Please help me welcome the lovely Sonja Price to my blog today. She talks about the inspiration behind her debut novel, The Giants Look Down, and shares an excerpt too.
At the age of 10, Jaya Vaidya decides to follow in her father’s footsteps and become a doctor, much to the chagrin of her mother and the patriarchal community of Kashmir in the 1960s. When disaster strikes, Jaya is faced with obstacles as insurmountable as the Himalayas. Just how far will she go to achieve her dream? (Published by Robert Hale, 2016)
Soft moaning sounds, like the ones my Granny made in her sleep, were coming from the house. The moans turned into cries of pain and the dog pulled away. Why wasn’t Pa doing anything about it? That was why we were here. Even with my hands over my ears I could still hear the woman. On and on it went. The man started shouting and the dog collapsed on the ground with a sigh. The woman’s cries reminded me of a Tibetan fox caught in a trap up in the forests around Lake Gangabal. Kaliq had to shoot it as the iron teeth had bitten clean through its back leg.
Silence. Even worse! Only swallows swooping overhead as the entire valley held its breath. Shattered by the cries of a baby and a jubilant ‘A boy!’ Brahma be praised, it was over. We could go home.
The dreadful screaming recommenced. Perhaps Pa had done something to her. I had to see what was going on. Like a snow leopard stalking a deer, I crept into the house, which was only slightly larger than our woodshed. It reeked of animal hide and smoke. My eyes took a moment to get used to the gloom. I could make out two rooms: a kitchen and another one where the woman lay. Our house was all sunny rooms and places where I could be by myself. I edged my way towards the grown-ups, towards the man with the bundle in his arms and Pa tending the woman, still writhing in agony.
She was so young. Why was the old man putting her through this? She could have been his granddaughter. Why choose a girl, in a place where so many women had been widowed by the troubles? Cast out by their families with children in tow. They would have been happy to have a husband, any husband. But this poor girl. It made me sick. I wasn’t going to have a baby, ever. She screamed and screamed and then I caught a glimpse of something round between her blood-smeared legs. Not another one! Pa eased out a head, then a shoulder and then the rest before the woman fell back onto the messy covers.
Limp, lifeless and smeary-white, it looked more like a skinned rabbit than a real baby. Pa tried to rub it to life but the woman was not moving either. He looked to the man for help but he merely shrugged his shoulders as if to say why bother with a girl? Pa laid the baby carefully in the cot by the fire, turned to the woman and drew up a syringe.
I ran around the bed and picked the baby up. I couldn’t believe how small she was. Tiny hands and feet just like my dolly. Only she was warm. The boy was crying for all he was worth, loud screeches that you’d never believe could come from someone so little. He was rosy and angry, and she was pale, almost white. Shiva! I wanted to shout. She was slipping away before she had even arrived. Pa was doing everything he could for the woman and there was no point in talking to the man if he wouldn’t even listen to Pa. I rubbed her like Pa had done before he put her down but she was growing colder and colder.
I stared into the flames and then my eyes rested on the one set of baby’s clothes laid out in front of the fireplace. It wasn’t fair! Why should she have to die? A ragdoll nobody wanted to play with. No! I wouldn’t allow this to happen. What had the herdsman done to the newborn yak? I bent and blew into her tiny mouth. Her cheeks soft and cool like goat’s cheese. No reaction. I blew more strongly into her. Nothing.
Tears pricked my eyes. I couldn’t help her. There was absolutely nothing I could do. Stupid of me to think I could make a difference. All I wanted to do was run outside. I went to kiss her goodbye but instead found myself trying one last time. The baby’s lips puckered; her face screwed up. She turned a deep red before letting out the most wonderful cry I had ever heard. The woman opened her eyes. Tears ran down her face as she reached out for her little girl. Pa looked from the baby to me and smiled.
Half an hour later we climbed back into the car, ‘When I’m big Pa, I want to be just like you!’
He stroked my head and switched the radio back on.
Buy The Giants Look Down here:
Meet Sonja Price:
Sonja’s short stories appeared in Stories For Homes, the Shelter Anthology of Short Stories and In these Tangles, Beauty Lies, an anthology in aid of the Beanstalk Trust for children with reading difficulties, before her first novel The Giants Look Down came out in 2016. Longlisted for the Mslexia First Novel Competition, it also made her a finalist for the Joan Hessayon Award. Born in Bristol, Sonja studied at the University of East Anglia. She completed a PhD in English Literature and teaches English at Jena University in Germany. She is a member of the Romantic Novelists’ Association.
Read the inspiration behind The Giants Look Down.
My debut novel The Giants Look Down was published in 2016. It tells the story of a Kashmiri girl’s struggle to become a doctor, much to the chagrin of her mother and the patriarchal society she lives in. The book is set both in Kashmir and Scotland.
One day I was listening to a report on the car radio about the devastating 2005 earthquake in Kashmir, which killed 86,000 people. The tragic account also contained an evocative description of the Himalayas and the string of lakes stretching through the Vale of Kashmir. With its mild climate and fertile landscape, the Vale is the green heart of the region and could be a paradise on Earth if not for the natural disasters and political tensions that have blighted its development.
I started to imagine the life of a girl who wanted to follow in the footsteps of her father and become a doctor. As the native population is predominantly Muslim, I decided to make my protagonist Hindu; Kashmir is now part of India, and three wars have been fought over it. What problems would Jaya and her family encounter in such circumstances, and what would happen if an earthquake were to shatter Jaya’s dream of a career in medicine?
To show that India is vast and multifaceted, I sent Jaya to New Delhi with its crowds, sprawling suburbs, traffic and unbearable heat. When her stay turns into banishment, the capital becomes a kind of hell for her, and she only narrowly escapes an arranged marriage by fleeing to the other side of the globe.
I chose Scotland because, with its lakes and smaller mountains, it reminds her of home. Yet in other significant ways, the contrast couldn’t be greater. Colours are so much duller than in India and the scents in the air unfamiliar. And then there is the sea. I have often come across people who love either the mountains or the sea, and I wondered what a displaced Kashmiri orphan would make of the endless water beneath her bedroom window. How would the cold winds and the chilly rain affect her?
Her greatest challenge, however, is to navigate the differences in religion and culture, especially when she falls in love. How is she supposed to talk to Alastair, the handsome son of the family who save her, when she has never even been alone with a strange man before? Alastair seems old and impossibly sophisticated to her, but there’s also a touch of Mr Knightly from Jane Austen’s Emma about him. Soon they get on so well that she confides in him about her problems at boarding school. Yet Jaya suppresses any thought of a relationship because of Alastair’s attachments to other women, the fact that she is Indian and the guilt she feels at being attracted to her ‘stepbrother’. The dynamics gradually change as she grows into a fully-fledged doctor who can finally give something back to her new family. Despite her feelings for Alastair, she returns to Kashmir to pursue her dream of building a clinic in the mountains, and it is only after she leaves that Alastair finally realizes what she means to him.
If you want to know how it ends, you’ll have to read the book!
You can find Sonja here: