Shals Mahajan is the author of Timmi in Tangles, a hOle book which will be published later in September. Ze is interviewed by Akshara Ravishankar, an idli-loving philosophy student.
AR: One of the things I loved about the book was how wonderfully the illustrations and the writing worked together. What was that process like? What was it like working with Shreya? When you initially wrote Timmi, how did you imagine her?
SM: I wrote the Timmi stories years and years ago. See basically I am a closeted writer and have been writing for over twenty-five years. I have decided to publish only recently though. But with the Timmi stories, even when I first wrote them, I had wanted to work with a visual artist. So a couple of friends and I were in conversation but nothing came out of it because life was there, needing to be lived. These stories sat in a file on my computer, and every couple of years, I’d pull them out and polish them a little.
So when it came about that they would actually get published, I was thrilled to be working with an illustrator. All I wanted from the illustrator was that they understand the slightly off key nature of my characters and not try to put too much prettiness and niceness into the stories. And Shreya was wonderful at catching on to this.
Shreya, Anushka, and I had long conversations over phone and email, sometimes all together and sometimes in twos, over understanding the characters and creating the illustrations. It was a fabulous process and I was very impressed with both of them. I am the kind of writer who worries about every comma and loves to fine tune (though often without much effect), and I have to say that I had the joy of working with an editor and illustrator who were also fine-tuning experts!
I wrote some word images of not just the characters, but also the spaces that Timmi and her friends inhabit and then Shreya added her own deft and wacky touches to them. There was a great deal of back and forth till all of us liked the look of each character and the content of each illustration. We even had a fabulously insane discussion on Bombay housing and what the floor plan of the house might look like, and an even more fascinating one on how Timmi would think of the guards. So it has been a thoroughly collaborative effort and I cannot imagine what Timmi would look like, now that I know how she does.
AR: I’m a bit worried about Idli-amma. Timmi was saved (sort of) by the hing oil this time, but how is she going to deal with Idli-amma now?
SM: You are right to be worried Ax since Idli-amma is Timmi’s personal trouble maker, and I suppose they will together land Timmi in some trouble or another. Luckily we do not know much about it and so it needn’t be our concern, at least for now. Also, when someone is so good a storyteller that they have bricks and walls of stories and friends like the bamboo-queens, then you have to take the rest of what they bring with them. Wouldn’t you too rather have all the trouble and have Idli-amma than not have her in your life at all?
AR: In the last story, ‘A Good Girl’, I especially liked how, after Timmi’s made to feel like she’s not a good girl, she goes home and finishes her picture. I thought the way that story ended said so much about Timmi and her family. Can you talk/write a bit about how that story happened?
SM: Er, are we to tell the, ahem, plot (such as it is) of the story in the interview?
Besides being a closeted writer, I am also an excruciatingly slow one. But these two things I can live with. What makes my life rather difficult is that I am also a do-not-know-what-happens-next writer. So till I write a sentence (and sadly for me it goes sentence by sentence), I am not sure where the story is going. So basically I have no plot and no sense of direction.
This story must’ve begun one fine afternoon, as most stories do, when I must’ve been dawdling over the computer, trying to look as if I am working and not just reading random stuff on the net. I do not remember that part. But I do remember that it took me months of opening the half written story and reading and re-reading bits, till the next sentence and the next happened and then one fine day, I knew it was done. So I guess I do the equivalent of what Timmi does – stare at the unfinished work – but I take much longer than an afternoon!
AR: A major revelation from reading the book is that crunchy food helps you think. I’m yet to test this, but does it work for you? What food do you find helps you when you’re thinking, or writing?
SM: Food always helps. In fact were it not for food, I’d be nowhere as a writer. Crunchy food keeps you from listening to your thoughts very carefully and this is very good for a writer. If you listen to your thoughts too much, you get tired of yourself.
Besides the eating of it though, cooking food really works for me. There is nothing more refreshing than getting up from hours of having not written anything that you like and in half an hour whipping up something fun to eat. It is a tangible and ultimately very gratifying thing to have accomplished something wonderful in a short period of time. And you get to eat it too. So for me experimental and slapdash cooking and eating are an integral part of writing. Also you see I eat more regularly than I write.
AR: Is this the first book you’ve written specifically for children? Which books for children do you enjoy reading?
SM: This is a hard question because when I write I am not particularly thinking of who I am writing for. I guess so far I have been only writing for myself. But of course, once something gets written then you can see who might want to read it. So there are some other stories, some finished and some incomplete that could be called written for children. Though I hope there are tons of adults who like to read this sort of thing too.
I do not think I enjoyed reading children’s books as much when I was kid as I do now. I like reading fantasy and weird fiction for young adults quite a bit.
AR: You’ve said that writing can continue in the hereafter. What are you planning on writing next? Are there going to be any more stories about Timmi?
SM: Planning to write does not really apply in my case. But yes there are a few things that I have been writing, off and on, for the past couple of years. So I hope that the first drafts will be done in the next year or thereabout. It would be really good to know what happens in those books. But besides the new stuff that I am writing, there are older stories that are written but am still not quite done with them yet. So I hope that I will find the energy to look and re-look at some of them as well. And yes, there are a couple of Timmi stories not included in this book. One of them took almost a decade to get done. So I guess if I write a few more, maybe there could be another Timmi book. But this sort of thing is hard to tell, let alone commit to. But she is one person I really love and writing these stories gives me a chance to know her more, so I’d like for that to happen.