It’s my pleasure to interview torkidlit author, Mahtab Narsimhan. Mahtab’s first published novel, THE THIRD EYE, won the 2009 Silver Birch award; her second book in that series (The Tara Trilogy) was released earlier this year; and she’s got two books scheduled for release in 2011!
Okay, I just want to say one thing right now before I go on: I am surrounded by prolific genius in this Torkidlit Writer’s Group, I tell ya! These people know how to write! And they’re awesome, down-to-earth human beings to boot. Such an amazing and talented group!
Anyway, back to the prolifically awesome, down-to-earth human known as Mahtab. Mahtab is a lovely person and I am truly happy to have her join me for this Toronto Tuesdays segment.
Meet Mahtab Narsimhan.
Please introduce yourself to us.
I’ve often asked this question when interviewing people in my previous job as Operations Head of an IT Consulting firm; give me one word to describe yourself.
I would have to use two words; persistent and adaptable. These two qualities have been key to my success in life and have helped me get to where I am today. Earlier this year Penguin Canada released a book called “Piece by Piece. Stories about fitting into Canada.” I had contributed my own experiences of fitting into Canada which were quite hard yet a great learning experience. Fitting in is very important for a sense of belonging but in a broader sense this is also about finding out about who you are and making the best of it.
Can you tell us a bit about your cultural background?
I was born in Mumbai, India. It was then called Bombay and will always be called that in my mind. I belong to a small community known as the Parsees and Zoroastrianism is my religion.
What are some of your favourite childhood memories?
I have an elder sister, Mazarine and a younger brother, Vicky. We had a lot of freedom when we were growing up and some of my happiest memories are of playing catch or hide and seek in the grounds of a Fire Temple (the Parsee’s place of worship) which was minutes away from home. We lived very close to Marine Drive and that swathe of sidewalk holds some of my fondest memories. I still remember the spicy tangy taste of corn-on-the-cob on my lips as I munched on one of Bombay’s favourite snacks while sheltering from the monsoon downpour. I vividly recall walking along the parapet of the sidewalk all the way from the Gateway of India to Nariman point. These memories are so special and poignant that many have appeared in The Tiffin, my YA novel which will be released by Dancing Cat books in fall 2011.
What aspects of your upbringing do you hold most dear?
My parents always believed that a good education was the key to success in life. They sent all of us to private schools and encouraged reading in a very big way. Every summer we would be allowed to buy tons of books to tide us over till we went back to school. My staples when growing up used to be Enid Blyton, C.S. Lewis, Roald Dahl, and Astrid Lindgren among others. I also loved reading comics and the Amar Chitra Katha series illustrated Indian culture, mythology and folklore very well. I am so very thankful to my mom for instilling a love of reading in me at a very early age.
Were there any specific events or people that were instrumental in forming you as a writer?
I’ve always been a avid reader but I did not start writing till early 2004. In 2003 my dad was diagnosed with cancer and within two months of that, he passed away. It was a sudden and devastating event. As always, I turned to books to cope with this difficult time. I’d always loved fantasy and adventure as it was a form of escape from the harsh realities of life. Around the same time I also starting writing about incidents from my past so I wouldn’t forget the life we all shared as a family before we went our separate ways. These scribblings gave me the idea of writing a book to encompass everything I love; fantasy, adventure, Indian mythology and a really good story. That is how The Third Eye was born.
When and how did you make your first book sale?
The road to publication of The Third Eye had quite a few pot holes. It took me about a year and a half to write it. I then tried to get an agent and was lucky enough to land one. Unluckily she was not at all right for me or my manuscript and rejections poured in. She gave up on me after about eight months of trying to place the book and we parted ways. I was quite devastated at the time and ready to give up. But I had invested so much time, effort and sweat into this book that I was compelled to see it through. Also this was written as a tribute to my dad. I told myself that only when every publisher in the world said no, I’d put this manuscript aside.
I joined a critique group run by Marsha Skrypuch called Kidcrit. Fellow writers who are now close friends such as Helaine Becker, Helene Boudreau, Deborah Kerbel and Marina Cohen, among others, helped me streamline the manuscript. At an OLA conference in Jan 2007 my life changed forever. Marsha introduced me to Barry Jowett, the editorial director at Dundurn. He requested to see my manuscript. I sent it to him expecting yet another rejection. Two years of rejection had primed me too well to hope for anything else. To my shock and utter amazement, he said yes. Dundurn wanted to publish my book. It was a week of walking on air, a few months of agony as the contract was finalized and signed and then the joy of holding my first book in my hands knowing that this was born out of countless hours of writing and rewriting and not giving up.
And now you’re such a busy lady! You’ve got two books out already and another two scheduled for release next year. First, tell us about your current series, The Tara Trilogy.
The Tara Trilogy is a fantasy adventure based in India, featuring a flawed yet endearing protagonist, Tara. In each of the three books in the series, she is on a quest and has to face many hurdles, internal and external, before she can succeed. These quests test her courage, her morals and above all belief in herself. India’s diverse culture and aspects of Hindu mythology are seamlessly woven into the plot to enrich the narrative, and expose many young readers to an exciting and unfamiliar (or familiar) world. Today’s middle-grade fiction abounds in protagonists from Europe or America with very few representative of the Asian Subcontinent. This trilogy, I hope, will fill that gap.
