'I wanted to capture the essence of India': How Jasbinder Bilan's childhood diaries helped her write a novel
Published on: 05 February 2019 Author: Jasbinder Bilan
When Jasbinder Bilan was writing her novel Asha & the Spirit Bird, she turned to her childhood diaries - and her memories of her grandmother.
I have always loved writing. As a girl I would hunt out small scraps of paper and write my favourite words on them. I remember being fascinated by my older brother's writing just before I started school - I began to fill exercise books with what I thought were letters, but were in fact elaborate loops of scribble!
Later on, I kept diaries and wrote about everything I noticed about the world around me. When I went back to India for the first time since I was born there, I made sure I took along a pretty notebook.
I wanted to record my reactions to all the amazing places we visited: the incredible serenity of the Taj Mahal and the beauty of its location beside a slow-moving river; the life and vibrancy of the cities where everybody seemed to be busy either earning a living, praying or eating; and the emotional shock of seeing the farm where I was born for the first time, the deep blue shutters of our house and lazy green fields stretching for miles.
It was at that point that all the stories my grandmother told me throughout my childhood made sense, because this was where they were first told, beneath these darkened, starry skies.
The story of our monkey Oma taking my brother off to the neem tree and rocking him to sleep in her arms suddenly sprang to life when I stood under that very tree. I could almost hear my grandmother's laughter and imagine her walking about the house as we explored our family home for the very first time.
Taking inspiration from the memories
It was these diaries that I went back to when I began writing Asha & the Spirit Bird. I wanted to capture the essence of India in my story and for my reader to be transported to its heart.
Re-reading my diaries from that time, there is one thing that stands out: they are written with the heavy heart of loss. My grandmother had just passed away and our trip was a homage to her life.
It is no coincidence that my story celebrates family bonds and in particular the idea that these bonds do not diminish in death.
Asha's grandmother comes to her aid in the form of a spirit bird. She gives her the strength to trust herself and be courageous through the harsh wilderness of the Himalayas. It was important for me to include this hopeful message of reincarnation in my story, since I have a sense that our ancestors do not leave us but stay and support us in times of hardship. That they take the form of an animal is even more magical, and an idea which I think children will love.
Sharing Hindu mythology
My main character Asha is born around the time of Divali, the festival of lights, and this story is woven throughout my novel along with other myths. It was a great opportunity for me to include stories which I had been told as a child in my novel, as well as them forming a cultural backdrop to the action. The Divali story is probably one of the best known Hindu myths and is widely celebrated in the UK, so including it was also a chance to share it with a wider audience.
Hindu mythology has lots of strong female goddesses and I had great fun researching their stories so I could write them into my novel. For example, the goddess Durga is a warrior who rides a lion. She represents female power of good over evil. Her story is very familiar to Asha, and when Asha is at a point in the action where she needs to harness her own resources, she imagines herself as Durga so she can defeat her enemies.
With practise, my early scribbles eventually turned into real stories! I loved writing Asha & the Spirit Bird and I'm so excited to share this magical adventure with my readers.
Asha & the Spirit Bird by Jasbinder Bilan, for ages 9+, is out on 7 February, priced £6.99.