From A Rocket Scientist To A Writer, Amrita Mahale On Her Journey
An aerospace engineer who always wanted to be a writer, Amrita Mahale saw her childhood dream come true with the publication of her well-received debut novel, Milk Teeth. Here, she reveals to SheThePeople.TV’s Books Editor Archana Pai Kulkarni, her experience of venturing into unfamiliar territory, why she took a break from her job to write her book, and how rejections toughened her.
From being a rocket scientist to navigating an extremely different space as a writer, did you have a soft landing? What made you explore territory which is so far removed from your academic pursuits and previous professional choices?
Looking back now, it does feel like a soft landing. I received offers from two publishers without having an agent, and Milk Teeth ended up being the first debut novel that Westland Context published. The book has been getting very positive reviews too, from readers and critics alike. However, it was a long path and not the smoothest one. I had been thinking about these characters for nearly a decade and the novel took over four years of writing and rewriting.
My professional life might look like a series of zigzags but one thing was always clear to me: no matter what I studied or where I worked, I would work towards being a writer. It took me a long time to find something to say, which I believe is more important than having raw writing talent.
It took me a long time to find something to say, which I believe is more important than having raw writing talent.
Did you ever see yourself as a writer during your childhood? Your childhood trips to Mumbai, particularly Matunga, which is the setting for your novel, seem to have had quite an impact on you. What are your earliest influences – the time and place that shaped you?
I have wanted to be a writer since I was very young. In my mind, that goes hand in hand with paying close attention to the world around me. I have a bit of an eidetic memory; I remember episodes from when I was as young as three years old. The clearest early memories are all with childhood playmates: building friends in Gujarat (where I grew up) and over a dozen cousins in Mumbai (where my entire extended family was). Most of the childhood scenes in the book are based on the games I played with my cousins. The terrace of Asha Nivas, which plays such an important role in the novel, is the terrace of my grandmother’s building in Colaba. This building, which also houses a Kamat restaurant, is the most vivid place in the memory-world of my childhood.
What is it about Mumbai and its metamorphosis in the backdrop of the demolition of the Babri Masjid and the bomb blasts in Mumbai that captured your imagination enough for you to want to tell a story about its changing face?
I wanted to write about people finding their place in a changing world. And for India, what decade represents change more than the 90s, especially for Mumbai? The economy opened up, cable TV arrived, the Babri Masjid was demolished, the BJP first came to power, and even the internet and the mobile phone began to make an appearance. I can’t think of a more fascinating, defining decade since Independence. As a writer, unpacking some of this was very interesting. Also, I wanted to set the novel in a time before mobile phones and the internet became ubiquitous, when secrets were easier to keep, and separation and reconnection held more meaning (all these are essential to the plot of the book).
I wanted to set the novel in a time before mobile phones and the internet became ubiquitous, when secrets were easier to keep, and separation and reconnection held more meaning.
In the narrative, there is the reference to hate shedding its milk teeth. Is the title, Milk Teeth, a metaphor for the imminent taking root of stronger passions once the milk teeth have been shed, the gap between the shedding and the new growth a kind of fertile ground for such germination?
It’s a bit of everything you point out. Milk teeth evoke a sense of becoming. They are signs of growth, of coming of age. The novel is about the three protagonists figuring out who they are, it’s about middle class society defining and asserting itself in the 90s.
The crumbling city figures in your novel, and with it, the unsettling of its residents grappling with the gradual but inevitable changes that bring up a lot of dormant issues to the surface. What kind of research went into understanding and portraying the concerns, the idiosyncrasies, and the ambivalence of the protagonists and other characters?
Many different modes of research. I interviewed over twenty-five people – long-time Matunga and Malabar Hill residents, beat journalists, gay activists, architects and historians. I spent a lot of time going through press archives from the seventies through the nineties. I also re-watched all of Amol Palekar’s Bombay movies.
The three main characters of your novel—Ira, Kaiz and Kartik—struggle between two worlds. One seemingly moors them while the other is not just alluring but one where they will probably feel at home but not quite. Disillusionment with people and the city is central to their journeys, as is their painful vacillation. How did you go about adding these complexities to your characters?
The complexity came slowly, accruing over several drafts. Writing a good character is a feat of observation and imagination both, and good characters come from a place of deep feeling. Each of the characters struggles with something that I have also struggled with: Kartik’s self-doubt and professional dissatisfactions, Ira’s anxiety about her lack of cultural capital, Kaiz’s anxiety to prove that Mumbai is his home. And each of these is linked to the novel’s central theme: finding your place in a changing world while trying to remain true to an idea you have of yourself.
Writing a good character is a feat of observation and imagination both, and good characters come from a place of deep feeling.
Your observation of the city and its inhabitants is sharp. The seemingly banal becomes amusing and the cause of subtle humour in the narrative, like the waiter in the restaurant who resents the presence of the newspaper on the table, which impedes his practised service. Tell us about the tours you took to get these details.
