Rupa Gulab is the author of Hot Chocolate is Thicker than Blood (published July 2016), which looks at adoption and the wonderful relationship that siblings share. She is interviewed by journalist Bijal Vachharajani, who is constantly found reading children’s books.
BV: You’ve got the sibling relationship spot on. Squabbles, petty jealousies, and unconditional love over mugs of hot chocolate. Tell us about that.
RG: I have siblings, so squabbles, petty jealousies and unconditional love come easy to me. Especially squabbles – I used to enjoy them tremendously!
BV: How did you decide to write a story about adoption?
RG: I’m very clear about one thing: when I write books for young adults, I always cover social issues. I abhor the hypocrisy and small-mindedness that’s intrinsic in our society and have this scary, almost missionary zeal to fight it with all the energy I can muster. My first book for young adults, Daddy Come Lately, was about normalising divorce. I thought long and hard about what I would cover in my next book, and adoption appealed to me. See, when I was young, I read terrific heart-warming books about orphans (Daddy Long-Legs and Anne of Green Gables, to name a few). However, in real life, I recall a few creepy adults talking about adoption in hushed tones, like it was a bad thing, a blot on the family name, etc. It shocked me. Since I’ve grown up, many friends, a few acquaintances and a cousin have deliberately chosen to adopt children instead of having any of their own, and I love them for it! However, the stigma still exists in some teeny weeny Indian minds and that must be sorted out!
BV: There’s so much anger, bitterness and sadness, but at the same time humour and warmth. Tell us a little bit about writing Hot Chocolate is Thicker than Blood?
RG: I wrote Hot Chocolate in a leisurely manner, over about eight years. I started writing it in 2008, but I kept taking breaks and even wrote a couple of books in the middle. All the anger, bitterness and sadness came about because I put myself in Anu’s and Diya’s shoes. As for the humour, well, I firmly believe that almost anything can be funny in retrospect. I fall back on humour all the time when I’m feeling blue – sort of laugh myself out of misery, and it works!
BV: How did you get most of the YA tone right in the story – the sarcasm, humour, and outrage.
RG: Because I was like that when I was young. Still am, in my adult avatar.
BV: Poetry/ rap lyrics with history and dates is pretty genius (Especially Azad and wizard). Is that how you remembered your history lessons?
RG: That was one of the ways. I tried several association techniques to remember dates, facts, etc. The thing is, my brain is like a sieve.
The reason why I think poetry is the best method is because I still remember how many days there are each month thanks to a little rhyme that was taught at school (I bet you know this too!):
‘30 days hath September, April, June and November,
All the rest have 31, except February alone,
Which has but 28 days clear,
And 29 on each leap year.’
BV: There is an interesting mix of teachers in your book. Are they based on real life or mostly imagined?
RG: A little bit of both. I had a few super teachers who were cool and inspiring, but perhaps not cool enough as the ones in my books (I have extremely high standards when it comes to coolness!). The nice teachers here are how I wish mine had been – if only.
BV: Clever hand-drawn doodle notes over cheesy heart cushions as gifts. Tell us a little bit about writing teen romance/ crushes.
RG: Just remember your own crushes and romances as a teen, that’s all. Technology and mind-sets change, but relationships don’t. Sadly, cheesy hearts never go out of fashion.
BV: Your books have some kickass female protagonist, dealing with difficult childhoods, and it’s great to see some really spunky ones in Hot Chocolate. Tell us a bit more about Anu and Diya.
RG: All my heroines are spunky. All of them, whether I’m writing for adults or teenagers. I couldn’t bear to write about wishy-washy, wimpy characters – I’d probably fall asleep over my manuscript. Anu and Diya are just normal kids behaving normally, as far as I’m concerned.
One of the things that also stands out is how counselling can be a huge support. Important, in a place that often pooh paahs going to one.
I am a huge, huge fan of counselling. We tend to neglect mental health in this country, and are in a constant state of denial. A lot of teenagers suffer from depression and parents have got to understand that it just won’t go away if they ignore it. A lot of parents find the idea of taking their kids to counsellors shameful. And then they’re broken when the child does something drastic like commit suicide. Bah.
BV: There are so many literary references in your story. What books did you grow up reading?
RG: My parents were voracious readers, so most of the books we read while growing up were recommended by them. My mum’s favourite books were Pride & Prejudice, Daddy Long-Legs, Alice in Wonderland and the hilarious William series by Richmal Compton. My dad’s were How Green was my Valley, the laugh-out-loud Jennings series by Anthony Buckeridge, Billy Bunter and World War II books. The writers they had in common were P.G. Wodehouse, Agatha Christie and Charles Dickens. So yes, very eclectic, with a lot of humour. That’s how my siblings and I grew up.
BV: How do you make your mug of hot chocolate? And how good a magic potion is it?
RG: I’m a disaster in the kitchen – a total disaster! The reason why I have fond memories of hot chocolate is that I drank it very often with my friends. All of us were cash-strapped hostelites, but at least twice a month we’d go to the Shamiana Coffee shop at the Taj Bombay (the city was called Bombay then!) and order one pot of hot chocolate between us. There would be about seven of us, and we’d only get about an inch in each mug, but it was so worth it. We had lovely bonding sessions while sipping it, and over time, the fantastic staff at the Shamiana used to grin when we entered and sneak in extra hot chocolate for us.