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For author Shabnam Minwalla, the world’s a playground

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Author Shabnam Minwalla agrees it’s only magic that allows her to write books despite being on a full time job of a mother as she talks to Boski Gupta about things close to her heart

From hard core journalist to author of children’ book, Shabnam Minwalla has come a long way. What started as a whimsical revenge resulted in a full-fledged career, and her readers couldn’t be happier. Her stories are not just for children but also about children, and that’s what makes her popular among young readers. Her stories have natural landscapes and real people without relinquishing the charm of storytelling that we have enjoyed as children, and would like our kids to experience. Excerpts from an interview…

Let’s start from the start. Tell us about yourself…


I am a mother of three girls – and that is really my fulltime job. But  amazingly enough – quite by magic – I’ve found myself with a second job. About five years ago, when I was getting fed up of non-stop mummydom, I tried my hand at a book. The first miracle was that `The Six Spellmakers of Dorabji Street’ found a publisher. The second miracle was that the book became a hit – and began being used by book-clubs and schools as readers. Encouraged, I wrote another book, and then another. `What Maya Saw’ is my fifth book. There are two more on the way. And to my astonishment, I am now a ‘Writer of Children’s Books’ (chuckles).

You were a full-time journalist… Was journalism just a path to become an author?

I was 10 years old when I decided to be a writer. We had to fill in a page in our Moral Science workbook and the question popped up: What do you want to be when you grow up? I thought about it and realised that the answer was simple – I loved writing, so it made perfect sense that I should become a writer. The bigger question was how to go about this. Journalism seemed a good place to start, especially as I’m quite inquisitive. So when I was in college I trained with various magazines. Motoring, for which I wrote dull articles about changing traffic regulations and interviewed bus drivers. Eve’s Weekly, for which I wrote about stuff like flower arrangements. Then after an MA in journalism from the US, I returned to a job in the Times of India. I was a fulltime journalist for 10 years and loved every minute of it. But once my daughters came along, it was no longer practical.

Was the first book just there in your mind or did it come to you eventually?

Many things went into that first book. It all actually began when I was attending an open day at my daughter’s ballet class. It was a very strict and propah class, and the girls were supposed to arrive in their tutus with tight buns. The teacher was a martinet, who scolded the mothers for various things, including sloppy hairdoes. On that dreadful evening, she summoned my daughter Aaliya to the front of the room and made her sit in front of all the mummies and other pink ballerinas and began to undo her bun, pin by pin. All the while conducting a running commentary on the mistakes I had made. All the other mothers looked at me pityingly.

I was hot, red and furious at the end of this public lesson in bun-making. “I’m going to teach this woman a lesson,” I decided. “I will…I will…I will make her a character in a book.”

Now, once you have a villian, you need protagonists. So I created six children to play that part. Then I needed a point of friction. It was then that I remembered the bimbli trees in my building garden when I was a girl. We adored those trees – much to the aggravation of our grumpy neighbours. Years later, when I was in university, I heard that the trees had been cut down by one of those neighbours. I was heartbroken.

I decided that even if I couldn’t save the trees in real life, I would save them in fiction.

Children’s book or young adult fiction is not what every first-time writer wants to venture into? Did motherhood motivate you to write for children?

Definitely! I really wanted to write a murder mystery for adults. But we don’t have a TV, so I spent so much time reading books to my children – Magic Faraway Tree, Winnie the Pooh, Horrid Henry, Dr Seuss, Mr Pinkwhistle – that I ended up writing a book for children. And then another, and another.

What Maya Saw is for older children. Perhaps because my children are growing up – my characters are growing up with them.

Do you think we need more books for kids?

Yes. We certainly do. My daughters are big readers and they are always short of books. We are members of two libraries, we buy on Amazon, we buy on Kindle. But we always seem short of the right kind of reading material which means they end up reading all those silly, badly written vampire series and books packed with frightening violence. There is an even greater need for contemporary books set in India – books that talk to our children and connect with them. So I am happy that there’s so much happening in the publishing world in India.

How did you motivate your girls to read?