What’s funny is that I was living in Delhi during the time I wrote the book and would plan a trip to Mumbai every couple of months. I walked around Matunga and the Fort / Colaba area for hours without any aim or agenda. I ate alone at Irani cafes and Udupi restaurants, I went back to the same places with friends, and I kept my eyes and ears open. And I slowly kept adding more detail to my drafts. What really happened was that I spent so long doing research and writing the book, that the things I heard and read began to feel like my own lived experience.
What really happened was that I spent so long doing research and writing the book, that the things I heard and read began to feel like my own lived experience.
The conversations in your book, especially of the residents of Asha Sadan, are a verbatim representation of the kinds of discussions that take place in the typical middle class households of Matunga, and similar Mumbai homes. These conversations are like templates, which have been internalised by an entire section of society, a reflection of the collective mindset. When and how did you eavesdrop on these?
I have always been a good listener. It helps that I am an introvert. And I have also always had this annoying habit – a habit that I call a writerly instinct – of spending a lot of time in my head and analyzing and dissecting the world around me, and making mental notes. So in many ways, I have been working on this novel my whole life!
What was your writing process like? You gave up your job to take to full-time writing. Do you think it’s tough for someone holding a day job to become a writer? What was your experience?
Writing is really hard. The process of writing is mostly torture. It is boring, gruelling, and a test of grit and patience more than anything else. I only fully understood this after I quit my job. There were many days when I regretted giving up my job, but I don’t think it would have worked had I not. I tried writing 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. I was also effectively teaching myself how to write, and I wanted to hone this craft every day, not just a day or two every week.
Writing is really hard. The process of writing is mostly torture. It is boring, gruelling, and a test of grit and patience more than anything else.
But with the right focus and discipline, I think one can hold a day job and still make time for writing. Vivek Shanbhag wrote all his books while working full-time in the corporate world. He would wake up at 4.30 each morning and read and write for a few hours before he went to work. I wish I had that kind of discipline.
What made you opt for a writer’s residency at Sangam House? How far into the novel were you when you did so? How did the residency nurture you? Would you recommend residencies to aspirants?
I heard about Sangam House from a writer friend and I applied after I had finished a solid first draft. I had just received some very constructive feedback from an agent I had sent the manuscript to. I rewrote significant parts of the book in my month at Sangam House. It’s a luxury to be able to work on your writing without the distractions of everyday living. And a privilege to be able to talk about books and literature every evening with writers from around the world, writing in many languages and forms. I would strongly recommend residencies to other aspiring writers, but Sangam House is the only residency of its kind in India. It was one of the most wonderful things to have happened in my journey as a writer.
It’s a luxury to be able to work on your writing without the distractions of everyday living. And a privilege to be able to talk about books and literature every evening with writers from around the world, writing in many languages and forms.
You have spoken about the several rejections you received, one of which made you break down. How did you cope? What strengthened your faith in your work and kept you going?
I wish I could say that I am full of resilience and courage, that it came to me naturally. It was really hard. There was a long stretch when I was an emotional wreck for days at a time, over and over again. But eventually, I would get tired of feeling sorry for myself and get back to work. What did help was learning that I was not alone: I would look up interviews of authors who had received far more rejections than I did. That’s the reason I speak so often about rejections, in the hope that my story offers some comfort to another aspiring writer in despair.
What did help was learning that I was not alone: I would look up interviews of authors who had received far more rejections than I did.
Name three authors whose works have impacted you. Name three of your favourite books.
You’ll find echoes of Elena Ferrante, Vikram Seth, and Chimamanda Adichie (and possibly Jhumpa Lahiri) in my writing, but if I had to pick one author who’s had a profound impact on me, I would say Arundhati Roy. The God of Small Things made me decide that I wanted to write novels. And this is really embarrassing, but for a year or two in school, her author picture at the back of the book was the Dronacharya statue to my Eklavya.
As for my favourite books, it’s hard to pick favourites but I’ll say the Neapolitan novels (Elena Ferrante), An Equal Music and A Suitable Boy (Vikram Seth). I am impressed by formally inventive novels, but what I love best is simple, elegant writing.
Read, read, read and write, write, write. That’s all it boils down to.
What are you working on at the moment?
There is a second novel on my mind. It’s a dark story, with a violent incident at its heart. It’s been marinating in my head for several months now but I haven’t been able to find the time or energy to start writing it, partly because of how far it is from my comfort zone. I am hoping to start working seriously on it very soon and I am sure it will become something very different from what I have in mind now.
What vital piece of advice would you give aspiring writers?
Read, read, read and write, write, write. That’s all it boils down to.
Amrita Mahale is the author of the novel ‘Milk Teeth,’ published by Westland Context. Her writing has appeared in Hindustan Times, Scroll, Himal Southasian and Brown Paper Bag. She was trained as an aerospace engineer and is a product manager at a nonprofit research lab working on AI for social good. Amrita will be speaking at the Mumbai Women Writers Fest 2019.
Feature Image credit: Ameya Mahale