'All morning, I have the gaze of strangers on me. The first group of the day, a gaggle of matronly women led by a timid-looking tour guide, stand in front of me while the tour guide talks about portraiture in the eighteenth century. He is nervous, tugging at his green waistcoat and stumbling over long words. The women lose interest. They turn towards me and lean in close, almost toppling over the thin metal wire that is stretched in front of me, and they argue over whether my saree is muslin or silk. Behind them, the tour guide raises his voice and gesticulates wildly in an effort to be heard.'
B r i c k L a n e C i r c l e
STEPHANIE DE GOEIJEN
My short story is about the girl in the painting entitled An Indian Lady (Indian bibi Jemdanee) by the English artist Thomas Hickey. He finished the painting in 1787 and it now has its home in the National Gallery of Ireland in Dublin. By historical accounts Jemdanee, the girl in the painting, was the Bengali partner (also known as a bibi in those days) of William Hickey, the artist’s cousin and a lawyer associated with the East India Company in Bengal. She died in childbirth in 1796. What little I came to know of her was through the journals and words of William Hickey; Jemdanee herself had left no written historical account of her experiences, and was effectively voice-less and caught forever (silently) in this painting. In my story, I attempt to give her a voice and imagine what her experience may have been like, writing from her perspective (in past and present).
I am a life-long student of literature and fiction (especially post-colonial fiction in English and Dutch) and always have a notebook with me for pointless doodles and random sentences or story ideas. This is my first time writing something that can be classified as heritage fiction, but previously I have written short stories for school and university publications.
I came across a poster for the project at SOAS (School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London) while I was busy working on my dissertation, which looked at literary aspects of the legacy of the Dutch East India Company’s presence in the Indonesian archipelago. This project was an amazing opportunity to look at this period in history from a different angle and write about it in a different and more creative medium.
I really enjoyed the process of researching for and writing my story, although this came paired with the inevitable and occasional challenges as well. I came across the painting on which this story was based by chance in a book about the history of the East India Company, and knew I had to write a story about the girl in the painting. However, it took me several tries (and many discarded drafts!) to finally find the right way to tell her story. There were times when I thought I might never finish the project, but because of the support I received from Mr Muhammad Ahmedullah I found the inspiration to continue. Overall, I am proud to have finished the story, and very happy to have been a part of the project. It has renewed my interest in writing fiction, and I hope to be able to continue working on my writing in the future.