Amrita Mahale is the author of the novel Milk Teeth, published by Westland Context. Her writing has appeared in Hindustan Times, Scroll, Himal Southasian and Brown Paper Bag. She was trained as an aerospace engineer and is a product manager at a nonprofit research lab working on AI for social good. Here’s a sneak peak of a conversation I had with her.
1. You were in a career of aeronautical engineering, so what made you move towards writing?
I studied aerospace engineering – first as an undergraduate at IIT Bombay and then as a graduate student at Stanford – but I have never worked in the aeronautical industry! I worked in management consulting and technology start-ups for nearly a decade before I started writing my novel. I have wanted to be a writer since I was a child. One thing was always clear to me: no matter what I studied or where I worked, I would work towards being a writer. I started with baby steps, writing alongside my full-time job, but a few years in I decided to quit my job to focus on my novel.
2. How did you come up with the plot of this story?
It happened slowly, over a period of several years. I have now thought about the three protagonists and the issues they struggle with for almost a decade now. The starting point for the novel was the idea of a prophecy that comes true for the most unexpected reasons: a prophecy that these two childhood friends would grow up and get married, even though have very different lives and personalities. It was a time in my life when I was thinking a lot about the kinds of social pressures that compel people to make certain decisions. This evolved into the idea that sometimes prophecies are redundant because people live the same lives over and over again, that their lives are scripted by social pressures more than by fate. I decided to tell this story against the backdrop of a rapidly changing country and the book became something bigger than just the story of two friends.
3. I noticed that none of your characters in the story pursue mainstream careers like engineering or law or doctorate. Why’s that?
One protagonist does, but two don’t (one of the characters is a journalist, the other is an architect). It was a conscious decision. If all my characters did what I do for a living, what new things would I have learnt? I am very interested in cities, in heritage buildings, architecture, and urban planning and development. Civic journalism and architecture were two lenses through which I could explore these topics.
4. Since this book is set in a middle-class Mumbai suburb and is a definite treat to those who are familiar with the city, do you think it will have the same impact on a non Mumbaikar?
I think so, because the main themes of the story are pretty universal. It’s a coming of age story, it’s a story about love and friendship, about young people trying to find their place in changing world while remaining true to an idea they have of themselves. Of course, people familiar with Mumbai will see more layers in the book. Readers from Mumbai seem to have loved that I don’t name many of the landmarks and restaurants I describe in the novel. The book works perfectly well without those details, but for Mumbai locals, there’s an added thrill of being in the know.
5. I found the title Milk Teeth to be very interesting. How did you come up with it? What does it exactly refer to?
Milk teeth evoke childhood and a sense of becoming. They are signs of growth, of coming of age. The novel itself is about these characters figuring out who they are and finding their place in the world, and it’s also about all the changes the Indian middle class and the city of Mumbai went through in the 90s right after liberalisation. The phrase ‘milk teeth’ appears just once in the novel, in a passage that refers to the peace after the 1993 Mumbai blasts. It was only when I was on draft number four that the words jumped out at me: it hit me that this was the perfect title.
6. From childhood, you have travelled and lived in different cities, but it seems like you have a strong affinity towards Mumbai. Is this the reason for choosing it as the base of your book or was it just a coincidence?
Certainly not a coincidence. I was born in Mumbai but spent most of my childhood in Gujarat, till I moved back to the city as a teenager. My entire extended family – grandparents, aunts and uncles and aunts, cousins – was in Mumbai, so my summer and winter vacations were spent there. And my own family moved every two years, so the sense of continuity in my childhood came from spending all my vacations in Mumbai. It is the place I have always thought of as home and it is the city I know best.
7. According to you, what entails the chaos of putting a novel together? How did you navigate your way through this chaos while writing your debut novel?
Writing fiction is a pretty chaotic process. You are literally making things up, creating something out of almost nothing. This chaos becomes easier to navigate if you start at the heart of your story and expand outwards. It’s important to ask yourself what your story is really about. Each time I was stuck, I would go back to what I really wanted to say and that would guide me to some extent.
8. Which part of the writing process do you particularly hate?
Most of it, haha. The process of writing is mostly torture, far less fun than thinking about writing. It is boring, grueling, and a test of grit and patience more than anything else. The novel Shalimar the Clown (by Salman Rushdie) has this wonderful line: “Sometimes your heart’s desire hung from the highest branch of the highest tree and you could never climb high enough to reach it. Or else you just waited patiently and it fell into your lap.” This happens with writing as well. You play with scenarios and combinations of words, you turn over many possibilities in your head. For the longest time, nothing works. Then suddenly, things fall into place. It feels like magic but it really is a reward for not giving up.
9. People often re-read books they love. Do you do the same? According to you, is that a good thing or a bad thing?
I rarely reread entire books, maybe two or three a year, but I revisit scenes and chapters very often. Reading is a good thing, but what you read, how many books you read a year, and how often you reread books, that’s all up to the reader. Nobody should be judged for these decisions.
10. Now that Milk Teeth is out and is quite successful, what are your future plans?
I am working on a second book, but it’s too early to talk about it. I have only written a few pages so far.
11. Message to your readers.
To my readers I would say: Don’t give up on reading, even though your generation has more distractions and more amusements on offer than mine did. Books build bridges to new worlds and offer new ways of looking at the familiar. And even if it might seem that TV and movies do the same things, books are different: reading is about the exercising the imagination, it is about learning to spend time with yourself.
I would like to thank Amrita Mahale for agreeing to this interview and giving me time out of her busy schedule.