Author Interview : Aruna Nambiar

“Forget about trends, forget about rules and tell a story you want to tell,” says Aruna Nambiar, author of Mango Cheeks, Metal Teeth, our book in focus this month. 

In-house Melonite M carries the conversation forward with her. 

How would you explain your cheeky and cute title – Mango Cheeks, Metal Teeth?

I’ve always been a fan of the quirky title – I’ve picked up books purely based on titles that have intrigued me, and more often than not, I’ve loved the books. So I guess I’ve always wanted a quirky title – but especially for this book, because it is a fun, quirky, eccentric book and I wanted the title to reflect the tone and essence of the book. The meaning is clear once you read the book – it refers to two of the characters in the story.

While everyone is writing romance and thrillers, you have chosen a unique genre. Tell us what prompted the story. How would you describe the mood of this book, the basic treatment and setting? As readers we got the feeling of nostalgia as the most prominent mood of the book.

I would call the mood of the book gentle, funny and poignant. As I started writing, I found the book taking on this merry note, and at some point, I actually stepped back to review if it was an appropriate tone, because the central theme of the novel is serious.

Once I decided that the humour was working well with the serious idea, I surrendered to the irreverent tone of the book, and then it was a question of treading that line between frivolity and seriousness, reality and absurdity, poignancy and jollity. My hope was for the reader to laugh much while reading the book, but perhaps pause at the end to reflect on the deeper issues that the novel deals with.

The rest of it was all about setting and framework. Although I was born in the seventies, most of my coherent memories of growing up are from the eighties. It was a different era – pre-liberalisation, simple, frugal, with none of the post-liberalisation commercialism or technology, and a time that many of us remember with fondness. I wanted to capture for posterity what it was like to grow up in that era, and thus decided to set my story in a small town in Kerala in the Eighties.

As for genre, the book would probably fall into the coming-of-age and humour genres, although it wasn’t something I thought about at all while writing the book. There was a story I wanted to tell and my only thought was to tell it to the best of my ability. And a couple of themes I wanted to explore: the coming-of-age moment when children awaken to the social inequities around them, and how it changes them, subtly but surely, for better or worse; and our relationship with our domestic help and the inherent interdependence, double standards and prejudices on both sides.

Geeta is a sweet, eleven-year-old girl and the story is told through her eyes. From an author’s perspective who is Geeta? Anyone you know? Tell us more about her.
Geeta is every urban eleven-year-old girl of a particular socio-economic class of that time – a typical, self-absorbed, sheltered, convent-educated ‘townie’ whose prime concerns are whether her mother will allow her to grow her hair after the lice outbreak in school, or how she can finally beat her older cousins at card games. When her life intersects with those of the more worldly domestic help, she loses some of her innocence.

Geeta is me in a way, although people who know me may question the ‘sweet’ bit! Certainly some of her preoccupations, experiences and responses would be similar to mine at that age. But then there’s a bit of me also in silly, awkward Babu, in Sundarikutty with all her schadenfreude, in feudal old Devaki Amma, in free-spirited Kamala and even in the hypochondriac Valsamma. I think what I’m trying to say is that as writers, we constantly delve into our own psyche to try and make the characters we invent more believable, more real, and thus there’s a little of the author in every character.

The grandparents and ancestral connect is well presented in your story – how did you think of this? Do you think, today’s generation is somehow missing this connect? The innocent childhood days and the summer vacations are mostly spent at the summer camps instead?

A large part of my childhood memories are linked to my summer holidays in the family home in Kerala, with grandparents, aunts and uncles and cousins, and all the fun and chaos that it entailed. For a Bombay girl like me, the big family home with its huge rooms and large garden, its creaking stairs and ghostly shadows, its retinue of servants and its lavish mealtimes, was as exotic as an international resort! And the boisterous time spent playing with cousins and family retainers was cherished and looked forward to with much anticipation. With family homes being sold, joint families becoming a thing of the past, and summer camps and foreign holidays taking precedence, the family holiday in the ancestral home is an experience that is fast-disappearing. And while today’s generation might roll their eyes at the suggestion, I think that this is a great loss for them.

How was the journey to conceptualizing the book to getting published?

I think every story, every novel starts with a little seed of an idea. It came to me that as children we are thoughtlessly accepting of the social differences around us; for instance, we are clothed and fed by the ayah but do not stop to think why she eats from a separate plate or sleeps on the floor instead of on a bed, we play with the maid’s children but don’t question why they wear hand-me-downs and do chores while we get to go to school and play with toys. And yet, in each of our lives, there comes a time when we become aware of the inequities around us – and this awareness affects us in ways that change our nature, and moulds us into the adults that we are to become. This went on to become the central theme of Mango Cheeks, Metal Teeth.

Some of the story has been in my mind for a long time. I always wanted to write about the whole concept and experience of summer vacations in the ancestral home, but I realized that by itself, it was not enough for a novel. Once the idea for Mango Cheeks, Metal Teeth took shape in my mind, I jumped at the opportunity of setting the story during an Eighties summer vacation in a Kerala ancestral house, thus fulfilling a long-held writing dream.

The book took about a year to write and hone before I sent it out to publishers. Then followed a long period of silence, and just as I was thinking about Plan B, Westland got in touch, saying they loved the manuscript. Happiness! It took another year and a half for the book to hit the shelves.

Tell us about yourself and what books have you grown up on.

I’m a student of engineering and management, and a banker in a previous life! But I have been writing for pleasure since childhood, and I have been working as a writer and editor for over ten years now. I have written short stories and travelogues that were published in the anthologies Curtains, The Itinerant Indian, and Winners Vol 1, and written the text for Portrait: Kerala, a coffee table
book about the state. Mango Cheeks, Metal Teeth is my first novel.

As I read and write fluently only in English, I grew up with Enid Blyton and Nancy Drew, Just William and James Herriot, Gerald Durrell and Little Women, Anne of Green Gables and Judy Blume, Adrian Mole and Erma Bombeck. My favourite authors are PG Wodehouse, Daphne Du Maurier, Roald Dahl, Bill Bryson, RK Narayan and Vikram Seth.

Some of my all-time favourite books other than those written by the authors above, in no particular order: Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon, Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman, English, August by Upamanyu Chatterjee, Em and the Big Hoom by Jerry Pinto, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts, On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan, Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding, White Man Falling by Mike Stocks, The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold, Room by Emma Donoghue and One Day by David Nicholls.

Anything that you want to share with first-time authors?

I would say, forget about trends, forget about what other people are writing, what people say you should be writing, forget about rules, and tell a story you want to tell, and tell it to the best of your ability. Be your own worst critic, and rewrite, rewrite, rewrite.

– An initiative to feature notable authors. 
Mango Cheeks, Metal Teeth by Aruna Nambiar is our book in focus this month. 


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