A Conversation with ‘A List of Offences’ Dilruba Z. Ara

Dilruba Z. AraDilruba Z. Ara was born in Bangladesh. Nurtured on Greek mythology by her father, and hearing Indian fairy  tales as bedtime stories from her mother, Dilruba had her first story published when she was eight years old. While in university at the age of twenty, she met  and married her husband, a Swedish Air Force officer, and moved to Sweden, where she obtained degrees in English, Swedish, Classical Arabic and linguistics. She now teaches Swedish and English in Sweden. An accomplished, exhibited artist, her paintings have been used as the covers for the Bangladeshi, Greek, and U.S. editions of A LIST OF OFFENCES.

Visit her website at www.dilrubazara.com.

A List of OffencesQ: Thank you for this interview, Dilruba. Can you tell us what your latest book, A List of Offences, is all about?

Ans: Essentially, it’s about the consequences of inequality between men and women, and the domestic oppression, and often violence that are practised to uphold that system of inequality within South Asian families. I have tried to show that through the story of one girl, Daria, the heroine of my novel. She is born into a family that operates the age-old system where every daughter’s behavior is controlled; she is taught to be patient and quiet, and to do whatever she is told. Basically, she is being groomed to be a suitable daughter-in-law.

Daria, however, marries the man she chooses, but within that marriage she suffers domestic violence. She is forced to endure constant shame, brutality, and coercion. She can’t return to her parental home, because her mother wouldn’t shelter her ‒ as a divorced woman, Daria would bring shame upon the

family. Daria is advised by her mother to make the marriage work. Like many Indian mothers, Daria’s mother is concerned only about her own status within her community. Daria is made to feel that she is the perpetrator and not the victim. The story is about Daria’s struggle to overcome cultural and social barriers in order to fulfill herself as a person. But at the same time it also tells the stories of numerous girls born in the subcontinent who are forced to endure similar treatment by their own families.

Q:  Can you tell us a little about your main and supporting characters?

Ans: Daria, the main character, is caught between the norms of her own family, which is traditional, religious, and old-fashioned, and the norms of her husband Ali Baba’s family, which is anglophile, secularist, and modern. There is also Mizan, an orphan boy, Daria’s best friend ‒ and a secret admirer of hers.  There’s Bina ‒ a young Muslim woman, who defies tradition and makes her living by dancing. She becomes Daria’s role model at Firingi Para, where Daria lives with Ali Baba. Daria’s father is a sensible man, but Daria’s England-returned brother Hadi is a dominating young Muslim man, whose status at her natal home finally makes Daria aware of her own insignificance there. Then there are the two women ‒ Daria’s mother and mother-in-law ‒ who adamantly refuse to accept Daria as a person with a mind. And finally, Ali Baba’s sister Rani, who hates Daria from the bottom of her heart.

Q: Do you tend to base your characters on real people or are they totally from your imagination?

Ans: I tend to base most of them on real people.

Q: Are you consciously aware of the plot before you begin a novel, or do you discover it as you write?

Ans: I am aware of it before I begin a novel.

Q: Your book is set in Chittagong city.  Can you tell us why you chose this city in particular?

Ans: In A List of Offences, the village signifies the traditional, while the city signifies the modern mode of life. I wanted to show that you don’t have to go abroad to feel like a foreigner; there are cultural clashes even within same country, depending on your family’s mindset. I chose Chittagong for various reasons. First its history ‒ it is not just any city; it was invaded by a range of people over the centuries and thus offers an interesting setting for a family like Ali Baba’s, which doesn’t follow any particular culture or tradition. And then its location ‒ situated in the valley of the River Karnaphuli, and also on coast of the Bay of Bengal. Daria, who was born in a village whose name means river, was destined from her birth to find a way to the sea.

Q: Does the setting play a major part in the development of your story?

Ans: Yes. Absolutely.

Q: Open the book to page 69. What is happening?

Ans: This is where Daria discovers the piece of paper on which Mizan, under the title “A List of Miscellaneous Offences,” had point by point written down the exact nature of offenses he had been subjected to during his stay at Daria’s home. Daria shows it to her parents. Eventually we find out that it was Gulabi, the family’s maid, who had been bullying Mizan behind the curtains. Up until that moment Mizan had been forgotten by the family, but now Daria’s parent start to take an interest in his welfare and adopt him as a family member. From here starts Daria and Mizan’s friendship.

Q: Can you give us one of your best excerpts?

Ans: Jharna Begum’s thumb froze on one bead, her face turned pale. And within her, her triangular heart cringed like a triangular marshmallow being licked by fire. She lifted her eyelids to look into Daria’s face with a curious interest as though it was the first time she was seeing a woman behind the word “daughter”. But, that look lasted only for a fraction of a second. Once again, fear chilled her heart and she shook her head.

“Be quiet! I won’t hear of such ineffable matters. There are many men who take up a second wife, and totally forget the first wife. You’ve mothered his child. You and Jhinuk belong to him. Besides, Hadi is getting married soon. The bio-data (a phrase Ammu had adopted from England-returned Hadi) given to his in-law’s family says that his only sister is married to a well-known lawyer. What shall he tell them if you don’t remain married to Ali Baba? It will hamper his prospects as a suitable groom.”

Daria looked at her Ammu.

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