A few months back I came across this book called “Milk Teeth” which everyone around me was talking animatedly about and almost every reader I knew of had read this book and couldn’t stop themselves from showering their praises its way. So that’s when the curiosity within me bloomed and I decided to read it but it was not until last month that I actually got the opportunity to read it and guess what happened ? Like everybody else I too was so impressed with this debutant author Amrita Mahale’s work. This book was unbelievably good that I couldn’t get out of the story or the characters for a longtime. And then I started to read about the author and her credentials were even more impressive and massive. And I was like I’m going to bring this personality to Nerdy Bookarazzi for the sake of my beloved blog readers, they deserve to know more about this beautiful book and it’s very efficient author. So I immediately approached Amrita to do an interview session with me and to my surprise she accepted to do one in no time. And I’m really thankful to her for that.
Amrita Mahale was born in Mumbai and grew up in five cities across India. She studied aerospace engineering at IIT Bombay and Stanford University. Amrita was part of the Sangam House writing residency in 2017-18 and her writing has appeared in Hindustan Times, Scroll, Himal Southasian and Brown Paper Bag. And Milk Teeth is her first novel.
As I told you, very impressive right ?
First of all, Thank you so much Amrita for doing this interview session with me. I’m super excited to have you here in Nerdy Bookarazzi. I hope you will enjoy this session as much as I do. So let’s get into it. My first question for you is a bit usual one but I still can’t stop myself from asking it, so when did you first realize you have this incredible talent in writing and how did you proceed with it ?
I have wanted to be a writer since I was very young. I started reading when I was five years old and my love for books and stories went hand in hand with wanting to tell stories myself. I took part in writing competitions in school, but I only wrote my first full short story in my twenties.
How did writing help you develop as a person ?
Writing is a chance to have a long, thoughtful conversation with yourself. It forces you to think deeply about the world and your place in it, and it is a chance to make connections between the things you see and hear that you would not have done otherwise. It also teaches you to be patient and persistent, to pay more attention to the world around you.
Your career switch was very drastic, as everybody says “A Rocket Scientist turned Writer” it sounds really classy but despite all that, in reality how does it feel to finally be able to follow your dream ? And how supportive were your family with this decision of yours ?
It feels wonderful! It took me a long time to find the courage to follow my dream, and I am very glad it happened. My family was very supportive, because they had heard me talk about wanting to be a writer since I was a child.
How did you nurture your writing skill ? Did you take any writing course ? Can you tell us about it ?
The first step to becoming a good writer is reading a lot – reading widely across genres is a great habit. But it was only after I started writing seriously that I started reading like a writer, which means paying attention to what makes stories and sentences work. I also took two short writing classes when I was living in San Francisco. These classes had writing assignments that forced me to get into the discipline of writing regularly.
In Milk Teeth, The City of Bombay and most importantly Matunga played a very major role. How did the idea of giving so much importance to a city and the aroma surrounding it came about in your mind in the first place ?
I have always loved cities and I am fascinated by how cities change and evolve, and what the changing look and feel of a city tells us about its shifting culture and identity. That said, I did not consciously set out to write a novel about Bombay / Mumbai. It happened very organically, where the story of the city and the neighborhood started becoming as interesting as the story of the protagonists and the city naturally began to take up more space in the book.
You have written about many pressing issues that has taken place in the country and you have also included the painful episode of Babri Masjid demolition, Bombay riot, Bombay Blast and stuff. What inspired you to write about them ?
I wanted to set the novel in a time before mobile phones and the internet became ubiquitous, when secrets were easier to keep, and separation and reconnection held more meaning (all of which are quite essential to the plot of the book). I wanted to explore what sudden change does to a society and the 90s is such a fascinating, defining decade in the history of this country. Once I picked that period, I had to examine these events, because they shaped modern India to such a great extent.
While writing political matters with brutal honesty, you tend to make some enemies. So has this thought ever stopped you from writing things more vividly ? And how important do you think it is for an author to have political views and opinions ?
In fact, I think I took on these political matters very gently! Most writers I know have strong political views. Politics touches every aspect of life after all, so it’s hard not to. But a good writer should be able to treat all characters with empathy, even if these characters don’t share their political views.
Two things that deeply affected me while reading your book was the struggles faced by the gay community and the pain endured by the muslims in India. How difficult was it to write something so sensitive ? And do you think the situation has improved or worsen in 2020 ?
I would say the situation has improved for gay people, with Section 377 being scrapped and the increased visibility of gay people in public life and on screen and in books. We still have a long way to go in ensuring equal opportunities and equal respect for the queer community, but nobody would disagree that we have come a long way since the 90s. Unfortunately, it’s hard to say the same about Muslims. Islamophobia has only become worse in the past 20 years and has entered the mainstream. Just look at Twitter and some of the disgusting hashtags that trend there. I remain hopeful that a vast majority of Indians believe in the founding ideal of secularism, but the ones who don’t are getting louder every day.
Many writers used to say, finish a book while you are still into the story. You have told several times it took you four years to finish Milk Teeth, how challenging was it to stay in the same story and work on it again and again to make it as perfect as it is now ?
The story itself evolved over that period. I started with a clear sense of who the characters were but I did not have the full story pinned down. The details of the story came to me slowly in the time it took me to write the novel. I am a bit of a perfectionist, and I really enjoy editing and polishing, so I didn’t mind the process.
You have quoted “…..hate was only shedding its milk teeth” As a reader you know how exciting it must be to finally be able to correlate the story with its title and your book really made me really happy when I did that connection. So how did you settle on this title ? Did you decide on it right from the very beginning or it happened on the due course ? Tell us a little bit about it.
The manuscript went through many names, starting with ‘Amoeba, Inkblot’. The name that stuck for the longest time was ‘Common Ground’, that’s the name under which I submitted the novel to agents and publishers. Neither my publisher nor I loved the name. Then one day, in my final round of edits, I got to the only sentence in the book with the phrase ‘milk teeth’ and the words jumped out at me. Milk teeth evoke childhood, formation, a sense of becoming. The novel is about Ira and Kartik figuring out who they are and finding their place in the world, but it is equally about the changes the Indian middle class went through in the 90s right after liberalization. So it was the perfect title.
I know you are used to success, you were wonderful with your academics and your career but since writing has always been your passion, how did that feel when Milk Teeth started receiving good reviews and when you finally received The JCB Prize for Literature, that too for your debut novel, how was the whole experience ?
I was longlisted for the JCB Prize, I didn’t win it 🙂 The love that the novel has received from readers and the recognition from reviewers and awards has been absolutely wonderful. It is great to know that something you created has given someone joy or comfort, or has shown them a new side of a place they are familiar with. This is why we write!
Oh sorry, I’m ill-informed 😛 So my next question is Milk Teeth has been majorly appreciated by everyone but has anyone criticized it ? I just can’t believe anybody would’ve done that but if so how did you feel about that criticism and how did you handle it?
The response has been overwhelmingly positive. Of course, many reviews have also pointed out the weaker parts of the book and there have been several readers who did not enjoy the book, but that’s very natural. Reading is such a subjective experience. I said this in another interview: to be a writer is to sign up for a lifetime of rejection. Agents, publishers, reviewers, readers – there are so many people who can reject your work that you better grow a thick skin. I try to not get carried away by praise or wounded by criticism, but take it all in my stride
That’s really a good tip for people who aspire to become a writer. Finally what do you feel about this interview ?
This is my first interview for a blog, which makes it very special!
Wow, I’m honored. Once again Thank you so much Amrita for your time and your words, I really enjoyed doing this session with you. And all the very best for you upcoming projects. I’m eagerly waiting to read more from you.