Q&A: Sahana Ahmed, Author of 'Combat Skirts'

Sahana Ahmed is a fiction writer and poet. Her work has been published in India, UK, USA, Australia, Canada, and Singapore. Combat Skirts (2018), her debut novel, is a coming-of-age story set in an army girls' hostel. Find her online at www.sahanaahmed.com.

I chat with Sahana about her book Combat Skirts, how the book came to be, book recommendations, and much more.

Hello, Sahana! Tell us a bit about yourself!

Hi! That is the hardest question, isn’t it? I am a writer, teacher and unschooling mum. I live in Gurugram, have two pets — Socks and Mittens, both dogs — and I recently acted in a film.

I grew up in the army, went to a dozen schools, graduated in Hotel Management, ran a training business, taught in universities. I enjoy travelling, I love cinema.

If you could only describe your book Combat Skirts in five words, what would they be?

Fun, quirky, honest, breezy, deep.

Now tell us a little more about the book! What can readers expect?

It is a coming-of-age story set in an army girls’ hostel in the Calcutta of the nineties. That is my elevator pitch. Expect nostalgia and delight.

What was the moment when the idea of the book first came to be? What made you pursue it?

The idea of the book came from my Juggernaut commissioning editor; she wanted me to write “a love story set in the army”. She had discovered me through a short story contest; I was the only finalist to be offered a book contract.

What made me pursue it? Well, I had been a writer, officially, for less than a month and someone was asking me to make a book. Who says no to that?! I did struggle initially, though, because my natural style is what you would call literary. I had to make adjustments and make sure that the tone of the book was neither serious nor frivolous. I also had to shift my focus from my original writing goals. But happy to report that the book and I both survived!

'Combat Skirts', published by Quignog

As a debut novelist, were there any authors or works which influenced your writing style?

As a reader, I have many favourite authors, but as a writer, my influences are not limited to literary works only. I am inspired by films, music, food, architecture... I am forever chasing refinement and simplicity.

Is there a scene, element, or character you really enjoyed creating and writing?

The whole book! Believe me, if there was even a phrase that did not serve the story, out it went! I am a painfully slow writer because I edit endlessly, but whatever stays has to buzz. I am ruthless that way, but I am also known to clap for myself. The reader in me always comes first.

Having said that, I had the time of my life designing puzzles and weaving in songs. I had fun playing with language and generally being subversive.

Please describe your book’s protagonist Saba to readers who might not yet be familiar with who she is and what she’s dealing with?

Saba is a seventeen-year-old whose path in life has been decided by her parents. She is no goody two shoes but she is no rebel either. And she has been conditioned into believing that choosing for herself would damage her family’s happiness.

How have you been coping with the current pandemic and what will be the new normal for you post it?

Well, writing is a solitary occupation, so not much change there. But it is a blessing to have a supportive family who not just give you your space but make sure household admin and logistics are taken care of. In plain English, that means I am lucky to have a husband who knows how to cook and clean. Jokes aside, I am living one day at a time, and I can only hope things go back to normal soon.

Lastly, are you currently reading anything and do you have any book recommendations for our readers?

I have recently bought forty-eight books, and even though the intention is to give away most of them, my to-be-read pile is scaring me now. However, these are the books to be found on my nightstand: R.D. Burman by Anirudha Bhattacharjee and Balaji Vittal, Club You To Death by Anuja Chauhan, and Two Full Moons by Vinita Agrawal.

The book ‘Combat Skirts’ is available online and at your nearest bookstore.

From Jammu, J&K; Studied in DPS, Jammu.