How the wife of one of our best-known businessmen gave up a demanding career in IT to write a novel raising awareness about child trafficking
In her first novel, Olivia Rana tells the heartbreaking story of a young Indian girl sold to the circus by her parents. Olivia (42), who lives in Belfast with businessman husband Rajesh and children Lucia (9) and Marcus (7), tells Judith Cole about her inspirations and why it is a tale of triumph over tragedy
It was hearing a radio interview about the desperate plight of Indian children who'd been sold to the circus that was to be a turning point in Olivia Rana's life.
Philip Holmes, founder of the Esther Benjamin Trust, was describing how he set up the charity to rescue children who were destined for this life of slavery.
"I was horrified," Olivia says. "Children as young as six were being trafficked or sold by their destitute parents as a means of income. Often, they were introduced to punishing schedules of training and performing."
Olivia, who grew up in Co Fermanagh and whose in-laws are Indian, felt compelled to find out more. She came across the work of American documentary photographer Mary Ellen Mark, who captured many of these Indian children on camera at work in the circuses. And she got in touch with the charity, now called Child Rescue Nepal, to learn about what was being done to help.
Putting together all she had discovered, Olivia decided that a way to raise awareness of the issue was to write a novel from the perspective of a child caught up in this dark world. Her new book, Elastic Girl, tells the story of little Muthu who is sold to the circus.
"I ended up with this idea of how would it feel for a child to be sold into the circus by your parents," she explains. "I felt compelled to write about it as a social issue and, while it's a fictional story, it's drawn very much on real life events and I hope that comes across.
"Trafficking is a worldwide issue but it is estimated that each year 100,000 women and children are trafficked between Nepal and India. In these countries children are particularly vulnerable because of the poverty, because of extreme weather events like earthquakes which can destroy potential income from agriculture and tourism. The people are desperate and children are out working from a young age. Families think they are maybe giving their children an opportunity by sending them somewhere like the circus or the construction industry. It is very sad."
Olivia and Joanna Bega, chief executive of Child Rescue Nepal, agreed to work together and 15% of the proceeds of each book is being donated to the charity.
It will assist in the daunting work of removing children from factories, restaurants, hotels and construction sites where they are held captive. The children are then taken to the charity's safe house where they receive medical care and counselling before attempts are made to trace their families and reunite them. So far, Child Rescue Nepal has rescued 700 children and reunited most of these with their families.
"In my book, the main character tells the story from when she's older and has come through some horrific times - so while it is quite melancholy it is also a story of hope and of the resilience of the human spirit," says Olivia.
"Through writing my book and working with Child Rescue Nepal I have learnt that it is possible for change. In 2011 the Indian Government responded to increasing pressure from anti-trafficking groups and it issued a legal age limit on performers in Indian circuses. This is one positive step, but much still needs to be done in the other areas where these vulnerable children find themselves."
Writing a book has been a lifelong dream of Olivia's. She grew up near Derrylin with two brothers and two sisters and has fond memories of the wider family circle gathering at her grandmother's house with plenty of fun, music and laughter.
The children spent most of their time outside, their imaginations running wild.
"My grandfather had an old farm and we took over the farm creating play houses," she says. "We came home from school and headed straight outside to play. Primary school was about fun, freedom to explore, enjoying life - and I think that was great for my imagination. I loved growing up in the countryside and my kids love going now to visit and to spend time with the family."
Another important feature of Olivia's childhood was regular trips with her mother to the local library where she devoured all kinds of books. Her flair for writing was noticed at an early age.
"When I was younger I started writing short stories and poetry," Olivia says. "And then at secondary school my English teacher read one of my stories out in front of the class - that was the first time I thought 'maybe I can write'. I was quite shy and wasn't full of confidence so I'll always remember that teacher who really encouraged me.
"I recall writing in a diary when I was a teenager that my ambition was to get a novel published by the time I was 20 years old - it's taken me slightly longer than that!"
Olivia's interest in language led her to study linguistics at Queen's University but, although she also took creative writing classes in her late 20s, writing was put on hold when she pursued a demanding career as a project manager in IT.
