Author of the Day – Natasha Ahmed

NatashaHi Natasha, I understand you would like to remain semi-anonymous so no picture of you, but instead a painting that depicts what you could look like, a beautiful Pakistani woman. I’m glad you were willing to answer a few of my questions.

Living in Pakistan, what do you feel is the most challenging thing in your life?

The biggest challenge is undoubtedly buying a house/apartment. An average, 2-bedroom apartment would cost us as much as $40,000, and the best loan I could hope to get would be at an interest rate of 20%. We’re going to have to sell our souls in order to buy!

How does the war on terrorism affect your life and writing?

Probably the biggest consequence of the war on terrorism is anger. It’s not something that is visibly present in my life, but I’ve noticed that I’m quicker to anger now than I ever was before. I’ve noticed it in people in general. This is a rage against the Taliban for taking their frustrations out on Pakistan, rage against my government for letting them, rage against the US (and the world in general) for using us, rage against the people for being so stupid as to elect Taliban-sympathizers into government (though they’re not likely to remain in power too long, they way they’re going).

At the end of the day, there’s anger at our own impotence. There seems to be little we can do about the war on terrorism except rant about it. Writing helps. Especially writing fantasy and romance – as far removed from terrorism as I could get!

On the other hand, my next book is set in Karachi and I’m thinking of incorporating some aspect of the effect of terrorism into this novel. Your questions have given me ideas!

Where else would you want to live, if you would ever wanted to leave Pakistan?

Difficult question – I wouldn’t mind Spain or Greece; definitely somewhere in Europe for the history and culture. Or someplace serene, next to a lake or forest.

Is there any food or beverage that is a constant factor in either your books or life?

Not really.

falsaThough just around this time (May/June) we have mango season, which means I’ll be eating mangoes on a regular basis. We also get a berry that is only found in the subcontinent and I don’t know what it’s called in English. In Urdu, we call them ‘falsa’ and I eat them by the bucketload! They look like smooth blackberries exempt that they’re purple and are tart and tangy. I’m addicted to them. There are four fruit that I wait all year for (because our fruit are all seasonal) and have them at breakfast, lunch and dinner: tangerines, falsas, mangoes and pomegranates.

What is your favourite dish and can you give me the recipe?

One of my favourite dishes is a spicy, tangy masala dish made with green chillies. It’s called ‘mirch ka salan’ or green chilli curry and is peculiar to the state of Hyderabad Deccan in India. It’s fairly complex, but here’s the recipe:

Ingredients

mirchi-ka-salan¼ kg Green Chillies (Large)

½ cup of tamarind

½ cup of Yoghurt

2 onions (red, medium)

Mirch ka Salan (MkS) Spices:

1 tbsp of dessicated coconut

1 tbsp of sesame seeds

1 tbsp of poppy seeds

1 tbsp of cumin seeds

Regular Spices:

Salt to taste (approx.. ½ tsp)

½ tsp Red chilli powder (or as spicy as you want to make it)

½ tsp Turmeric

1 tsp Garlic and Ginger paste (can also be whole if the paste is a problem)

cumin seeds, curry leaves (curry patta) and dried red chillies

Method:

MkS Spices: Roast the MkS spices lightly on a flat pan (except the coconut); Mix all 4 of them together and if you have a mortar and pestle, grind the spices down to a fine powder. Or try a grinder, but the poppy seeds will be an issue in an electric grinder. If they aren’t crushed, they’ll feel like small stones when you’re eating, so I prefer the mortar and pestle.

Tamarind: Soak the tamarind in water if they contain seeds. Once it’s softened, you need to remove the seeds and use the tamarind water that’s left over. If you get a ready-to-cook paste, then you don’t need to soak it in water.

Green Chillies: Slit the chillies open after you’ve washed them. Then fry them in vegetable oil until the skin turns white. Remove the chillies from the oil and let them drain. Keep the flame burning under the oil (medium heat).

