Meera Nair, the author of the soon-to-be-published Maya Saves the Day in conversation with Kareena N. Gianani, journalist and writer.
KG: In the first story, Maya is the scaredy-cat. In the two stories that follow, we see that she’s picked up some very important skills: throwing a true-blue tantrum, fighting for dogs’ rights and teaching her parents a lesson or two about responsible parenting. If you were to write a fourth story about Maya, what would you throw her way?
MN: A long train journey across the country, a cooking disaster, a visit to her grandma’s farm, a ghost story session gone bad – not necessarily in this order or in the same book.
KG: When did you decide to become a writer? And what kind of stories defines your style best?
MN: When I was about ten years old, I wrote a story about a crow (I am fascinated with them), which my mum thought was pretty good and that set me off. Right then I decided I’d be a writer. I guess I was primed to become one because I grew up in a house that had more books per square inch than furniture. My parents mostly let me alone to read whatever and whenever I wanted, so I grew up thinking writers and books were cool. My father was a journalist and his father was a journalist, and I naturally assumed that writing was what everyone did.
A few years ago, I wrote a collection for adults, called Video, which was published by Pantheon. The stories were set mostly in India, and featured characters who were forced to respond to the abrupt appearance of the modern in their lives. So, for instance, in one story, a village prepares to welcome Bill Clinton, the President of the United States, by building a new toilet. In another, a middle-aged woman in a well-worn marriage decides she’d like to celebrate Valentine’s Day. I like to write stories that spin off from historical or current events. I like to throw my characters into dire situations and write about the funny ways in which they respond.
KG: Is this your first book for children? Why now? And while we’re at it, why do you tell stories?
MN: Yes. Because Anushka Ravishankar asked me to and she was so persuasive that I fell to my knees at once and reached for a pen.
I tell stories because if I don’t tell them, they sit in my stomach like rocks and give me a belly-ache. And when they aren’t behaving like rocks, they jump up and down and yell for attention.
KG: Did you have to switch gears or have a different course of action when you began writing for children after having written only for adults?
MN: Oh god, yes! I mostly write for adults and frankly, writing for children is a relief. I let my hair down and saddle an unsuspecting puppy with a name like Boothalingam.
KG: Tell us the kind of stories (for children) you love to tell. And tell us about the kinds of stories (for children, again) you’d never want your name to be associated with!
MN: I grew up reading too many stories about blonde kids who had adventures in places like Cornwall or Herefordshire and ate roly-poly pudding, so I want my stories to celebrate batata-vadas and chowkidars. I want to tell stories for children that reflect their lives in the country as it is today.
I want kids in India to see themselves in my stories, which means read about characters who have the same skin color and names and culture like theirs, who eat food they eat and wear clothes they wear and do things that they do.
The stories I would rather not write are ones that tell kids to study every day or clean their room. I’m trying to make sure my stories don’t have treacly little moral endings (can’t you just see the lede? Author urges immorality!), or write preachy, pious stories with well-meaning advice. If my story ever starts saying, “But beta, in my day…” I’m going to clap a chloroformed handkerchief to its mouth and drag it away.
Goody-two-shoes type characters are boring and only trouble is interesting, as a great writer once said. He also said “Hell is story friendly.”
KG: Got it. No advice – good, bad, even the wise bits. But what’s the best and the worst writing advice you’ve ever received?
MN: The best piece of advice: Read. Read greedily, deeply, widely, desperately, as if all the books in the world were going to be burned tomorrow. If you don’t read you can’t be a writer—sorry, reading happens to be the job requirement.
KG: Just because you’re not the advice-y sort, we’re curious to know what would be that one piece of advice you would give, if asked nicely?
MN: You will risk the wrath of the writing gods if you don’t re-write your work at least five times: All good writing is rewriting. Amazing things happen during revision and if you don’t rewrite you’ll never be touched by that magic. Surprise and discovery is half the fun of writing fiction.
Worst piece of advice: write what you know. Please don’t. You don’t know a lot of stuff. And what you do know isn’t enough. The fun of writing lies in finding out about all the things you don’t have a clue about or discovering new things you want to know. At this point, I’d like to be very clear: I have never ever had a tiger hide inside my bedroom. Or a chowkidar chase me down the stairs. As for my parents running away from me in a mall – no such luck.
KG: Which children’s authors and books do you love and why?
Maurice Sendak—because he wrote exactly what he pleased and it shows.
Dr. Seuss for the sheer exuberant rhythm of his words and his joy in the possibilities of language.
Enid Blyton- because I grew up with her books.
Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs—all 26 books in the series. Because what’s not to love about a guy who wears leopard skin underwear, swings from vines and commands monkeys?
The original fairy tales by the Grimm’s brothers, because they are gruesome, scary and surprising
Harry Potter for JK Rowling’s inventiveness, the clever world-building, and the unforgettable characters
Katherine Paterson’s Bridge to Terabithia, because it’s a beautifully written, heartrending book that is not afraid to talk about death to kids.
The Dune series (are those for children?), Ruksana Khan’s stories about Afghanistan, Monsoon by Uma Krishnaswami, Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie, anything Roald Dahl ever wrote, Kevin Henkes’s Chrysanthemum, because it says it’s wonderful to be different, I could go on and on, but I won’t.
KG: But you may, so take this–tell us about a children’s book you utterly despised. Why?
MN: I don’t like books about mean boys, catty, clique-y girls or girls who only talk about nail-polish and designer clothes. I don’t like books with guns in them. I never once read any book featuring Barney to my kid because he was so irritating and patronising and…purple. I don’t like the The Bernstein Bears, for their conservative messages. I didn’t like (but did not despise) the final book in the Hunger Games trilogy—too much fighting and not enough emotion. I don’t like books about athletes -because I’m sports-impaired and can’t tell a googly from a drop-kick.
KG: What’s that one element/quality a great children’s book must have?
MN: The same thing any good book should have–characters who make you care deeply about them.
KG: Lastly, tell us one question you always wished someone asked you, but no one’s ever had the gumption/good sense/humour to say so. Then, answer it.
MN: Question – What’s your favouritest food in the whole, wide world?
Answer – Gol gappa. Pani puri. Gup shup. Puchka.
KG: Heh. Now, spin us a delicious tale on gol gappa/pani puri/gup shup/puchka?
MN: Instructions for Aliens on how to eat gol gappas, (also known as G.P.G.P):
1. First unhinge apparatus to the maximum extent possible.
2. Place edible receptacle with extreme care upon tongue.
3. Position G.P.G.P in such a way so as to facilitate full and satisfying contact between soft outer shell and teeth.
4. If a crunching sound ensues, this portion of the operation has been carried out correctly. In the rare instance of no sound, please repeat steps 1 through 3.
6. The sound will be followed by the immediate disintegration of the edible receptacle.
7. Upon decomposition, the liquid inside the receptacle will flood the mouth and tongue. Do not panic—this is normal.
8. Chew and swallow. (While chewing and swallowing at the same time may prove initially challenging, daily practice with G.P.G.P has been shown to facilitate great enjoyment).
A shorter version: Open. Pop in. Crunch. Sploosh. Aaaah!