#DesiBooks10QA: Tarana Husain Khan on writing about women and girls in small-town India

About the author:

Dr. Tarana Husain Khan is a writer and food historian based in Rampur, Uttar Pradesh, India. Her essays on Rampur cuisine, culture, and oral history have appeared in Eaten Magazine, Scroll, The Wire, and DailyO. The Begum and the Dastan, her first book of historical fiction, was published in March 2021 (Tranquebar, Westland Books India.) She has contributed short stories to the anthologies, Desi Delicacies (Pan Macmillan, India) and Dastarkhwan: Food Writing from Muslim South Asia (Beacon Books, UK). A book on Rampur cuisine, Rampuri Cuisine: Food Fables, Memories and Recipes, will be published by Penguin India in 2022. Currently, she is working on a research project titled ‘Forgotten Food: Culinary Memory, Local Heritage and Lost Agricultural Varieties in India’ funded by the Global Challenges Research Fund and the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

She also hosts and curates a website on Rampur culture and oral history. She wrote a monthly column on Rampur cuisine, ‘Food Fables’ for DailyO. At Scroll, she curates the Forgotten Foods series of essays. In 2016, she founded the ‘Rampur Book Club’ to promote reading of world literature in Rampur.

About the novel:

Inspired by real-life characters and events, The Begum and the Dastan is a haunting tale of a grand city and its women unfolding in three main narrative strands from the 19th century until the present. In 1897, in the princely state of Sherpur, Feroza Begum, beautiful and willful, defies her family to attend Sawan celebrations at Nawab Shams Ali Khan’s Benazir palace. Feroza is kidnapped and detained in the Nawab’s glittering harem, her husband is forced to divorce her, and her family disowns her. Reluctantly, Feroza marries the Nawab and is compelled to negotiate the glamour and sordidness of the harem.

In the bazaar chowk, Kallan Mirza, a skilled dastango (oral storyteller), spins a familiar tale of a despotic sorcerer, Tareek Jaan, and his grand illusory city, the Tilism-e-Azam, where women are confined in underground basements. As Kallan descends deeper into an opium addiction, the boundaries of fantasy and reality begin to blur.

And in the present day, Ameera listens to Dadi narrating the tale of Feroza Begum, Ameera’s great grandmother. Confined to her home because her parents haven’t paid her school fees, Ameera takes comfort in Dadi’s story. As her own world disintegrates, she is compelled to ask herself if anything has changed for Sherpur’s women.

“Inspired by real-life characters and events, The Begum and the Dastan is a haunting tale of a grand city and its women unfolding in three main narrative strands from the 19th century until the present.” ~Tarana Husain Khan on #DesiBooks10QA .@DesiBooks


1. The desi book that made you want to be a writer (or changed your life.)

Reading Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children was a magical experience. It just stood out from all the books I had read before. Maybe I didn’t think of becoming a writer at that time—at least not consciously—but I became aware of how a story could be told.

2. The desi book that your own latest book is most in conversation with and why.

My book is most in conversation with Krupa Ge’s What We know About Her. Her novel is about a woman, Lalitha, whose family has decided to “forget” her, and a protagonist, Yamuna, who is on a quest to find out more about Lalitha. Krupa’s story is about women who disappear from familial histories and corresponds to, in my story, Feroza Begum’s abandonment by her family. Although Krupa’s Yamuna is highly independent and my Ameera is still struggling with patriarchy, she aspires to be like a Yamuna. Feroza’s story is narrated as a cautionary tale and Lalitha’s story falls within that category too. The inner journeys of Krupa’s multi-generational women and some of the themes certainly resonate with The Begum and the Dastan.

3. The desi book that doesn’t exist (to your knowledge) but you’d love to read.

I would love to read historical fiction or creative nonfiction about desi women writers and poets of the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. A well-researched work on their writerly lives and their inner journeys with a focus on their use of language, linguistic styles, and particular modes of expression. Often, women writers then wrote in ‘rekhti’ or the ‘language of begums’, which I find very intriguing. Maybe women writing in other languages of the subcontinent also had specific differentiated styles.

“Reading Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children was a magical experience. Maybe I didn’t think of becoming a writer at that time—at least not consciously—but I became aware of how a story could be told.” ~Tarana Husain Khan #DesiBooks10QA .@desibooks

4. The desi book that you’re currently reading or planning to read soon.

I’m currently reading Khwabnama by Akhteruzzaman Elias, translated from Bengali by Arunava Sinha. Set in an unnamed village in 1940s Bengal, this is a magnum opus covering a wide swathe of historical events and giving us magical realism, merging dreams with memories with reality, and a lot more.

5. The desi book that you believe is most under-appreciated and why.

Street Singers of Lucknow and Other Stories and River of Fire by Qurratulain Haider. The former consists of eight stories of displacement after India’s Independence and how the most vulnerable sections of society coped with it. The latter received some appreciation but I feel the technique of magic realism infused within the 2000-year history of the subcontinent deserves more acclaim. I read them first in Urdu, then in English, and was profoundly affected by the writing style and the stories.

6. What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?

To turn off the inner editor, write freely in conversation with yourself and your characters.

7. While writing your latest book, how did you keep yourself motivated to keep going despite setbacks (if any)?

I watched videos of authors talking about their journeys, their craft, and their works. That helped me relax and prepared me for the lonely writing journey ahead. There were many setbacks, days staring at the blank page, and self-doubt. I tackled all that partly by keeping a strict writing schedule and partly by reading up on writing craft. I also read a lot of books to fill the writing well with researched history and more.

#WritingTip from Tarana Husain Khan: “To turn off the inner editor, write freely in conversation with yourself and your characters.” #DesiBooks10QA .@DesiBooks

8. With this latest book, what does “literary success” mean to you?

Literary success is evanescent but, if readers are deeply moved by my book and can recall my characters or the atmospherics of the story even years after reading, then I will consider myself a successful dastango (storyteller.)

9. How have larger literary citizenship efforts or the writing community helped you with this latest book?

I’m humbled by the generosity of the writing community. Along the journey of writing my novel, I discovered the bigheartedness of writers I admire. They advised me through tough editing choices and supported my work in the true spirit of the community. It was totally unexpected. I was just an obscure writer sitting in a small town asking for their time and opinions, which they graciously gave whenever I reached out.

10. What would you most like readers to take away from this latest book?

I’d like for readers of The Begum and the Dastan to ponder this question: has anything changed for women and girls in small-town India? In many ways, we are still living in psychological harems with a blinkered and constrained range of view where life holds limited possibilities.

Takeaway: “[…] has anything changed for women & girls in small-town India? […] we are still living in psychological harems with a blinkered & constrained range of view…” ~Tarana Husain Khan; The Begum and the Dastan #DesiBooks10QA .@DesiBooks


Tarana Husain Khan’s The Begum and the Dastan is out now. More on her website.


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