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‘Shambala Junction’ – Dipika Mukherjee’s stirring tale of ‘baby sales’ wins Virginia Prize

‘Shambala Junction’ – Dipika Mukherjee’s stirring tale of ‘baby sales’ wins Virginia Prize

December 6 2016

Author lands deal and seeks to highlight global adoption issue and stir debate…

‘SHOPPING for babies’ sounds like the ultimate in shameless consumerism and only to be found in a futuristic novel, illustrating moral vacancy and disintegrating social values.

But look beneath the surface of things and you might see what award-winning novelist Dipika Mukherjee already has – a cruel trade in babies from East to West and South to North.

Her novel, “Shambala Junction” has just been published in the UK and came top of the pile in this year’s Aurora Metro Books Virginia Prize for Fiction. The central theme of the book is baby trafficking.

Held every other year by the publisher, it invites authors to enter a competition, guided by the inspiration and example of the great 20th century English novelist Virginia Woolf and the best entry wins a publishing deal.

“I was really taken by surprise when I opened the email informing me I had won,” confessed US-based author Dipika Mukherjee to after the presentation of her award in Richmond Town Hall, during the Surrey town’s literature festival last month. Woolf had a home in Richmond and it was from there that she and husband Leonard ran Hogarth Press, a printing firm.

Dipika Mukherjee reads from 'Shambala Junction' at the Richmond Literature Festival

“I’d been trying to publish it a while and wasn’t even sure it would make the shortlist,” said the Indian-born author who grew up partly in Delhi and Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Her father was a consular attache there for a time and the elderly couple are retired in Delhi.

The win was tinged by family sadness – her eldest brother (one of two other male siblings) suffered an accident and has been in hospital in Delhi with a brain stem injury.

“He’s in pretty bad shape, and he is as much a literary person as I am and he would have been so thrilled about this prize,” Mukherjee elaborated.

The subject of what is Mukherjee’s third work of fiction might sound grim and almost unbearable, but her light, humorous style and engaging, believable characters make her book enticing and very readable. It reveals its horrors slowly and almost unassumingly.

What emerges is powerful tale of treachery, poverty – and both cute and inexcusable ignorance on the part of its lead character Iris (an Indian American).

“This book came from a point of rage,” Mukherjee explained. “I came across a story (about adopting babies from foreign countries) in a mailout or newsletter, it was really quite low key but it was the tone of it – like if the children are having a better time, shopping for babies is okay.

A special prize is given to Dipika Mukherjee for 'Shambala Junction'

“I got really angry about that, I don’t think a newspaper or other media would have carried something with quite the same (unqualified) tone.”

In one way, then, shopping for babies – literally going to another country, finding a baby you liked, buying them and bringing them back to a foreign country was being pretty much, ‘normalised’, Mukherjee felt.

“I started to read up on it and you know these kids really exist in India, you can see them at traffic lights and at railway stations. “You are very aware that there is a problem but how does selling them to foreigners help anything?”

Last year, Mukherjee said there were 666 adoptions which involved Indian children going to live abroad through the official agency, the Central Adoption Resource Authority (CARA).

“I remembered the number because 666 is the number of the devil,” she laughed. “This is not a big number. The number of adoptions has gone down after the Indian authorities centralised the system – which means a lot are more are likely to be trafficked and not coming up on the bureaucratic radar.”

This is where big money has changed hands and girls, sometimes seen as a extra burden, are offloaded.

Dipika Mukherjee's 'Shambala Junction' is centred around the experiences of Indian American Iris, who is visting India with her fiancée Danesh and becomes separated from him at a fictional railway station called Shambala

Through the character of Iris, we see the issues and conflicts and while she may be a ‘nice’, newly engaged girl, and one part of a contemporary young Indian American couple, she’s also naïve and ignorant.

“Although she is of Indian origin, she is clearly more American in a lot of ways and I wanted to get the perspective where someone wants to be good but has no real idea what they are doing.

“She’s an Indian at heart, but she doesn’t really get a lot of things an Indian in India would.”

It’s been quite the journey for Mukherjee, both as a writer and a mother with a parallel career and bringing up two kids.

She currently has two other works of published fiction to her name – her first novel, “An Ode to Broken Things” is about racial and religious tensions in Malaysia and was originally longlisted as an unpublished manuscript for the Man Asian Literary Prize in 2009.

It is now available in the UK through Repeater Books. She also has a collection of short stories published last year, in Malaysia called, “Rules of Desire”.

Currently, an academic in socio-linguistics based at Northwestern University, her husband is a third generation Malaysian Indian (with Bengali roots), whom she met when she lived in Kuala Lumpur (KL) as a teenager.

The couple have been in the US for nearly 14 years and their slightly peripatetic existence is reflected by stints in KL, Texas (where Mukherjee did her Ph.D), Ohio and now Chicago. The family also have a range of nationalities: she is Indian, her husband and first son are Malaysian and her other son is American.

“We have a very United Nations kind of family,” Mukherjee joked. “We feel at home in many different places.”

shambalajuncitonthumbShambala Junction

More on the Virginia Prize –

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Written by Asian Culture Vulture