Olivia met her husband-to-be, businessman Rajesh Rana, 17 years ago in a Belfast bar. Rajesh, director of Belfast's largest hotel group, Andras Hotels, whose portfolio includes the Ramada Plaza at Shaw's Bridge, is the son of Andras Hotels founder Lord Rana.
"Rajesh was born in Northern Ireland but his father came from India in 1966 and started the business - they are a very driven, entrepreneurial family. Rajesh has been very encouraging and supportive of me all along and always urged me to keep going with my writing even when I felt like giving up.
"Having my in-laws' insight into India and having been there a few times myself helped to shape my story. I love the vibrancy, the culture and the wonderfully determined spirit of the people, and I hope that my depiction of India has come across in the book as genuine and authentic."
Olivia's career in IT, with Citibank and then BT, took a different direction when her children came along.
"Project management didn't lend itself well to being a mother in terms of the pressure," she says. "Also, I was really loving writing and wanted to make a go of it, so I made the choice to give up my career and concentrate on writing.
"After my daughter was born I decided to return to Queen's University to complete a Masters degree in creative writing, and I haven't looked back since."
During this course, Olivia enjoyed excellent support and advice from her tutor, the writer Carlo Gebler, who she describes as "very kind and tremendous help". And since dedicating her working life to writing, she has found that perseverance and discipline are key.
"If you want to write you have to make the time. You have to treat it like a job and stay committed and focused. You always have to be prepared for knockbacks and constructive criticism - its part of the territory and the only way to really learn and grow as a writer.
"I was used to being in an environment where I was driven by goals and I had a manager and I was told what to do - but I was always very self-driven and conscientious, so writing suits my personality.
"My dad and brothers were in the quarry business at home and I grew up watching them hard at work, so I suppose that's where I get some of my work ethic.
"And I've been really lucky to have the support of my husband as, of course, some people don't get the opportunity to write full-time because they have to go out to work."
She has found it ideal to fit writing in around her children's school days.
"I pick them up from school every day so then I use the early part of the day to write. It makes me focused because when they come back home I turn into mummy mode and just don't have any more time to write," she explains.
"They love reading - Lucia reads a lot of Sheena Wilkinson - and I take them to the library regularly. It's very important to me to establish that love of books and reading early on."
When Olivia finished Elastic Girl, she secured an agent but eventually decided to self-publish and, in so doing, had full control over her cover design, layout and publicity campaign.
And through her partnership with Child Rescue Nepal, she received the endorsement of actress Joanna Lumley, (above) who has helped the charity in the past with their appeals.
"I am very excited about this," Olivia says. "I thought there was no chance she would endorse my book because she'd be too busy to get a chance to look at it, but a couple of days later she came back with a wonderful review."
Indeed, Lumley wrote: "Elastic Girl highlights the cruelties, indignities and injustice of child trafficking. An enlightening and gripping read."
Olivia has been busy writing her second - and third - novels since finishing Elastic Girl. Her second is set in Iceland and is about a psychic woman.
"It is the story of how she came to have these abilities, has always been doubted by people, has spent time in psychiatric units because it was thought she was crazy. Some of my best friends are from Iceland so I came across the idea from talking to them - in Iceland, a lot of people believe in the 'huldufolk', which means 'hidden people'. They believe that these people exist within the rocks and the environment and psychics in Iceland work within this area. There are huge superstitions around it.
"I don't write for any specific reason, but simply because I feel compelled to tell a story, and the process of writing feels very cathartic to me. I'm drawn towards writing about people who are often marginalised, who often don't fit in, and I love to explore other countries and settings through my writing. That's the beauty of it - writing can take you on some wonderful adventures."
Olivia has also ventured into teaching, inspired by wanting to help others and to pass on her knowledge from having been on the challenging journey herself.
"Joining a creative writing class can be very daunting as you have to share your work with other people and have them give you feedback," she says. "I wanted to give something back and help other writers so I started teaching a writing course at Queen's through their open learning programme. I'm taking the students through all the elements of novel writing - characterisation, dialogue and plot - and I'm really enjoying seeing the variety of work of the students and seeing them progressing."
- Elastic Girl, CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, is available at amazon.co.uk, £7.99