In the same oil (add some more if you need it), add some unground cumin seeds, dried red peppers (the round ones) and curry leaves if you can get them. These are added when the oil is hot and should spit and turn brown very quickly (mostly added for their fragrance so we only need a small amount of each item). Let them fry for a minute before adding the onions.

The onions should be cut julienne style (long and thin). If you don’t have garlic and ginger paste, put in chopped garlic and ginger (a clove of garlic, and equivalent ginger piece) at this stage, and allow them to cook along with the onions.

Once the onions turn red (but be careful they don’t burn), put in all the spices, both the roasted and regular spices, along with the yoghurt and mix well. Add the green chillies. Once it starts to simmer and dry up a little, put in the tamarind water, and let the whole thing cook for a half hour on low heat.

Mirch ka Salan is great as a side dish to a main course, like chicken curry or biryani, but you can eat it with naan or bread as well. It’s all about the spices!

Sounds like something I would like to taste, so I guess I’ll have to try and prepare this. 🙂

What is the title of the book you would like to talk about, and can you give us a small taster of it?

cover ButterflyMy first book is Butterfly Season, a romance novella about a woman who falls so hard and so fast for a man that it shakes her cultural beliefs. She gives in to the attraction and sleeps with him – not an unusual occurrence for most of the world, but it’s a huge matter for a middle-class girl from Pakistan. Sex before marriage is actually illegal in Pakistan (and probably in the Middle East as well), and it’s heavily frowned upon within society. It does happen, but rarely among the middle classes. It’s considered adultery and is a sin in Islam.

This is the excerpt that inspired the title of the book:


Rumi was nestled in the curve of Ahad’s arm, a glass of juice in her hand, and a platter of cheese on a low stone block in front of her. She had relaxed considerably since they had arrived, warmed by her hosts’ hospitality, and the friendly welcome from their guests. They were an odd bunch of friends. Some of them knew each other from school, and some were old family friends of Ahad and Ali. There were couples and single friends, of various ages and backgrounds, British, Pakistani, and Indian. They were brought together by their similarities and stayed friends in spite of their differences.
They seemed to have a lot of catching up to do with Ahad, and everyone wanted a few minutes with him. She noticed that his friends instinctively turned to him settle arguments, for ideas, listening attentively when he spoke. He kept by her side, introducing her with old world charm to everyone individually, leaving everyone laughing and at ease with the stranger in their midst. He was in his element, a leader among a group of accomplished, sophisticated people.
Jehanara, the friend with the stunning voice, was singing, without music. Even without any accompaniments, she carried the rhythm with ease. Her clear, soft voice swirled around them in the night, her audience rapt, gathered around her on stone benches along the edges of the deck. A small fire crackled in a stone hearth in the center of the recess, keeping them warm in the unseasonably chilly evening.
As her voice faded into the darkness, Rumi leaned towards Jenny. “Don’t your neighbors object to the noise?” Jehanara wasn’t loud, but she was hitting the high notes effortlessly.
“They love it,” Jenny whispered back at her. “They’re not home tonight or they would have been here.” Rumi looked around at the group. They were all talking in hushed tones, unwilling to let go of the sweet notes lingering in the still night air. Rumi turned back to Jenny.
“Can I request a song?”
“By all means!” Jenny waved to Jehanara. “Jehan, Rumi has a request.”
She cleared her throat. “Do you know ‘Kabhi Hum Khubsoorat thay’ by Ahmed Shamim?”
“Oh ho!”
“Yesss.”
“Good one, Rumi!”
The group gave their unanimous approval, arms going up in appreciation.
“I love that song, Rumi.” Jehanara’s eyes were twinkling, “but Nayyara Noor’s shoes are pretty big. Forgive me if I don’t quite manage to fill them.” Amid laughter and words of encouragement, Jehanara sang, Kabhi hum khubsoorat thay, kitaboon main basi khushboo kay maanind…
Rumi was softly singing along when she felt Ahad lean close to her. “Enjoying yourself?”
Buhot se unkahe lafzon se tasveeren banaatay thay…
Light from the garden lamps threw his sculpted face in sharp relief, highlighting the angle of his cheekbones and the straight nose. His expressive grey eyes were solemn. Instinctively, she leaned up and kissed him lightly, watching as the corners of his eyes crinkled at her voluntary kiss. His mobile mouth stretched in a deep grin. She laughed at the smug look on his face.
Ke hum ko titliyon ke jugnuon ke des jaana hai…
“I love butterflies,” she murmured.