In the first book in the series; THE THIRD EYE, Tara has to save her village from an evil healer, Zarku, and find her mother and grandfather who had disappeared without any explanation. Tara has to endure a lot of hardships and on a deeper level, this story deals with the issue of belief in oneself. Tara is deathly afraid of the unknown and of coping with drastic changes in her life. With change comes uncertainty and fear. What if I can’t do it? What if I fail? Readers the world over will identify with Tara as she struggles to cope with the challenges that life throws at her, and to keep going despite initial failure.
In the second book, THE SILVER ANKLET, Tara’s brother, Suraj, and two other children are snatched by hyenas from a local fair. Tara and her friends decide to save the children on their own. But Tara soon discovers that her nemesis, Zarku, is back and intent on revenge. Tara is faced with a tough moral choice; to put all her friends in danger or to face it alone so that the others can survive.
In the third book, THE DEADLY CONCH, Tara has to face her last foe; her evil step-sister, Layla, who is guided by her mother, Kali, from the Underworld. Layla cunningly manipulates events so that the villagers of Morni, and even Tara’s own family, turn against her. Tara calls out to Lord Yama for help using the conch he had given her. He allows her to visit the Underworld, which leads to a harrowing journey and an exciting dénouement.
In this last book, the narrative arc of the trilogy loops back to the original theme of belief in oneself. Tara has lost the support and trust of everyone she holds dear and yet she finds the strength to make the right choices. This story deals with courage, moral choices, self-sacrifice and the destructive power of herd mentality and blind belief; all very real issues and challenges that young people face today.
The first goal of The Tara Trilogy is to entertain and enthrall readers so that these books, which took years to write, will be devoured within days. However, I do hope that discerning readers will instinctively grasp the character-building themes that are subtle yet ever present in these fast-paced novels and strive to emulate them.
A quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson beautifully and succinctly captures the essence of this trilogy; “What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.”
How much of your cultural upbringing influences your writing?
The cultural aspect, e.g. the food, clothing, locale etc was easy to write about since I lived in Mumbai for most of my life. Indian Mythology can be quite complex and confusing and that took a fair bit of research. I’m still finding out interesting facts about the various Gods and Goddesses especially their Avatars. Only the very interesting bits make it into my books and are woven through the plot to make the narrative richer.
THE THIRD EYE won the 2009 Silver Birch Award. Tell us about that experience.
FANTASTIC! It was a truly memorable moment filing onto the stage with my fellow nominees, cheered on by thousands of screaming fans. It was so evident that these kids loved books, that they wanted to be here and were not shy about expressing their joy as their favourites appeared.
It was a heart-stopping moment when the runner ups were announced. Since my name wasn’t mentioned, my heart sank a little. I was hoping THE THIRD EYE would be (at the very least) a second or third choice of the readers. Words fail me when I try to describe that ecstatic moment when they announced that THE THIRD EYE had won! I wanted to cry, faint and dance, all at the same time! I have no idea what I said in the acceptance speech except thank you…many times over.
That feeling of euphoria, the sense of unreality lasted all through summer. Even now, over a year later, when I am blue, I pull that memory out, examine it, remember it and unfailingly…it lifts my spirits. I’ve hung the Award (a girl sitting under a tree and reading) on the wall behind the desk where I sit to write. Whenever I’m having a tough time with a particular manuscript or just want to give up, all I have to do is look up and I’m back on track!
Can you tell us anything about your new book THE TIFFIN?
This story is very dear to my heart because it contains so many of my own childhood memories. In writing it, it was as if through the main character, Kunal, I was roaming the streets of Bombay once again. It springs from a sentence I read a long time ago in a book called “Illusions” by Richard Bach. The quote goes;
“The bond that links your true family is not one of blood, but of respect and joy in each other’s life. Rarely do members of one family grow up under the same roof.”
And here is the synopsis;
A tiffin-box containing an important message goes astray, irrevocably changing the life of a young woman, her lover and their son, Kunal. Years later, abandoned and alone, 14 year old Kunal leads a wretched existence, believing he is an orphan. An almost fatal incident leads him to discover he has a mother after all and he is compelled to search for her in a city of millions. Kunal finally tracks her down only to realize that he had already found his real family; one based on respect and friendship, rather than blood.
THE TIFFIN is a YA novel set in the vibrant city of Mumbai with its ubiquitous dabbawallas; men who deliver home-cooked food to the millions of white-collar workers throughout the city. This hundred and fifty year-old service is unique to Mumbai and is an integral part of the plot. The illiterate tiffin-carriers use a primitive alpha-numeric code for deliveries, and yet achieve ninety-nine percent accuracy. This story is a result of that one error in a hundred. This book will be released in September 2011 by Dancing Cat Books, an imprint of Cormorant Books.
What advice would you give your pre-pubbed self?
Have faith in yourself. This is something I always forget when I start a new novel. As I write it, I think it’s utter rubbish. I despair that I’ll never be able to write a “good” story again and that I’m useless. Then the first draft is completed. I put it away and come back to it a month or so later with fresh eyes. That is when I realize that there is potential and some great stuff in there along with a lot of terrible stuff that needs to be rewritten or thrown out altogether. As I rewrite, the story gets sleeker, stronger and more polished. When I finally see it in book form, I wonder how I could ever have doubted myself? I have only to wait till I start the next novel to answer my own question J
Can you share a favourite quote?
“Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars” by Les Brown.
Thank you so much for sharing a bit of your cultural and writing self with us, Mahtab! And congratulations again on your two forthcoming titles!