O.R. Nizam is a vividly, beautifully written love story that tells the tale of a childhood unrequited love that crosses cultures and two continents. Fate, family, politics and war finally bring the two young lovers together only to be thwarted by the changing politics, violence, and oppression that created Bangladesh. This colourful, authentic story with characters you just fall in love with, will explain the history of how and why what is now modern day Bangladesh had to emerge from the repressive forces of East Pakistan. Ash C. Milan, a London-based British writer of Bangladeshi origin, tells the story of Meena and Kareem in this momentous and often forgotten historical event brought back to life.
Asian Mums Network interviewed Ash C. Milan
AMN: What inspired you to write the novel?
AMN: In the novel, you refer to what is now Bangladesh as East Pakistan. What do you think would be the reaction of previous generations who fought for independence?
Ash Milan: Everyone recognised it as East Pakistan pre-1971. It is a historical fact.
AMN: Summarise the novel in a few words for our readers.
Ash Milan: Two disparate families emigrate to the UK from East Pakistan in the 1950s, only to return in 1971 and become involved in the War of Independence for Bangladesh. The story is told through the eyes of Kareem and Meena and divided into four parts. Each part recounts a chance encounter between them as they grow from children to adults. But only as adults do they realise the extent of their connection.
AMN: What inspired you to tell the story through the eyes of children and then into adulthood?
Ash Milan: I wanted the novel to be a saga. I wanted the reader to connect with the characters, If you start from their childhood and follow their story into adulthood, you come to understand them better.
AMN: Why O. R. Nizam Road as a title?
Ash Milan: O. R. Nizam Road has great personal significance for me. My grandfather’s house was on that road. Whenever I visited Bangladesh, I always stayed there.
AMN: What inspired you to write about the birth of Bangladesh independence?
Ash Milan: It really was an acknowledgment and thank you to those who sacrificed so much to establish Bangladesh. Many third generation British Bangladeshis don’t seem to know how Bangladesh was formed or created in 1971. Hopefully, my novel will introduce the story of Bangladesh to them and a wider diverse audience.
AMN: Do young British Bangladeshis know enough about their history?
Ash Milan: Bangladesh is accepted as a country in its own right so many second and third generation British Bangladeshi don’t really think about it. They think Bangladesh has been around forever which on the one hand is a good thing. It has been 45 years since Bangladesh gained independence, and many young people may not realise the true extent of the sacrifice made by their ancestors for Bangladesh to be a free, sovereign state. When parents came to the UK in the 70s and 80s, they were simply too busy living their lives, running businesses and raising children to fully discuss the birth of Bangladesh.
AMN: Why have parents kept the events of the Bangladesh War of Independence from their children?
Ash Milan: Yes there is silence, but it’s not because parents are ashamed. During the War of Independence, Bangladeshis were treated atrociously; many families lost loved ones; there are very few people who didn’t suffer some loss. There is a collective pain that has been internalised.
AMN: Who was your favorite character in the novel?
Ash Milan: Kareem is a personal favorite. From the very first moment, he is a happy, go-lucky, loving character, but his life suddenly changes when he is shot in the foot. His vulnerability and sadness are exposed for everyone to view and experience in the novel.
AMN: You say Kareem was a happy boy, then shot in foot as a child, what do you think about the outcome you wrote for him?
Ash Milan: It is a positive outcome that shows you can overcome barriers and things that are beyond your control. He achieves many things in life despite his injury, and he goes on to study and be an engineer. His sadness derives from the fact that he can’t play sports, mindless ridicule from others and a sense of great loneliness. But he has the immense inner strength that drives him forward.
AMN: A big part of Kareem’s life is in Britain, is Kareem more British or Bengali?
Ash Milan: The majority of Kareem’s upbringing is in Britain, so he is more British than Bangladeshi, but there is a strong bond with Bangladesh because it’s his motherland, the land of his birth and where he first encountered Meena.
AMN: What do you think of the Bangladeshi identity and the fact that there was a political label placed on Bengalis by an outside force?
Ash Milan: Bengalis were under the control of West Pakistan, and this was quite wrong because there is a marked cultural and linguistic difference. West Pakistan tried to enforce Pakistani values and language on to Bangladeshis. East Pakistan should never have been created and should have been an independent county at the outset. Another option was the possibility of a greater, united Hindu-Muslim Bengal, including Assam, Kolkata etc.
AMN: Were any of the characters based on real people or events?
Ash Milan: Not entirely based on real people, but I did draw on my own experiences. Meena’s family residence in the novel is inspired by my grandfather’s house. I inter-railed around Europe after graduating and did actually stay at the University of Rome halls of residence like Kareem does. Meena’s father is politically involved, and my grandfather was an MP for the Awami League. Meena, herself, is based on many young Asian women that I know, wholesome, very confident and forthright.
AMN: Throughout the novel, Meena is very self-assured and outspoken. She was brought up in the UK in the 1960s, is she very ahead of her time?
Ash Milan: Meena’s family comes to the UK for business reasons. Yes, she is open-minded and confident to do what she wants to in life. I didn’t want to write about a stereotyped subjugated female character under her father’s thumb.
Ash Milan: It is a bit of both, but on the whole, it’s a love story. The love story is a fine thread that runs through the novel from the very first page to the very last page. But the book is very much multi-layered, philosophizing on politics, friendship, sorrow, loss, loneliness, brutality, human existence etc.
AMN: What feedback have you had about your novel?
Ash Milan: From family to friends, the feedback has been very positive, but I am not getting the number of people I would like, to read the novel.
AMN: Why has the novel not attracted a high volume of readers?
Ash Milan: I published with a small publishing house that does not have the same clout as the big publishers.
AMN: What can Ash C Milan do to publicise the novel?
Ash Milan: The novel needs greater exposure. A literary journalist with a wide following to review the novel would undoubtedly help. So would readers with their online reviews.
AMN: If you had to imagine a newspaper to review your novel who would it be and have you had any high profile interviews?
Ash Milan: I would love the novel to be reviewed by a broadsheet, The Times or The Guardian. Nihal interviewed me on BBC Radio.
AMN: Who inspires you as a writer?
Ash Milan: I love anything from Dr. Zhivago to Frankenstein, novels that are deep, emotional and rich. Mary Shelley, for example, is superb, the way she draws the reader in, her writing is beautiful. But it’s about who can sell how many books nowadays – it is a business! I read an article that a writer took the first chapter of Pride and Prejudice, renamed and repackaged it and sent it to literary agents. Only one out of thirty agents recognised it as Pride and Prejudice. So it’s about what sells.
AMN: Are there enough British Bangladeshi writers?
Ash Milan: Only a very small percentage of published UK authors are from ethnic minorities. Publishers want Asian writers to tell stereotypical stories of terrorists, arranged marriages and subjugated women. Hopefully, that will change.
AMN: What’s next for Ash Milan?
Ash Milan: I have a few ideas. The next novel will be very different. More of a modern piece rather than a historical take on life.
Ash Milan: Not yet! But it’s at an embryonic stage so let’s wait and see.
AMN: How long before the next novel?
Ash Milan: A few years.
AMN: Jeffery Archer gets up at 6 am in the morning and is a very disciplined writer. How disciplined are you when you write?
Ash Milan: Whatever I do, I try my very best. I generally work when my kids are at school, but they are my world so when they return home I am there for them. Before you know it, they’ll be 18 years old, and the nest will be empty. So I enjoy them while I can.
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