As we’ve never had a TV, my three girls read. It’s become a habit. So although they now have phones and access to Youtube and Netflix, they still read a lot. Not all my daughters started out as readers. But I was persistent. I kept getting different kinds of books and leaving them lying around the house. Often, I would read the first three chapters of a book aloud — and then encourage the girls to finish the books themselves. I believe that if children find certain books relevant and interesting, they will read. The trick is to find books that touch a chord with them.

More and more, parents and teacher are realising that children who read have many advantages – they are articulate and creative. They have a rich inner world and imagination.

You are mom to three children. How do you spend any regular day? When do you get time to write?

The minute my girls get onto their bus at 7.53 am, I rush to the computer. Then I drink endless cups of green tea and get down to the business of writing. Sometimes it is a food column or feature for a newspaper; sometimes a book review for a magazine. But most often, nowadays, I spend my time writing books for children. For the first four or five hours of every morning, I avoid all distractions. I tackle emails, errands, phonecalls, grocery-shopping after lunch. Then, of course, once my daughters get home in the evening,things are frenetic. Homework, music practice, chatting about the day takes us till bedtime. The great thing about writing fiction, though, is that so much goes on in your head. I often plan my next chapter or tackle knotty narrative problems during long car rides. Many, many tricky bits of `What Maya Saw’ were worked out in the middle of traffic jams.

What do you think are the problems of working moms of today?

When you have two fulltime jobs, life is a constant tug of war. Priorities have to be decided every couple of hours – and that’s no fun. However much you do, you feel you are neglecting something. I am fortunate in that my writing – both articles and books – allows me a lot of flexibility. Even so, there are constant decisions to make – can I attend the Chandigarh Lit Fest or should I be here because my daughter has music exams; should I wrap up my article or head to school for a costume meeting. Uggh.

Have any of your children motivated you in the formation of story or characters in your books?

Being with children for so much of the day helps me to remember what it was like to be a child – the pressures and joys that are so magnified when you are young. My daughters also keep me in touch with the lingo, the aspirations and the trends of the moment. My characters borrow a little bit from my daughters at the beginning of every book – but by the middle they have acquired very definite personalities that are distinctly their own.

I get ideas and inspiration everywhere. `What Maya Saw’ began in a strange way. My college in Mumbai had turned 140 years old and had asked me to work on a book about its history. As a result, I spent long hours in the college library, doing research. One afternoon, I was almost alone and I looked up suddenly and thought I saw a strange creature walking past. It was a trick of light, of course. But I started wondering – What if it had been real? And that’s how `What Maya Saw’ was born.

Do you believe in magic?

I think so. I believe that if you want something very badly, and work towards it, the universe conspires to make it happen. Sometimes at least.

The Six Spellmakers of Dorabji Street is based in Mumbai, so is What Maya Saw. Can this busy city be actually up for magical stories?

I grew up in Mumbai – but all the stories that I read were based in small-town America or the English countryside. So, as a child, I seriously believed that it was impossible to find magic and adventure in drab Mumbai. Which is both sad and ridiculous. This is one reason why I started setting my stories in Mumbai. I wanted children to know that you can find magic and and adventure everywhere. You just need to know how to look for it. In `What Maya Saw’, the city is not just a mute background but an active element in the story – especially the part which involves a historic cluehunt. It is my tribute to my crazy, magnificent city. And also an attempt to get children to look at their surroundings and realise that the past is never very far away.

I really liked that your Supergirl (though a supergirl) is very shy. We generally make being introvert a negative trait in personality.

I wanted to write about a character who – while seemingly shy and ordinary – was extraordinarily perceptive. Often we tend to overlook people who do not promote themselves and stay in the background. But sometimes it is these people who can see through facades to the heart of the matter. This is true of Nina in Shy Supergirl – and has contributed to making the book a hit. Many children come and tell me that they are very shy, but believe that they too have hidden powers. Which is just wonderful to hear. This is also true of Maya in `What Maya Saw’. Maya is considered a studious geek by her classmates. But beneath the awkward clothes andnervous exterior lies goodness, courage and unexpected wit.

