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Post-Booker miss, Dhaka-born author in city on hush-hush Unicef project

Who’s that girl' Monica Ali. Where’s she' Not in Brick Lane, but at the Tollygunge Club.

The 36-year-old author of Brick Lane, which narrowly lost out in the race for the Booker this summer, has slipped quietly into a city that finds one mention in her bestseller — the bustle of the College Street bookshops.

But on her hush-hush visit to the city, the Dhaka-born writer has steered studiously clear of media hustle and celebrity bustle. When Metro caught up with her on Wednesday evening, she just said: “I have found Calcutta a fascinating city and I’ll be returning after the New Year to carry on my work here.”

Monica, whose critically-acclaimed first novel examines London’s Bengali community alongside conditions in her native Bangladesh, is among a motley group working under wraps on a project dedicated to the city’s streetchildren.

Sharing ‘star’ billing with Monica in the work with Unicef to focus on current issues facing the city, and in particular its destitute children, are former England cricket captain Michael Atherton and poet and short story-writer Sue Ryan.

The programme, known as Weekenders, entails spending a period of time soaking up the spirit of the city, while conducting visits to schools, clinics and homes run by Unicef, before penning a short story each. This is the second such project, following an earlier Weekenders initiative in Sudan.

“We worked in coordination with the UK’s national committee of Unicef to bring the authors to Calcutta and develop ideas for the book,” said head of Unicef in Calcutta, Carrie Auer. “They will spend time here getting a sense of the place, and touring some of our current projects. The main focus is on child protection, but they will also be addressing broader aspects of life in the city and offering insight on today’s issues here, with the emphasis on a positive portrayal of Calcutta.”

Monica, whose Bangladeshi father and English mother arrived in Britain during the 1971 war, when she was aged five, took the London literary scene by storm before her book was even published by Doubleday. She was named one of the 20 most important writers in English today by literary magazine Granta. She currently lives in London with her husband Simon, and their two children, Felix, 4, and Shumi, 2.

Now in Calcutta, Monica, along with Atherton and the rest, has been busy touring the city and its fringes to get a first-hand feel of the Unicef projects and of a slice of life quite alien. She has also been visiting children’s homes run by the Future Hope foundation for destitute children, and going around town with the organisation’s founder, Tim Grandage.

While Atherton leaves for Colombo on Thursday, Monica is staying back. “She is currently at work on a second novel and wants to remain undisturbed on this private visit,” said a friend of the author.

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