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Exploring identity, privilege, and sisterhood: Q&A with Saborna Roychowdhury, author of ‘Everything Here Belongs to You’

BY VEENA RAO*

In her second novel, ‘Everything Here Belongs to You‘, Indian American author Saborna Roychowdhury boldly explores class and religious divides through the voices of Parul and Mohini, two girls who grow up in a middle-class Kolkata home. One is the daughter of the house, and the other is the maid– and theirs is a complex sisterly relationship. As they navigate the challenges of classism and societal expectations, their once inseparable bond frays, exposing the harsh realities of privilege and prejudice.

Roychowdhury does not shy away from depicting the moral complexities faced by her characters, nor from the poor choices they sometimes make, thereby shining a light on important societal issues. The author’s evocative storytelling and compelling character dynamics culminate in a riveting tale that challenges readers to reflect on their own beliefs and perceptions.

In this extensive Q&A with NRI Pulse, the author talks about her characters, their moral dilemmas, and her publishing journey.

What is the significance of the title, Everything Here Belongs to You?

My characters, Parul and Mohini, grow up in the same household in Kolkata. Parul is the maid, while Mohini is her employer’s daughter. Growing up, they have a close sisterly relationship. Parul considers Mohini’s family as her own and feels she belongs in that house. But as they grow up, the differences between them become more pronounced. Mohini excludes Parul from play and reminds her of her role as a servant. Mohini’s increasingly classist views alienates Parul over time. Disillusioned by Mohini’s behavior toward her, Parul comes to the realization that everything in that house actually belonged to Mohini and not her. Thus the title, “Everything Here Belongs to You.”

Your book takes on bold themes like communal and caste divides. What insights do you hope readers will gain from your exploration of these themes?

After 9/11, there was mounting Islamophobic sentiment among Americans. Mosques were burned and Muslims beaten. Women in hijabs were attacked on the subways and held at gunpoint. Muslim women had to hide their minority religious identity. This broke my heart. I felt that their faith and identity were being used as weapons against them. How could Americans think ALL Muslims were to blame for the actions of a few? The whole community was getting a bad name because of a few bad actors. That’s when I wanted to explore the volatile issue of why women and men get involved in religious extremism that brings violence. I want my readers to identify poverty as the root cause and also blame lack of employment, education, wealth, and increasing surveillance of Muslim youths for the growing violence. Violent ideology is attractive to the disillusioned. When we ignore the suffering of the minority population, it comes back to haunt us.

The complex relationship between Parul and Mohini is central to your story. Did you see how their relationship was going to evolve when you started writing the book?

I knew that I had to show a close connection between Parul and Mohini from the beginning. My goal was to show this childhood connection unraveling over time and the careful order the family has maintained thrown into chaos. I understood that my readers needed to feel a sisterly relationship between these two from the outset so that when their lives diverge—with potentially devastating consequences—it would feel like a dramatic shift, creating both a sense of tension and loss. So I put some anecdotes in the early chapters that conveyed this kind of childhood connection between the girls. One such example is when Parul comforts Mohini after she brawls with the slum boys and her mother makes her give up weightlifting. Parul acts as a salve in this heartbreaking moment for Mohini. As for Mohini, she too shows her love for Parul by giving away her birthday money. But as they grow up, the class difference between Parul and Mohini interferes in this close relationship pulling them apart. I show how Mohini excludes Parul from her play and reminds her of her role as a servant. I had to deliberately arrange the scenes chronologically to show the evolution of their relationship.

Parul’s upbringing as a servant in the Sens’ household, hiding her Muslim identity, adds layers of complexity to her character. What were the challenges of portraying a gray character who struggles with identity and belonging?

It was not easy to craft the character of Parul. I wanted the readers to like her and sympathize with her even when she was making all the wrong choices. Making readers like a character who is not necessarily good is a hard task. From the beginning, I had to show how much Parul struggled with her identity. Parul was drawn toward Islam because of her intense need to “belong” to something or someone. That’s why when she met Rahim, she was overtaken with a pull to him and to Islam. So from the early chapters, I had to portray the discontent she felt in her life. Through Parul’s own thoughts, I show how she felt trapped as a servant in that house and beholden to her own father who took away her salary every month. I had to convince the readers that running to Rahim was her only option, and a way to fight the “prison” of her life.

