Himanjali Sankar’s new book Talking of Muskaan is a young adult novel about being different and fitting in. You can read the first chapter here: http://goo.gl/zC9L6v
She is interviewed by Dakshayini Suresh, a student and avid reader.
DS: So much of TOM (may I call it that?) is about teenagers in intense conflict situations. What are the challenges of representing conflict and hurt in young people, without over-dramatizing or gently judging us?
HS: The challenge was really of growing too fond of some of the characters and trying to protect them from hurt. Each of us has and uses the capacity to destroy. I was telling a story that required the characters to do that. Sometimes I didn’t quite approve of the way Aaliya was behaving but she had to do what she had to do!
DS: The “gang” is one of those teen novel essentials. What goes into the structuring of a fictional gang? How do you decide what kind of personalities and compatibilities you want to include? For instance, the presence, in one gang, of people who don’t always care for or respect one another…
HS: I belonged to a gang when I was a teenager (we gangsters are well into our forties now!) – a close-knit group of girls who lived and judged by rigid codes. It was a large gang and there were sub-groups and conflicting loyalties and varying degrees of caring and respecting. And much resultant angst! I suppose I unconsciously modelled my fictional gang on those memories and on the stories I hear from my teenage daughter (her gang in school reminds me of mine!) and her school experiences. But I also hope I conveyed a sense of how beautiful and important it all can be.
DS: We have access to the inner worlds of three widely different characters. Why tell the story from multiple points of view? What do you want your readers to take away from insights into each of these minds?
HS: I am forever fascinated by how different the perspectives on a common experience can be – depending on who is narrating it. Our sense of self can be so very strong that each of us can have a completely different take on the same event. There really is no one truth and I felt it would give a more rounded story, a fuller picture if I had multiple points of view. I am sure my personal biases come through but I would like readers to come to their own conclusions as far as possible without my intervention and viewpoints colouring theirs.
DS: What are the challenges of differentiating between the voices of characters? What did you keep in mind when differentiating between a boy’s voice and a girl’s?
HS: I focussed more on the characters rather than gender when deciding the voices for each. I actually found that the inner workings of the minds of teenage boys and girls are not very different when they come from similar familial backgrounds. At least the kids I spoke to while writing this book convinced me that this was the case. The hobbies and interests that they have are more gendered and conditioned but when it comes to emotions and values it pretty much depends on the upbringing and similarities in temperament.
DS: When you visualise TOM, what kind of a setting do you imagine? To what extent do you think the context of the young adults in the book shapes their behaviour?
HS: The setting in my head is possibly a mix of the Calcutta of my childhood and the Delhi of my daughter’s childhood just as the characters are a mix of my childhood friends and hers. I do believe that context is super important. Our behavioural patterns are shaped by our personal histories of growing up. I think of the teen years as being highly formative which doesn’t mean that we don’t evolve and change after that but the blueprint for our later years is laid early and we always define ourselves against it.
DS: Who is your favourite character and why?
HS: I am loathe to answer this and I have struggled to be impartial but yes, I do have a favourite. Maybe the reader can guess who the favourite is!
DS: How did you think of the various parent characters and their respective influences on the lives of the YAs in TOM?
HS: I tried to keep the parents as cameos and keep them out of it as much as possible. As we all know, babies and adults have relatively easier relationships with parents than teenagers who are in that in-between zone where they are trying to grow into the adults they will be. Being a teenager is not easy at all – emotionally and mentally. The relationships that teenagers have with their parents can be intense – there is a lot of love which both struggle with and which needs to be redefined as kids become adults. While I have kept the parents out of the story the relationships that each of the three main characters have with their parents can be guessed. There is a suggestion of unease between the teenagers and their parents sometimes but there are also hints of closeness and influence. Prateek is possibly the closest to his parents but he is the most uni-dimensional of the four main characters.
DS: What is the role of the “weirdo” label in TOM?
HS: I do use that word a lot in the novel as an umbrella phrase for stuff that is outside the norm and unusual. When Prateek uses it the sense it conveys is mostly derogatory, if Aaliya calls someone weird she possibly finds the person interesting too. And Prateek would use the word in its most literal sense.
DS: Muskaan and Subhojoy make an unlikely pair of friends. How important do you think this principle of unlikely friendships is in writing about teenagers or people, generally?
HS: Unlikely friendships – when the two come from very different backgrounds – is based on how similar the inner selves of the two friends are and results in a dynamic that is strangely both alienating and exhilarating. Alienating because you can’t identify with each other in many obvious ways but it is also satisfying to try to understand and grapple with worlds that are not similar to your own. I am not sure if unlikely friendships can last forever (I hope they can!) but they are important and relevant for sure.
DS: TOM contains many beautiful definitions of love. Could you talk a little about these multiple definitions and their role in your writing?
HS: Love, yes! It’s about the love that results from a shared past and the comfort it brings between friends who have been together from kindergarten. It is about the love that results with the forging of new relationships between apparently dissimilar people with matching inner lives and thoughts. It’s about the shallow love that can’t really last but which possibly gives us something to define ourselves against for the rest of our lives. It’s also about love gone wrong which can be righted and love gone wrong that can’t. And finally it’s about the deep and lasting love between some friends and family that you know will never really end. And often these various loves overlap and coalesce to sometimes hurt and sometimes heal because that’s what life is really about.
DS: What kind of research did you do in order to formulate your portrayals of teen love and teen relationships? How would you describe the relationships in TOM? What role do the girlfriends and boyfriends have in each other’s lives?
HS: I didn’t do any formal research, just eavesdropping on my daughter’s conversations with her friends, informal chats with a friend’s son (though I did have a list of questions that I went through with him) and a phone call to the Principal of a school that was super helpful. When I got stuck at specific points, like with the sort of music that teenagers listen to or the slang they use, then I simply asked my daughter.
Teen love can be as intense as love at any other point in our lives. In some ways the girlfriends and boyfriends are growing up together, figuring out life together, so the influence they have on each other can be very deep and significant. But growing apart after a point is also sometimes inevitable because this is a phase of life during which one is discovering and understanding him/herself in ways that were not possible before.
DS: To what extent do you think TOM resolves the issues it sets up? What is a resolution in a novel, according to you?
HS: I think a resolution needs to leave the reader with a sense that the book couldn’t have ended in any other way. In this book I have hinted at what the future might hold for the characters without quite tying up every loose end. I am not sure if I’ve resolved the issues I set up as much as tried to make the main characters come to a better understanding of certain aspects of their lives.
DS: Do you think any of your characters ‘grow’ or learn something as a result of the events of TOM?
HS: The central event of Muskaan trying to take her life has to impact her close friends deeply so, yes, I think they do change and grow because of what happens. But I don’t believe everyone of us has the capacity to take away a learning from what happens in our lives in ways that are meaningful. I haven’t quite spelt out the consequences but left it to the reader to figure it out.