Granddaughter Project's Shaheen Chishti hopes for a society that respect women

Updated on Aug 31, 2021 05:24 PM IST

Author Shaheen Chishti's The Granddaughter Project tells the stories of women from diverse but equally tragic backstories, from the Holocaust to the Bengali Famine. However, the one thread that ties them together is that they wish to give their granddaughters a brighter, hope-filled future.

The Granddaughter Project's book cover
The Granddaughter Project's book cover
By, Hindustan Times, Delhi

Shaheen Chishti's debut book, The Granddaughter Project is an inspired story by all the women he has met in his life, it is the story of tragedy, sacrifice and hope. The author - an Indian born in Ajmer, Rajasthan moved to the United Kingdom where he spent most of his adult life - admits that it took a lot from him to complete his first book given that he was committed to a full-time job, but he managed to push through and became a published author in his late 40s.

The accountant turned investment banker's book talks about issues including gender inequality, survivors of war, trauma, the strength of women through the ages, racism, famine and more through the stories of women who come from diverse but equally tragic backgrounds, from the Holocaust to the Bengali Famine. However, the one thread that ties them together is that they wish to give their granddaughters a brighter, hope-filled future. In an interview with Hindustan Times, the author gives us an insight into his inspiration, process, roadblocks and much more. Read on...

What thoughts led you to pen the book, The Granddaughter Project?

I would hope that my daughters and future granddaughters get to live in a society that fully respects women; a society in which they would not have to face the same injustices and lead their lives in fear of what could happen to them just because of their gender. We have certainly made progress as a society but there is still such a long way to go to ensure that all our granddaughters live without fear of men and are not held back to reach their full potential.

I wanted to help young women find their voices and power, and to make the most for themselves – not for their society. So many young women now are the living legacies of strong women who came before them, able to live their lives and enjoy their freedoms and identities because of the sacrifices made by their grandmothers. So many grandmothers went to their graves without telling their stories, for fear of the repercussion and consequences upon their families. Some understandably lacked courage, others lacked opportunity. But now they can be unburdened.

Equality for all should be humanity’s priority. We are all equal and deserve nothing less that respect and dignity.

What is the storyline/ central theme of the book? Why name it 'The Granddaughter Project'?

A deeply emotional and raw story, “The Granddaughter Project” is the shared experience of three, very different women, who collectively use their voices, wanting to improve societal attitudes for their granddaughters. The men around these women put them into desperate situations: young and alone, they fought to overcome their experiences. Helga is a Holocaust survivor, who grew up as the cherub of her family until the Anschluss of Austria. Separated from her family in Auschwitz, she survived the horrors alone and tried to begin a new life in Israel. In complete contrast, Kamla was born as a poor peasant girl and grew up during the Bengali Famine. With an alcoholic father, who abuses her mother, the family find themselves homeless and hungry. She survives and finds work in a women’s shelter, eventually marrying Rajeev, who abandons her and their young daughter. Lynette leaves the Caribbean shores with her mother Pam, arriving in 1950s London. Living in appalling conditions, the pair struggle to make ends meet and contend with constant discrimination. When her mother dies, Lynette is left alone and at the mercy of the people around her. During the Notting Hill riots, she is beaten and left for dead but she still survives.

The title makes me think of all these grandmothers together and deciding to do something important for their granddaughters. It is a simple of way of conveying that these women set out to make something positive happen and put in hard work, planning and effort. They had a vision and they were going to make it succeed.

What has it been like being born in India and then living in the UK for over three decades?

There are so many similarities and so many vast differences. I would say the biggest differences are most obvious at first. But as you get to know and live within these cultures, there are naturally many similarities – human nature is the same wherever you are.

Some of the differences are carried through by Indian immigrants in the UK, but on the whole, I would say that India places a lot of value on family, the home and group culture. People define themselves based on a lot of these values – religion, subethnicities and other group values. Whereas in Britain, like other western countries, people and societies focus on the individual – rating their personal needs above that of a wider collective. In communicating, therefore, Indians want to share information about their families and learn about the personal lives of the people around them, whereas British people would not want to share that information until they know people better.

Why select such a hard-hitting subject for the book?

I was born in Ajmer, Rajasthan, and saw at close quarters how women’s lives were in traditional Hindu and Muslim cultures, having interacted with many families and seen many villages. I came across many women’s issues, which moved me. I then moved to England at a young age and saw the socially liberated society where they were making efforts to move up the chain, so to speak. That being said, I noticed that both sides were suffering in different ways and came to realise that society has been unfair to our mothers, sisters, daughters and partners for centuries. This set my mind up to write a book highlighting the issues faced by women from various cultures and arguing for the advancement of women in all societies.

How has your journey in writing the book been? Did it demand extensive research?

Undoubtedly the book required research into the historical events that the grandmothers lived through. Whilst we all have this idea about how painful war or famine can be, to truly read the stories of survivors and know what they went through was heart-breaking. I cannot imagine the strength that it must have taken to live through those circumstances. It felt like a great responsibility to tell the stories of these women and I hope my words have done their stories justice.

Why the Holocaust, Bengal Famine and Notting Hill riots? Did you actually meet such women?

These are such traumatic events that happened in places so far apart, but the commonality was that the victims of these tragedies, who by far carry the largest burden, are women. As I say, my time in London has led me to meet the most culturally diverse range of people, and some of the women I know have collectively inspired my book.

How long did it take for you to write the book?

It took one and a half years to write the book – mostly on the weekends, as I work full time. It was not easy to care for a young family and write a book at the same time, but it was time well spent – even if my book helps change just one life.

Did you face writer's block? If yes, how did you cope with it?

I think it is completely natural to face a block – whether writing or working. We all face creative blocks when some days are harder than others, but just being honest about it is healthy. Creativity cannot be ‘on-demand’, sometimes it just needs to simmer for a while. Leaving things for a while and coming back to them or working on something else can often be inspirational.

Tell us about some of the fondest moments that you cherished in India?

Spending time with my family – taking my sister to the cinema. Introducing my children to India and all the wonderful things it has to offer. I love it and miss it.

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    'Ask no questions, hear no lies.' Alfea Jamal is a fashion, culture, travel and food writer. She also dabbles in video journalism, multimedia production, the culinary arts, design and is modestly decent with canvas.

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