On Writing, with Mahtab Narsimhan
Mahtab Narsimhan is the author of The Tiffin (Dancing Cat Books), a YA novel set in Bombay (Mumbai) that centers around the massive dabbawalla industry, where millions of lunches are delivered daily to white-collar workers without error. Her novel is the story of when one such delivery goes awry. The Tiffin was selected as A Quill & Quire Book of the Year for 2011.
Open Book talks with Mahtab about drawing inspiration from the streets of Bombay, Harry Potter and those who have influenced her writing most.
Tell us about your book, The Tiffin.
The Tiffin is a middle-grade novel set in the vibrant city of Bombay 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 Bombay and is an integral part of the plot. The illiterate tiffin-carriers use a primitive alpha-numeric code for deliveries, and yet achieve near-perfect accuracy. This story is a result of that one error in six million.
A tiffin-box containing an important message goes astray, irrevocably changing the life of a young woman and her son, Kunal. Years later, abandoned and alone, 12-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’s journey finally leads him to discover the true meaning of family.
How did you become interested in the dabbawallas of Mumbai (Bombay)?
During my teen years, I commuted to college in the packed-beyond-capacity local trains, alongside the dabbawallas. I used to be very annoyed with them because their only mission was to get the meals to their customers on time. They didn’t care who was inconvenienced in the bargain.
It was only when I started thinking of a story based in Bombay that the dabbawallas came to mind. My research led me to discover just how unique and fascinating this service was with their impeccable teamwork to maintain their accuracy of deliveries. I knew then, this was going to be a very important aspect of the story.
Your character Kunal goes through an incredibly difficult experience. Was it challenging emotionally to write about his life?
Absolutely! Kunal faces a very harsh life but he is not unique. Recently, India crossed the one billion mark in size of population. This story is set in the 1980s when India was already bursting at the seams, and the middle and lower classes struggled to eke out an existence. Orphaned or abandoned children faced a wretched and dangerous existence and honestly, it was heartbreaking to see them. You had to develop a tough exterior, a sort of immunity to this pitiful life or you’d go to pieces. I managed this quite well while I lived there. But during my visit to Bombay this year, after having been away for ten years, I found I was devastated by the poverty and hardship that still existed.
I wanted to make readers aware of the contrast in the quality of life, even today, between a child in a developed and a developing nation. But I also wanted to end the story on a hopeful note because these street kids are smart, resourceful, and loveable, too! And there’s always a silver lining to any situation, if only you have the courage and the heart to look for it.
What recurring themes or obsessions do you notice turning up in your writing?
Courage and belief in oneself. This was the theme for the Tara Trilogy. The constancy of change and how to deal with it on your own. Also, that true family is the meeting of the souls and minds, and not necessarily a blood bond.
Who are some people who have deeply influenced (fellow writers or not) your writing life?
Rohinton Mistry's A Fine Balance was my favourite.
Tim Wynne-Jones. He was my mentor at The Humber School of Creative Writing for The Tiffin.
Richard Bach's Illusions, The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah; it was a quote in this book (page 84) that is at the heart of The Tiffin. Here it is: “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.”
Kahlil Gibran's The Prophet. Of his repertoire, this was my absolute favourite.
Is there a book you’ve read recently that you wished you had written?
The Harry Potter series. It continues to be my favourite fantasy series because of the brilliant characters and imagination of J.K. Rowling. Her world-building and clever use of words/names/spells is sheer genius!
What are you working on now?
At the moment I’m working on a futuristic novel, the first of a trilogy (Powerless), which is an extrapolation of our situation today; the energy crisis, the over-dependence on technology and bizarre weather patterns caused by the greenhouse effect. It’s a survival story and simply described as The Matrix meets The Amazing Race. At least that’s what it is now. Once I’ve polished the draft a few times, it might very well have changed course tremendously. In spite of detailed plotting, sometimes the characters take over and it’s fun to watch the story take on a life of its own.
In a nutshell this is what Powerless is about:
Four teens, two alliances fighting for the title of Super Power, and a race for the Holy Grail of Science. Or it’s lights out. Forever.