Can you talk about Mohini who has a relatively easy upbringing but is complicated and has shades of gray nonetheless?

Mohini, the Sens’ daughter, who is one year younger than Parul, has led a life of privilege and education. While Parul battles with poverty, Mohini’s life is cushioned by a big house, bank balance, and middle-class position. Even though Mohini feels a lot of affection for Parul, she is never sure whether to treat Parul as a sister or a servant. Mohini struggles with this complex relationship and often comes across as classist, snobbish, and cruel. Also, Mohini never seems to have a mind of her own. She always supports her mother and never takes a stand for Parul. She advises Parul not to seek her religion, wear the hijab, or go to the mosque. Mohini is more concerned about her family’s reputation and often blind to Parul’s suffering.

The large crumbling house that is the setting for most of the story is a character in itself. Is it based on a real house?

It is not a real house, but I did grow up in a similar house in Kolkata, India. My house had two wings, three floors, a back alley, a terrace, and a courtyard. The west wing on the second floor was falling apart. There were cracks on the floor, and rainwater seeped in from the roof. Also, there was a noisy printing press on the first floor. Crows lined up the balconies and pigeons nested in the skylights and ceiling beams. But I think the similarity ends there. The rest of the crumbling house in my novel is a product of my imagination.

Rahim is a dark, radical character with a disturbing past. What kind of research was needed to flesh out his character?

Rahim’s family story was important to the book to understand his extremist ideology. The cruelty brought upon his family was something Rahim couldn’t erase from his memory and carried it around like heavy baggage. He was filled with bitterness and thoughts of revenge. Rahim’s powerful backstory of great injustice created empathy for him in Parul’s mind and hopefully will impact the reader. To create Rahim’s backstory, I had to read newspaper and magazine articles that talk about the current state of minorities in India. I read how the Muslim population faces discrimination, prejudice, and violence in their everyday life. For decades, Muslim communities have faced discrimination in employment and education and encountered barriers to achieving wealth and political power. In addition to that, the courts and police have an anti-Muslim bias. I realized then that I have to make Rahim’s brother a victim of the biased justice system.

What do you hope readers will take away from “Everything Here Belongs to You”?

I want readers to ask themselves what they would do if they were caught in the narrative of the book. How will they treat someone who they perceive as different? Do they think some people deserve less than others? How can prosperity belong to a few? Readers should do some soul-searching and make sure that regardless of social class, gender, or religion they are giving everyone the same opportunities.

How long did it take you to write the book and what was your publishing journey like?

It took me five years to write the book and another three years to edit and polish it. In 2015, I met my literary agent, but she could not sell my book to a big publisher. So we went with a small publisher from Texas. My publishing journey is absolutely soul-crushing and I don’t know if I can put myself through this again.

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About the author: Saborna’s second novel, “Everything Here Belongs to You,” was released in June by Texas based publisher, Black Rose Writing and received a starred review from Indie Reader. Kirkus Reviews called her book, “A heart-wrenching family drama, as powerful as it is delicate.” The novel was well-received in other publications in the U.S. and elsewhere, including the Sublime Book Review and Readers’ Favorite.

On September 1st, 2022, her book won 3rd Place/Bronze Medal in the prestigious Reader’s Favorite International Book Awards contest, competing against thousands of entrants worldwide, category Fiction-Drama. Saborna’s book is also the International Pulpwood Queens and Timber Guys Book Club International pick for 2025.

Saborna’s debut novel THE DISTANCE was published by the independent press Istoria Books and received a starred review from Publishers Weekly. Her short story “Bengal Monsoon” appeared in New York Stories  magazine and received a Pushcart Prize nomination.

Saborna was born and raised in Kolkata, India, and moved to the U.S. for undergraduate work in chemistry. She lives in Houston, Texas, with her husband and twin daughters. When she is not writing and chasing fictional characters, she is a very earnest Chemistry Instructor at various Community Colleges.

*Veena Rao is an award-winning Indian-American author and journalist. She is the founding editor of NRI Pulse.  Hher debut novel, Purple Lotus, is a 2021 American Fiction Award winner, a 2021 Georgia Author of the Year finalist, and an award-winning finalist in the multicultural and women’s fiction categories of the 2021 International Book Awards.

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