The actor-author opens up about her debut novel, ‘Zeba: An Accidental Superhero’, personal inspirations, her writing process, and navigating the world of publishing
What is common between Sriram Raghavan’s film Badlapur, Vasan Bala’s film Monica, O My Darling! and the web series Leila directed by Deepa Mehta, Shanker Raman and Pawan Kumar? All three films, starring Huma S. Qureshi, have their genesis in literature. Badlapur is adapted from Massimo Carlotto’s novel Death’s Dark Abyss whereas Keigo Higashino’s novel Burutasu No Shinzou (Heart of Brutus) serves as the inspiration behind Monica, O My Darling. Leila is based on Prayaag Akbar’s novel bearing the same title.
After showcasing her mettle as an actor in these adaptations, Qureshi has stepped into a new role. She is out with her debut novel, Zeba: An Accidental Superhero, which took a lot of time and discipline to write. Published by HarperCollins India, it revolves around a girl from New York who becomes a superhero when she is transported to the magical land of Khudir where she encounters the holy spring Zsa Zsa — an unexpected source of superpowers. The book is dedicated to “all the little girls who dream of flying and misfits who refuse to grow up”. Qureshi spoke to us after her session at the Kolkata Literary Meet. Edited excerpts from the interview:
How would you define a superhero?
A superhero is someone who can empathize with other people and will do whatever it takes to protect those who need protection.
Could you please talk about some of the superheroes that you have had in your life?
People always talk about parents as nurturers and protectors, but I want to talk about a lady in my life who is no more. I used to call her Bua. She was a South Indian woman who was my neighbour in Delhi. She moved to Bengaluru later, and passed away about three years ago. When I was born, and my mother had a back issue, this neighbour of ours for some reason fell in love with me. She raised me like her own child. I have grown up eating Puliyogare, sambar and so many wonderful South Indian dishes. She used to feed me with her hands. She was a vegetarian Brahmin woman. I was allowed in her kitchen. She used to make me whatever I wanted. In her last few days, when she was recovering from cancer, she was not enjoying any food that she was eating. I would go to her kitchen, and she would instruct me, sitting in her chair, how to make chutney for her.
Bua has been a superhero for me. She was not an educated woman but she ran a couple of businesses. I learnt from her that to have strength and business acumen, you don’t need to be highly educated or well-spoken in English. I also learnt that you don’t need to be a mother to love a child who is not naturally born to you. She has been a huge influence in my life.
Why did you choose to name your protagonist Zeba?
I just love the sound of the letter ‘Z’, so I picked Zeba and went ahead with it. I wish I could give you a more intellectually stimulating answer to this question but this is the truth.
What aspects of your Kashmiri heritage were you drawing on while writing this book?
This is fantasy fiction but a lot of elements are taken from the world around us. The line of kings in Khudir, the make-believe country where the book is set, belongs to a community called the Akhoon. That is actually my mother’s maiden name. She is from Kashmir. Akhoon means ‘one blood’. I used it because it lent itself well to a magic blood ritual that I wanted to create in the book. In terms of where Khudir is placed, let’s say if Abu Dhabi and Nepal had a baby — that would be Khudir. It is a rich, land-locked country in the Himalayas. It does not exist in reality but that broadly is the geopolitical context where the story of Zeba is set.
The book deals with two kinds of battles that Zeba has to fight — one to save her family and the world, and another to vanquish her inner demons. What was it like to keep alternating between these two dimensions? What challenges did this pose as a writer?
We do this all the time, don’t we? We have to take care of our mental health and check in on how we are doing while interacting with this mad-ass crazy world that we are part of. I have to attend to the happiness of Huma the individual first, and also look after my career, my ageing parents, my relationships, my house and so many other things. The inspiration came from that because sometimes I feel overwhelmed and I need to disconnect and decompress.
There are so many people with so many opinions about the hijab. Did you set out to break stereotypes about Muslim girls and women in books, or was that coincidental?
I don’t want to rake up a controversy with this book. My character is a superhero, and I needed a cape of some sort that would help her conceal her identity. That was the only thought in my mind. What anyone wants to infer from this is completely their imagination. I want each and every girl — not just Muslim girls — to feel empowered by the story that I have written. What matters is the kind of person my protagonist is, not whether she is called Zeba or Sushma. I think that your question itself may possess a bias. Why should it be seen from this lens? I have not positioned it as a book that is about or for a particular community.
What was it like to write the Great Khan — “a cruel tyrant with the most shaitani intentions”? Were there any villains from Bollywood that you had in mind?
Actually, none of them! Writing about the Great Khan was both fun and challenging for me as a writer. Think about this. How do you write about someone you hate, whose worldview you morally disagree with? The Great Khan is a misogynist. He is an evil person who thinks that women should be hanged or have their fingers chopped off for reading a book. It was a challenge for me to relate to this kind of person. But the more I wrote, the more I understood how we tend to slot people as good or bad without really knowing why human beings and things turn out the way they do. I guess we need to look more deeply to break the cycle of violence in the world.
What did you learn about the differences between the worlds of cinema and publishing?
Publishing is harder and slower. It pays less, for sure (laughs). This is a new world for me, and I am grateful that I had Hemali Sodhi — my agent at A Suitable Agency — to help me navigate all its complexities. Twinkle Khanna recommended her to me. I was really fortunate that my manuscript was liked by some of the publishers that it was sent to. One of them said, “You are an actress, so of course you would sell copies.” I went ahead with HarperCollins because they were interested in the content of my book. They read it carefully, and gave me feedback on how to improve it. That was what I needed, and I appreciate all the editorial inputs from Swati Daftuar and Poulomi Chatterjee. Pia Alizé Hazarika’s art too has added a lot to my book.