Who are your favourite characters from your books?

I have a soft spot for my baddies. Mrs Kotadia in Six Spellmakers is the neighbour from hell. Mrs Rangachari in` The Strange Haunting of Model High School’ is the sort of teacher we have all encountered and learnt to dread. Gershwin in `Lucky Girl’ is the class bully with the brains of a pea.

In `What Maya Saw’ though, I have two favourite characters. Lola, who is Maya’s peppy friend with a passion for uncomfortable, glamorous shoes. And Sanath, the boy from Sri Lanka who Maya is attracted to – but suspicious of at the same time. They both bring colour and light to a dark book – and into Maya’s life.

What are you reading these days? Which are your all time favourite five books, and authors?

My favourite authors are Jane Austen, Raymond Chandler, Sue Grafton, Georgette Heyer, Kate Atkinson, Michael Connolly, Ian Rankin and so, so many more. I love mysteries – and consume them by the library. My favourite five books for children are: the William series, Paddington Bear, the Magic Faraway Tree series, Anne of Green Gables and To Kill a Mockingbird.

What advice would you give to the new writers?

Write. Like any other craft or skill, you can only write if you write. Don’t wait for inspiration and that perfect, whole idea. Instead, get inspiration from the little things you see around you – in the newspapers, on the road – and start the process of writing. That is the best way to get ideas flowing. Also, the minute you get an idea, put it down on paper. Don’t let it fly away – it may never come back.

This is your debut in JLF. How do literary fests help writers? Or do they at all?

I think they help in a couple of ways. They bring us face-to-face with our audiences and they give us visibility. Also, writing is essentially a lonely profession. These lit fests give us a chance to meet other writers and have a good gossip! The problem is that sometimes there are so many lit fests and workshops and panel discussions on the annual calendar, that it seems as if we are speaking more than writing. Which can become stressful and irritating.

Writers have always been unseen celebs, they like to be known by what they write and not how they look. Do you think social media and too much contact with readers steals the enigma of an author?

I love meeting my readers – essentially children of different age groups. And I think the encounter thrills them as well. I do a lot of sessions in schools but am not too active on social media. I am reclusive by nature – and hate the idea of telling the world what I am eating and where I am going. I’m not on Facebook but my books are. Sadly, it must be the sleepiest Facebook page in cyberspace. In any case, I want my characters to be uppermost in the minds of the readers – not me

Many writers complain that fests and launches make them act like a celeb pressured to perform in front of an audience. What do you think?

The business of performing has become very important and rather stressful. At each of these lit fests, we are constantly asking each other, “How did the session go?” First we need to draw a crowd. Then we need to entertain the crowd – which is not necessarily what we do best. Certainly, I find this aspect of being a writer more nerve-wracking than the actual writing.

There’s also the talk of discrimination by organisers between well-known writers and not so popular writers…

I usually go the Children’s Lit Fests, which are happy, sweet events. I’ve had super experiences at Tata Lit Live too. I am taking part in the Jaipur Lit Fest for the first time. I have heard writers talk about how the big names get a better deal than the not-so-big names –but in the world of children’s literature in India, there is none of that.

There’s also the issue of writers not being paid that much for the appearance at the fests… What’s your view?

Every lit fest has its own rules. Some pay a bit, some don’t. Some take care of hospitality, others don’t. I only attend those festivals that work for me – or that my publishers are keen that I attend.

Do you enjoy being a celeb author or you are old school type?

I’m not a celeb author. I’m happiest when I’m in front of my computers, sipping green tea and typing away. I’m most nervous when I have to “package myself and my product”. I love meeting the children who have read my books. It’s fascinating to know how they interpret certain situations, which characters they like, which they dislike. `Strange Haunting’, for example, is the story of three friends in a Mumbai school. Lara is the protagonist –an academic topper who tends to worry. Mallika is the popular one. Sunu is the third friend – sensible and normal. I was amazed that it was Sunu who was most popular with the readers. This was something I hadn’t expected.

Meeting your readers sometimes helps you look at your own book from another angle.