Writers on Reading. Part Nine, Amrita Mahale.
Just when you thought everything that has to be said about Bombay has been said, written (and of course filmed), Amrita Mahale wrote Milk Teeth.
Set in Matunga of the late 1990s, Mahale’s inventive debut novel quietly arrived in 2018 and offered a compelling invitation to walk the streets of the oft-revisited city, especially at the end of a poignant and historic decade -- and it was worth it. The novel begins as the residents of Asha Nivas, an old ten-flat building in Matunga are contemplating their future as the buildings around them are readily giving themselves up for redevelopment and embellishments. We are invited to peek into the lives of two specific residents of Asha Nivas -childhood friends Ira and Kartik -who, like their home, are poised to take a similar plunge into a new era in their lives.
In this edition of Writers on Reading, we ask Mahale about writing a new novel about good old Bombay, the books that made her pick Matunga as the setting of her first novel, how she manages a full-time job alongside a career in writing and the importance of an old fashioned cold coffee to her creative process.
Do you have a ritual around writing? Does it involve reading a favourite passage from your favourite book?
Every writing session begins with a cup of cold coffee. Not an iced mocha or its likes, but old-fashioned sugary, milky, blended cold coffee. Even the act of making this coffee is part of the ritual of preparing for a writing session. I have been doing this for so long that there is a Pavlovian burst of creativity and optimism each time I drink any cold coffee. This means I have to ration how often I drink iced coffee when I am not writing -- I don’t want to break that association.
Can you take us through the day you wrote the first words of Milk Teeth? Which portion of the novel did you write first?
How I wish I remembered! Milk Teeth, or at least its characters, lived in my head for many years before I began writing. Milk Teeth contains the remains of many aborted short stories and novellas. I only started writing the novel in 2014 but in July 2009, I wrote a scene featuring Ira (by a different name) and Kaiz. I was 24 and had talked and thought about writing for so long -- without doing any actual writing -- that putting down three pages on paper felt like a minor miracle. It was the beginning of a different novel, but there are some lines there that are in the final book.
What are the books that are occupying your non-working hours these days?
I just finished Vikram Paralkar’s unusual, experimental, and outstanding novel The Afflictions and have started reading A Respectable Woman by Easterine Kire. I attended a literary festival in Imphal in October, and realised that I haven’t read any literature from the North-east; this is hopefully the first of many books from the region. There’s also Tony Joseph’s fantastic Early Indians, which I am reading rather slowly, about a chapter a week.
Do you highlight passages you like/jot down phrases you love in the books you read? If yes, can you recall a recent favourite phrase/passage?
I highlight passages and pages copiously. It’s not a recent favourite, but this passage from Shalimar the Clown has special significance to my journey as a writer: “Sometimes your heart’s desire hung from the highest branch of the highest tree and you could never climb high enough to reach it. Or else you just waited patiently and it fell into your lap.” The quote has been at my writing desk for the past eight years. It’s terrible advice for a writer (especially if one’s a procrastinator), but it captures an essential truth about writing. So much of writing is about playing with scenarios and combinations of words, turning over many possibilities in your head. For the longest time, nothing works. Then suddenly, things fall into place. It feels like magic but it really is a reward for not giving up.
Do you read many books at once or do you like to give all your time and energy to one book at a time?
I usually read one book at a time, but often there is some non-fiction looming in the background that I am slowly making my way through.
Milk Teeth begins with the lovely poem by Hoshang Merchant and it perfectly sets the tone for what is to come in the novel. Can you describe the moment when you realised this would be the perfect way to begin your novel?
It was the poet Akhil Katyal who pointed me to Hoshang Merchant’s poetry. I was looking for sources that would help me recreate queer Bombay of the 90s and Akhil recommended several books, including this volume of poetry. In college, I had written a long essay about Mumbai in the visual media and there was an entire section about Raj Kapoor and Nargis movies from the 1950s, and the harrowing task of finding accommodation in the city. Perhaps this was the reason I stopped at the Raj and Nargis poem as I was browsing through the Hoshang Merchant book? I read the poem thrice and I knew immediately that I had found the epigraph.
In Milk Teeth, you write, "At times it felt like there was nothing new left to say about Mumbai...". We are curious -- Was it intimidating to attempt a new novel about good old Bombay for you too?
Absolutely! The ‘Bombay novel’ is almost an entire genre within the body of Indian writing in English and it comes with big shoes to fill. I didn’t set out to write one. It was my publisher Karthika V.K. who first called it a ‘Bombay novel’ and I pushed back, largely because I was very nervous about inviting comparisons between my little novel and literary giants. But she was right: big or small, this is a Bombay novel. This story, these characters could not have been located in any other city.
In a past interview, you said that two books -- Boombay by Kamu Iyer and House, but No Garden by Nikhil Rao convinced you that Matunga was the right place to set your story. Can you tell us more about how these books helped you pick Matunga?
I have always been interested in cities, especially in how a city and its citizens shape each other, and what a changing built environment tells us about the culture and history of a place. It was in these books that I learnt about the history of Matunga: it was the first planned suburb of Bombay, planned by the British, and the thought and care that went into its planning shows in the old architecture. There are many features of the built environment that make a city liveable. For example, the distance between buildings, the high setbacks (the gap between a building and the boundaries of the plot it stands on), the width of roads, the public parks. With newer buildings I don’t see any thought given to how a building fits into the broader cityscape.
Iravati Kamat, Kartik Kini, Kaiz, Ananya Rajaram, Prof. Rajwade -- How did you go about naming your characters?