Did you have difficulty coming up with the title?

No. Butterflies are my leitmotif. The title came together because of a song that I’ve quoted in the book. It’s a ghazal (a form of poetry specific to the Subcontinent) that has a line in it about travelling to a land of butterflies and fireflies.

The lines in the excerpt from my book are translated here:

Kabhi hum khubsoorat thay, kitaboon main basi khushboo kay maanind…

There was a time when we were beautiful,
like the fragrance buried inside books

Buhot se unkahe lafzon se tasveeren banaatay thay…

We painted pictures with unusual, unsaid words

Ke hum ko titliyon ke jugnuon ke des jaana hai…

So that we may journey
To the land of butterflies and fireflies

The full poem and it’s translation can be found here: http://dearrumi.com/a-journey-through-sand/

What do you do marketing wise and what do you think generates the most attention to your books?

I don’t do a lot of marketing, mostly because I can’t devote as much time to it as I would like. This last week, for instance, I have barely done anything beyond put up a blog post. I put it up on medium.com, and it seems to have generated a lot of interest. At the bottom of the post (which is on Karachi), I have a small line about where you can get Butterfly Season. I’m a strictly ‘No Hard Sell’ kind of person!

Other than that, I’ve approached reviewers, started a blog, and created several graphics with quotes from the book and quotes from some of the reviews. I float them on Twitter and Facebook once in a while, but that’s the sum of my marketing. I think I’ve sold a total of 5 books as a result! I know I need to do more, but I’ve seen the most interest generated from the reviews, so I’m putting in my efforts into getting people to review the book. My only concern with that is that this is a book that most South Asians will really identify with, and I can’t find too many South Asian book bloggers, surprisingly.

And finally, can you tell me something no one has ever heard before from you? I just love those little dirty secrets, real or make believe. 🙂

I wanted to be a journalist when I first started looking at colleges, but my father wouldn’t let me (‘my house, my rules’ kind of ultimatums. ). He thought journalism was a low-paid, gruelling job unsuited to women. Even when I joined art school, he refused to let me major in Fine Art (Muslims have a skewed interpretation of the Quran, and that includes an illogical fear of artists). My choices were architecture or design. I chose design specifically for publication design. Any reason to stay close to all things writing! 

Thank you, Natasha for this interview. You’ve showed us more about life in Pakistan and it’s people than I hoped you would. Let me end with telling people they can buy a copy of the book on Amazon, and become a fan of you on Goodreads, follow you on Twitter, or hop over to your site where they can ask Rumi questions.

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5 thoughts on “Author of the Day – Natasha Ahmed

  1. Pingback: ASMSG Romance Erotica Ezine – Author of the Day – Natasha Ahmed

  2. It was great to learn more about you and your difficult situation as well as your conquest of happiness. I had never heard about Rumi before you, and now I’m falling in love with the poetry. And that dish looks to die for!

    • Thanks, Devika. I started writing late in life, but now that I’m here, hopefully I’m here to stay! The dish is a South Indian specialty. When my parents migrated from India, they brought many of their traditions with them, including the food, for which I will always be grateful. 🙂

      I’m off to eat some falsas now and do a little writing.

    • Thank you, William. I hope, compelling enough to buy it and recommend it onwards? Every struggling writer’s dream (sigh). We have a saying in Urdu, chhoti chhoti khushiyan, which is the equivalent of the small things that bring us happiness. Book recommendations are one of them.

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