An Interview with Shabnam Samuel
- By Janet A. Martin
- November 20, 2018
The memoirist talks abandonment, a strict upbringing, and the journey toward finding her voice.
"When I decided to write my story, I did it to prove that I exist."
With this startling sentence, Shabnam Samuel opens her memoir, A Fractured Life, about a personal journey that began with parents who abandoned her at the age of 3.
Samuel was born in 1961. In October of 1963, her mother wrote to her father, the child's grandfather, that she and her husband were separating. The grandfather needed to come to Delhi quickly to take his granddaughter or she would give her away. A small girl in India was "a responsibility," even though there was no point in educating her much, because eventually she would be in her husband's home.
Essentially, Samuel was disposable.
An official picture from an orphanage in India shows a serious little girl with sad dark eyes and a short, wispy haircut; she sits, lips pressed together, waiting for the photographer's flashbulb. She was known as Shabnam, meaning dew drops in Persian, which she calls "a misnomer," since, "In India, a name reveals your town, what food you eat, what clothes you wear, and your religion."
The moniker made her an outcast, as did her circumstances: Her parents were absent; her grandmother was Russian Orthodox; her grandfather, a Baptist. When her 70-year-old grandfather picked up the baby girl at the airport in Calcutta, questions swirled around this child nicknamed "Bubu."
Who was she?
Whose was she?
Who would accept her?
How would she live?
Samuel was an island unto herself in her grandparents’ home, protected yet mistreated, ruled over and criticized, only safe sitting on the lap of her grandmother, who, herself dislocated during World War I, had wed a stranger in an arranged marriage that produced seven children.
Lost, lonely, and never fitting in, Samuel longs for her mother, who lives nearby but shuns her, and the father who ignores her. Ultimately, she marries her boss, an advertising agent 20 years her senior who’d been educated in the United States. The family emigrates to America, where, once again, Samuel is a non-person in a country where she doesn't speak the language and where the status of women is radically changing. At the same time, her own marriage is falling apart.
How she navigates chronic loneliness to build independence and security for herself and her 3-year-old son is a story involving personal courage, determination, and perseverance. In the last chapter of A Fractured Life, Samuel quotes a Japanese proverb which sums up her life: "Fall Seven Times and Stand Up Eight."
Today, Samuel is founder of the Panchgani Writer's Retreat, based in India, that incorporates Ayurvedic principles, mindful living, and creativity. She also hosts a TV show called “Dew Drops and Words,” broadcast to more than 6 million viewers on the WJAL-LATV network in the Washington, DC, area, where she has lived for 30 years.
What did you hope to gain by the publication of your book?
Coming from a culture of silence where being a girl and a woman has already defined you, it is my hope that my words and my book will reach out to those still struggling, who want to be heard, but are afraid, to let them know that they are not alone.
Growing up, you were subject to old cultural traditions. Your grandfather used a cane to discipline you, and even as a grown woman with a job, he chauffeured you, monitored your comings and goings, and refused to acknowledge your marriage to a person of a different religion. Yet you have a forgiving perspective of him now. Why is that?
He was my grandfather, the person who provided for me and took care of me and showed me love the way he could. His way of loving and caring was the old adage of "sparing the rod and spoiling the child." He kept a diary of my life and saved pictures of me growing up. After reading the diary, I saw things from his perspective. His vision for me, his knowing that I would outlive him way before I was ready to face the world on my own, and his concern for me all shone through his words. His ways and mine were generations apart, but I see that he wanted me to live a life where I would be self-sufficient.
You’ve mentioned that you wrote A Fractured Life to prove that you exist. How has the book's publication affected you?
My book has finally freed me from the thought that governed almost all my actions: "Oh, what will they think of me?" I am finally proud to be me, flaws and all. In my present life, it has made me more open to myself. I no longer live under a veil.
What plans do you have for your retreat and coaching of writers?
I want my writer’s retreat to grow so that I can reach out to the millions of suppressed voices who want to write their stories. I want the women I mentor not to feel alone.
Janet A. Martin is a career journalist, writing for newspapers, magazines, and television. She lives in central Virginia.