the Hope diamond (which is said to be hidden in Bangladesh).
JS: Will you be writing more about Mughal Bengal?
SO: No, but I would like to explore some of our other historical characters, perhaps Atisha Dipankar, the Buddhist leader who originated in Bengal.
JS: And now about yourself - when and how did you start writing?SO: I have been writing for ten years. My first novel, Like a Diamond in the Sky (Penguin/Zubaan) is about sex, drugs and rock n' roll in present day Bangladesh. It explores the gritty underworld of Dhaka and the alienation of privileged youths.
My second book, released this summer by Bloomsbury, is a mind-body-spirit book about happiness called Intentional Smile: A Girl's Guide to Positive Living. It is illustrated by artist Lara Salam, who has worked with the likes of studios such as Disney. She is very talented and her feel-good art makes the book come to life. It is co-authored by Merrill Lhan, a school counselor, and a life coach.
JS: What's next for Shazia Omar?SO: I hope to continue teaching yoga, continue writing, and continue serving the poor and the disempowered women through my professional life. You can learn more about all three on my website - www.shaziaomar.com
JS: Tell us about your firm
SO: I am the CEO of a small technology firm that designs mobile-based applications for NGOs and programs that deliver services to the extreme poor. It is called mTracker. http://www.mtracker.co/ The idea is that unless poor families are given case-by-case support, they may slip off the path out of poverty. With the platform we have developed, social transfer programs can ensure best results for their development dollars.