The name Kaiz has been on my mind for over a decade. Before he became an architect, he was an adman, and in the very beginning, the character was supposed to be a poet. The name Kaiz seemed perfect for a poet. Kartik was called Sachin in the first draft of the novel, but I thought he needed a slightly younger, lighter name. Ananya is (partly) based on a dear friend. Her famous line, the one that haunts Ira for years - try as hard as you may, the first coat of paint always shows - I stole directly from him. I came up with the name Ananya by scrambling the letters in his name.
You've said that as a writer, the possibility of looking ridiculous never goes away and one must get used to it. How have you coped with it? And where do you draw the conviction and confidence to stay with/stand by what you've written?
Agents, publishers, reviewers, readers - there are so many people who can reject a writer’s work that every writer needs a thick skin. And while it is important to be open to criticism, every writer should also know the heart of her story, the essence of what she is trying to say, because this is what she needs to defend from the noise of opinions. I try to not get carried away by praise or wounded by criticism. Being equanimous is easier said than done though. It doesn’t come naturally to me, but be it a rejection letter or a bad review, you get tired of feeling sorry for yourself and get back to work.
This passage, I found, particularly striking: "How is one supposed to nurse a broken heart in Delhi, she wonders, in Patna, In Kashmir, in Jaffna, where one cannot walk like this?" I wonder, is there a relationship between walking and writing too?
There is something about the rhythm of walking that’s great for creativity. I find that repetitive tasks (like the act of putting one foot forward after another) absorb some of the restless energy that can get in the way of thinking, leaving one more clear-headed and able to focus better. Walking was a big part of my process in writing Milk Teeth. I was living in Delhi during the time I wrote the book. I would plan a trip to Mumbai every couple of months. I walked around Matunga and the Fort / Colaba area without any aim or agenda for hours. Many scenes in the book were conceived on these long walks.
We are curious about the title Milk Teeth? When and how did you decide that would be the title of your book? Were there other contenders?
The manuscript went through many names, starting with ‘Amoeba, Inkblot’. The name that stuck for the longest time was ‘Common Ground’, that’s the name under which I submitted the novel to agents and publishers. Neither my publisher nor I loved the title. I considered many other options: ‘The Middlings’, ‘Seesaw’, and a host of other names, including -- in a moment of exasperation -- ‘Love, sex, and dhokha’. Then one day, in my final round of edits, I got to the only sentence in the book with the phrase ‘milk teeth’ and the words jumped out at me.
About Pinkesh -- Did you actually meet any private detectives in Bombay as part of research for this character?
My aunt worked as a private detective for a few years in the eighties. She did the kind of work that Pinkesh does, mainly background checks for arranged marriages, but one day her agency assigned her an unsolved murder case and she promptly quit her job. This was one of my favourite family stories and I knew I wanted to explore this in my novel. The first two parts of the book were extensively researched and I really did want to do more research on private detectives, but I was so exhausted by the time I got to Kartik’s section that I simply made things up.
You're currently working at a non-profit that works on Artificial Intelligence solutions, a world away from the pre-Whatsapp era of Milk Teeth. Would you agree that the luxury of being a writer (or a serious reader) is to be able to inhabit multiple worlds at once? And do you sometimes (even today) pop back into the Matunga of the 1990s for some reprieve?
I started the AI for social good job two weeks after I submitted my final draft to my publisher. It’s not been easy switching contexts between AI and the world of Milk Teeth, to tear my mind away from data and algorithms to talk about literature, cities, love, and class. When it gets overwhelming, I take a step back and observe how bizarre this situation is and then I feel privileged that I get to occupy such different worlds.
I do go back to Amba Bhavan in Matunga very often. I love their filter coffee and the place is extra special because it’s also Ira’s favourite Udupi restaurant.
Also, how do you balance a full-time (and time consuming job) and writing? Janice Pariat once mentioned that it is sometimes important for a writer to have a less time and mind consuming profession so that he/she/they can focus on writing more effectively. Would you agree? What advice would you have for aspiring writers who have to make money but also have the burning desire to write?
I wrote full-time for about two years when I was working on Milk Teeth. I wrote on weekends and on holidays for about a year and a half, but I reached a point where I wanted to immerse myself in the novel completely. In the process of writing this novel, I was also learning how to write, and I wanted to hone this craft every day, not just a day or two every week. I could do this because I had money saved up from my years of working in the US. I can’t say I used those two years very well. It took me some time to realise that I write best with some structure and rhythm to my days. It was an easy decision to go back to a full-time job once the final draft was done. I still try to reserve my Saturdays for writing, but it hasn’t been easy.
My advice for aspiring writers with full-time jobs: your writing needs to become a habit, a ritual. Set aside time to practise, you could start with as little as three hours on a weekend afternoon. Once you have decided, protect this time fiercely even from friends and family, learn to say no to meetings, to events, to anything that is not critical which will take you away from your craft. Don’t squeeze in your practice into your busy life, plan your life - especially your social life - around your practice.
Finally, can you recommend five books about Bombay that you particularly cherish?
No presents please by Jayant Kaikini, Boombay by Kamu Iyer, Sacred Games by Vikram Chandra, Ravan & Eddie by Kiran Nagarkar. Instead of a fifth book, I would like to pick a movie: Basu Chatterjee’s Rajnigandha.
Oh, also quick literary word associations. Tell us the first book that pops into your mind when you read these words.
Rent: A Fine Balance
Teeth: White Teeth
Love: An Equal Music
Interviewed by Archana Nathan