Alison Boulton meets Sara Banerji, who recently had her 10th book published and now runs a creative writing course to help aspiring novelists and poets

Nine thousand books are published each day. What makes yours stand out?

“That’s what I say to the authors in my creative writing classes,” says tutor Sara Banerji of East Oxford.

“Some are very good, but that’s not enough.

“You’re not given the benefit of the doubt with a long, gentle preamble.

“Readers nowadays want something which, right from the start, hits them between the eyes and gets their attention.”

Sara, who runs creative writing classes at the Slug and Lettuce pub in Oxford’s Castle Quarter and storytelling sessions at Albion Beatnik Bookstore in the city centre, should know.

She’s the author of 10 books and can count international best-selling author Philip Pullman among her admirers.

“Her view of the world is completely original and vivid...she is always worth reading,” he has said.

Sara, now 82, had her 10th novel Tikkipala published recently.

It’s a story of love and loss in the fading days of empire. Sara knows first-hand how colourful and challenging those days were.

When her father Sir Basil Mostyn returned from Kenya after World War Two, he was inspired by the possibilities of Africa.

Mostyn found post-war Britain unbearable: the climate, the constraints, the lack of opportunity.

He’d eagerly given up his job at the first declaration of war to volunteer, and joined the Kings African Rifles.

“He adored the danger and excitement of war,” Sara remembers.

“My mother only saw him once in six years, when he returned for home leave after three years.”

The family gave up the comfort of an elegant Queen Anne house outside Oxford, rented from St John’s College, to undertake the six-week journey by sea to Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe).

Passage cost £5 and there were generous grants from the Rhodesian government for farmland in the veldt, where Basil was to farm tobacco.

Anita, Sara’s mother, had grown up in the splendour of family great houses which upper class Catholic families like her own and the Mostyns still retained.

She anticipated that her four children – Sara, her two brothers and sisters – would be comfortably housed.

But after a four-hour journey from Salisbury, on dirt track roads winding through the bush, the Mostyns arrived to a grass-roofed mud dwelling.

They were greeted by Pishi, a surly tribesman who had served as batman to Basil in Kenya.

The first Sunday roast was not a success. There was no gravy so Anita leapt up and crossed the yard to a small mess tent, which served as a kitchen. It was also Pishi’s domain.

He barred the entrance. Anita returned, incandescent with rage.

“He wouldn’t let me enter,” she told Basil.

“Of course not,” her husband replied coolly. “To Pishi, women are lower than the lowest beast.”

The marriage lasted four years and Anita returned home with the children, settling in Oxford where her maternal grandmother already lived.

Over the years, many of the family have lived in the same area.

At one time, four family members lived in one street in East Oxford, overlooking South Park.

It was while she was working as a waitress in Roma, a coffee shop in the High Street, that Sara met her husband Ranjit.

Oxford Mail:

She had recently been presented at court as a debutante, under the protection of an imposing great aunt, Princess Evelyn Blucher.

As she chaperoned her great niece to the dazzling events of the hectic London season, she asked whether Sara had met anyone special?

Sara considered the men she’d met in London “soppy and spotty”, but Ranjit was different.

“He’s a student – at Oxford, Aunty Evelyn,” Sara said.


“He’s at Christ Church.”

“Very good.”

“Reading law.”


“Oh, and he’s Indian.”

There was a long pause.

“All will be well,” her great aunt declared, confidently.

And it was. After 52 years of marriage, the Banerjis have three daughters and five grandchildren. They lived in India for some time, where Ranjit worked as a economist for a tea plantation and Sara rode racehorses to victory.

Later in Bengal, Sara and Ranjit kept a dairy herd – an enterprise brought to an end by the Naxalite rebellion.

After 17 years Sara and Ranjit returned to the UK, and ultimately to Oxford.

Since then she has helped hundreds of aspiring novelists and poets hone their skills through her creative writing courses.

Sara herself has an impressive literary heritage – the celebrated 18th century novelist Henry Fielding is a relative, and her mother, grandfather, brother and sister have all written books.

And now she is helping others follow that path.

* Sara Banerji’s Tuesday morning Creative Writing Workshop at The Slug and Lettuce, Oxford Castle, runs from 11am to 1pm. It costs £10 a session and newcomers are welcome.

* Sharkspark, a true storytelling event, starts at 7.30pm on the last Monday of each month at the Albion Beatnik Bookstore in Walton Street.

Entrance is £2 to take part or just listen and it next meets on Monday.

Oxford Mail:

Tell a true tale at Sharkspark

Writing should be a pleasure in itself, but even more so is the joy that someone else gains something from your work, says Sara Banerji. 

“Making a connection with a stranger through writing is hugely satisfying and worthwhile,” she says.

And she enjoys the spoken word too.

Her Sharkspark sessions are opportunities to tell a story on a different theme each month.

“We want to hear your true story using the spark word – five minutes, unscripted, and from the heart” is the official tag line. The group meets on the last Monday of every month at the Albion Beatnick Bookstore in Walton Street. Sara’s contributions are testament to her gifts as an actress and raconteur.

Mystical tale tells of love and revenge

Tikkipala is a novel of magical realism... with the emphasis on the magical.

Sara Banerji’s tenth book tells the story of three generations of a well-to-do Indian family, whose lives are fatally entwined with a mysterious hill-tribe living in the high jungle above their mountain palace.

The themes of change both social and environmental loom large against the background of a fading empire.

It begins when Sangita, teenage Ranee of Bidwar, is torn between two cultures – the early 1900s Western world of dancing the chachacha to gramophones, when women were wearing shorter skirts, playing tennis and bobbing their hair and the rule-bound, chaste and subservient existence of the Indian upper class wife.

Her husband, the Raja, banishes her from the palace and forbids access to her son Anwar, still a babe in arms, for years. There is an eventual partial thawing of relations... but worse is to follow. The novel follows what happens to Sangita and two more generations of her family known, along with all humans, as Coarseones by the strange and mystical tree tribe.

They have lived undisturbed in the trees until their fate becomes entwined with that of the Raja and his descendants. 

It’s a tale of love and loss, devotion and revenge. And while suspension of disbelief is needed for some of the other-wordly things that happen, the characters are well-drawn and totally believable.


Tikkipala by Sara Banerji , Bloomsbury, £12.59 paperback