Jasbinder Bilan | 'There’s so much inequality in this country for children; magical stories can give them real hope and open up possibilities'

Jasbinder Bilan | 'There’s so much inequality in this country for children; magical stories can give them real hope and open up possibilities'

It is six months since Jasbinder Bilan won the costa Children’s Book of the Year Award for her début children’s book Asha and the Spirit Bird, a thrilling Indian mountain adventure infused with the mystical and inspired by her relationship with her grandmother. “This past year has been extraordinary,” she laughs, speaking to me from her home near Bath.

She draws on her family history once more in her second novel, Tamarind and the Star of Ishta, which will be published by Chicken House in September. “The heart of this story is inspired by my mum, who grew up in India without her mother,” she tells me. During her research Bilan came across a photo of an incredible turreted mansion, high in the Himalayan mountains and surrounded by dense forest. “I started to put those two things together. What if this was your ancestral home, but you never knew about it? What if you were born there but you were whisked away? What magical things could happen in this house?”

The book follows Tamarind, who has grown up with her father in Bristol, never knowing her Indian mum, Chinty, who died shortly after she was born. She’s a modern British girl who has recently started secondary school and loves to play football. When her dad re-marries, Tamarind travels to India to stay with the family she has never met while the newlyweds take a honeymoon. “She’s feeling vulnerable,” Bilan explains, “everything is changing and she resents her new stepmother Chloe.” As soon as she arrives in India, she senses deep divisions between her father and the family. “There’s so much she doesn’t understand. There’s a lot of tension. She’s angry with her dad for leaving her with her mum’s family. He has sheltered her from everything and now she’s confused.”

In the deep end
Her arrival at the family house only serves to magnify this sense of displacement; she had no idea her mother was from such a grand background. Just as she’s starting to feel a little at home after the culture shock and surprises, her 17-year-old cousin Sufia arrives, who appears to hate her. The house radiates secrets and sadness. Tamarind yearns for answers, but finds only an ominous silence.

Settings are important in Bilan’s work and, like the mountains in Asha and the Spirit Bird, the ancestral house is a vivid, atmospheric presence, almost a character in its own right. “It feels like it’s seen and experienced a lot, this house,” she agrees. If the family are reluctant to give her answers, the house and its lush environs are more forthcoming. Escaping the tense atmosphere for the wildness of the gardens, Tamarind discovers a trail of intriguing clues: an abandoned hut, a friendly monkey, a glowing star ring and Ishta, a mysterious mountain girl who appears in the garden one moonlit night. Slowly, Tamarind unravels the mysteries of the house and family, alongside the search for her own identity, with “feet in two cultures. It’s a story about coming to terms with loss, about belonging, and home and what that means.”

The idea of the “ordinary becoming extraordinary” has always fascinated Bilan, who vividly recalls her resolute childhood belief that magic must be real and that she would one day find her way to Narnia. She knew there would be a rich seam of magic in Tamarind and the Star of Ishta, but the balance between magical realism and fantasy evolved during the editorial process. Her first draft was, she says, decidedly experimental, and included a big middle section with a much more mainstream fantasy adventure feel. Working with her editor Kesia Lupo, “we pared it back, brought it back to the heart of the story and gave it that light touch of magical realism”. It’s a smart move that amplifies rather than overwhelms the story’s emotional power. “It makes it much stronger, more real.” She is passionate about the transformative power of magical realism for children. “There’s so much inequality in this country for children; magical stories can give them real hope and open up possibilities. I would love children to know that there’s hope and magic all around them, and not to forget to look out for it.”

Bilan was born in the foothills of the Himalaya in India, moving to Nottingham with her family as a toddler in one of the big waves of immigration in the 1960s. Her birthplace lived on in the shared stories told by her extended family, which sparked her own love of storytelling. She pursued a career as an English teacher but always harboured the desire to write, eventually taking time out to study for an MA in Creative Writing at Bath Spa University. The course proved to be an emotional journey for her, both in finding her narrative voice and discovering what she really wanted to write about.

“I realised that the shorter pieces I wrote didn’t particularly reflect my background. They all had white protagonists.” Bilan had grown up on a diet of English childhood classics such as The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and The Hobbit with their almost exclusively white characters. “As a reader, you don’t exclude yourself from anything butsubconsciously you think that that’s what people want in books. It takes a shift to see yourself in stories.”

This realisation gave her the confidence to write a story inspired by her own family history, “Song of the Mountain”. A year after completing the course she was still without an agent, so entered the Times/Chicken House Children’s Fiction Competition. The book won and was published as Asha and the Spirit Bird to widespread acclaim, shortlisted for the Jhalak and Waterstones prizes. And then of course, there’s the Costa win. Bilan is only the second writer of colour to win the Children’s category in the award’s 48-year history, and describes the accolade as “a huge confidence boost” not only for herself, but for readers and writers from diverse back- grounds. “It’s so important for everybody to see that a story like this can be rewarded with such a prominent national prize.”

Book extract
Aunt Simran cradles my arm as she guides me down from the car. ‘Big jump, Tamarind,’ she says. ‘You’re shaking! Poor beta. It’s been such a long journey, we need to get you inside. Come on.’

We walk slowly across crunching gravel, Aunt Simran still holding my arm. It’s dark but the moon is bright and sheds its yellow light over the house. The domed turrets make it look almost like a palace. It sits high up on its mound, with the verandah running all around it and shutters pulled firmly across the windows.

‘Can we stop a minute, please?’ I ask.

‘What is it?’ Aunt Simran asks, pausing at my side.

I strain my eyes towards the gardens that drop away steeply and surround the house. The huge mountains loom in the distance, like a barrier against the world beyond and I can’t shift that lonely feeling. The air is heavy with the strange smells of flowers and other plants I don’t recognise, sharp, bitter and floral all at once.

I search the semi-darkness for the tree, the tree with the swing on it— Mum’s tree.

But I can’t see it anywhere.

A high-pitched scream rattles through the dark velvet night. ‘W-what’s that?’

‘It’s nothing,’ says Aunt Simran. ‘Let’s get you inside.’