Nandhika Nambi is the author of Unbroken, a teen novel to be published by Duckbill in April 2017.
She is interviewed by Andaleeb Wajid, the author of many novels for teens and adults.
AW: As a protagonist, Akriti is not just your regular prickly teen but she’s also very unlikable in the way she deals with people around her, especially those who love her. Her disability notwithstanding, she comes from a world of privilege and yet she’s either blind to it or takes it for granted. What made you write her character like this?
NN: Akriti chooses to see only the things she didn’t have, once something huge was taken away from her. She goes through a difficult time, she tries her best to become apathetic–both to the good and the bad–but finally she realises she can’t ignore reality without destroying herself and the people she loves. Despite coming from a world of privileges, she is blind to them, because she is deprived of the one thing she would give up for all of these little things. People that fail to count their blessings, are always generally unlikeable and hard to be around.
AW: I understand Akriti’s behaviour, and yet no one can really say they know or feel what someone else is going through. Is that why she puts up those walls around her?
NN: Most teenagers put walls up around them, and Akriti had to deal with a tremendous loss while also dealing with the awkwardness of adolescence – not knowing what else to do, she shuts herself off from the world.
AW: Ranjith is such a saint and a perfect child, almost too good to be true. How did he get to be that way?
NN: I think some people were just born to make a difference. Most of us spent our childhood, wanting to change the world and believing we can – and although that’s usually soon quenched by the reality that hits us as we grow up, he just never gave up on his ideas. Ranjith’s character also sheds some light on the fact that Akriti’s current attitude was in no regard influenced by her upbringing, and everything she became was rooted in recent events. Having said that, I didn’t expect their characters–Ranjith’s and Akriti’s–to contrast so tremendously, but once I had an idea of what he was like, I didn’t want to tone down.
AW: There’s a huge difference between empathy and sympathy and despite not meaning to, we end up sympathizing rather than empathizing. Do you want to add something to make the demarcation more clear for your readers?
NN: It’s easier to empathize with a person when they’re open about what they’re feeling, so you can put yourself in their shoes. Akriti is so closed off, it’s impossible to get inside her head. People are still obviously overwhelmed with sympathy for her because of the wheelchair, but empathy is unlikely because even the people she’s closest to don’t know how she feels.
AW: Akriti’s moments of epiphany come from two people who are on either ends of the spectrum, age and experience wise. What made you decide to write it that way?
NN: That kind of just happened!
I have two sisters–one is eight years old and pig-tailed, and the other is a doctor and married. (Yes, I know the age gap is huge, but being the middle child in this weird family has always been amazing.) Both influence me in their own distinctive ways.
I think there’s something to learn from everybody. Priya has the innocence of a child who’s barely seen the world, while Dr Rishi has the wisdom of a man who’s seen it all. She’s influenced by both, in their own way. Also, there is the additional fact that both these people are people she has met after the accident–and know her only as she is now. That probably added to the impact they had on her.
AW: Life on a wheelchair is a limited and unusual perspective to write about. What made you choose it?
NN: Though life on a wheelchair is physically limited, the emotional turmoil associated with coming to terms with it can be immense, and the intellectual life unlimited. Most of Unbroken is just about that.
Had Akriti been not been a physically challenged teen, her teenage phase would have just been the usual tantrum and rebellion-filled time that it is for everyone. It was her personality that formed itself first in my mind, only after which did the element of her being in a wheelchair get added in – and with that I instantly knew how the Akriti I knew in my head would have dealt with it, and the rest of the book was just me trying to write her the help I knew she needed.
AW: Akriti’s friendship with Preethi and Karthik has different dynamics individually and as a group. What do you see as the role of friendships in sustaining people and the support they offer?
NN: Friends really are the family you choose.
I’m lucky to have some great friends, so the experience I’ve had in my own life was probably the basis for what I was trying to create for Akriti–just pure, unconditional support and love.
Akriti met Preethi way before her life and personality changed so much, and despite how horribly she treated her sometimes, she stuck around. Karthik reminds her of herself, and only when she’s horrified by his behaviour does she see what’s wrong with hers. Her friends influence her in a way her parents never can and vice versa, just by being her own age and seeing the world from a similar perspective. As a group, they balance each other out.
It’s always best to surround yourself with people that uplift you and see you through everything, and that’s what I wanted for Akriti – I feel as if she got that through Karthik and Preethi. Undoubtedly, they are not perfect, but I think their dynamic works in its own special way.