Amrita Mahale on her debut book Milk Teeth, Mumbai's redevelopment and finding the courage to tell her story
Mahale conceived Milk Teeth around a prophecy but the story slowly evolved into a look at middle-class society and all the privileges that this group internalises, its inflated sense of self-worth, the need to move forward and the kind of pressures that are put on members of this community
Amrita Mahale did not grow up in Mumbai. Born in this city of dreams, she moved to Gujarat and spent her childhood in five different cities and ten schools. Yet, she inevitably found herself in Mumbai during every vacation amidst a swarm of extended family and cousins.
It was through their interactions with neighbours, friends and the middle-class of the 1990s, coupled with a cityscape that spelled redevelopment, that Mahale created Asha Nivas, a fictional housing society in Matunga and its residents, gearing up to face the looming shadows of reconstruction and modernity.
Mahale’s debut novel Milk Teeth explores these trials through the lives of her protagonists, Ira and Kartik — neighbours and childhood friends — as they struggle to come to terms with the overbearing societal norms that overpower their identities, shape their decisions.
In an interview with Firstpost, Mahale discusses how she birthed life into her characters, her shift from a career in management consulting and technology to becoming a full-time writer, and her brother’s courage that compelled her to delve deeper into herself and ask, “What if someone like me had been in my brother’s shoes? What would I have done?”
What prompted this move towards writing following an education and career in aeronautical engineering and how did you conceive of this story?
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 aerospace industry. I worked in management consulting and technology start-ups for nearly a decade before I started writing my novel. I think I have wanted to be a writer since I was a child. For the longest time, I wrote nothing — in spite of the strong desire to write — because I had nothing to say. For a first-time writer, more important than raw talent is actually having something to say and I finally started writing when I had a story to tell. This novel took a total of four years to write but about two years of full-time work.
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 one is gay and the other is in love with another man. This is now a very small part of the book. 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. And slowly that became a look at middle-class society and all the privileges that this group internalises, its inflated sense of self-worth, and what happens when this sense of self-worth is thwarted by modern urban life.
What prompted the title of your book?
The phrase 'Milk Teeth' appears just once in the novel. The passage describes the time right after the Bombay blasts in 1993, when there was an unexpected spell of peace after many months of rioting and communal violence. There is a character who’s thinking about this period, about how the cycle of violence did not continue but in many ways the fabric of the city itself changed, so this spell of peace that followed was like hate was shedding its milk teeth.
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 Bombay went through in the 90s right after liberalisation — so the name seemed fitting.
How according to you does the issue of redevelopment change the narrative of a city? Does it obliterate our roots or does it sow the seeds for posterity?
I don’t know if I have a simple yes or no answer to whether redevelopment is good for the city but reading the book you will know which way I lean. The subplot in the novel about the building redevelopment is also a metaphor for the middle-class on the whole trying to strike a balance between tradition and modernity. You have a past that’s crumbling but the alternative feels a bit alienating too — you are not sure if there’s room for everyone in this future. Take what we call middle-class values — strong family bonds, for example. On the surface there is a lot of love and affection but there are also very deeply entrenched hierarchies and power equations embedded within this status quo. But you can’t just throw it away either, can you? So the question the book asks, through the redevelopment plot, is how do you construct a modernity that is compatible with the past but is also more equal and fair?
Could you tell us a little bit about Kartik’s character?
Kartik’s character is very close to my heart. My brother Aniruddha is gay, and came out to me eight years ago, a long time before he came out to my family. This was before Section 377 was struck down and I was very nervous for him, for what it would mean for him to be a gay man in a country where homosexuality was criminalised. He displayed tremendous courage in coming out to family and friends, and thankfully, everybody was very supportive. There was a part of me that wondered what I would have done in his place: I am more cautious and far less courageous than my brother. So Kartik’s character somehow stems from this question.
Some of his [Kartik’s] struggles were also directly my struggles: a job that you are not happy with, a deep sense of dissatisfaction with your professional choices. And of course, I had to take another look at my own experiences with some level of male privilege and a male ego built in.
Was there any specific reason that Ira figures as a journalist, Kaiz as an architect in your story while none of them pursue the mainstream choices available such as engineering or law?
Absolutely, I think that was a selfish impulse. 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.
Where do you draw inspiration from for your writing? What are some of your favourite works and writers?
I think I’ll say what every writer says: there are too many to say. On the whole, my reading skews towards the contemporary. I think a good 70-80 percent of the books I have read and continue to read have been written in my lifetime. A lot of people have pointed out that even though my novel is set in the 70s, 80s, and 90s, the voice is contemporary and I think that’s a reflection of my literary influences.
I am a huge fan of Elena Ferrante, Zadie Smith, Chimamanda Adichie, Margaret Atwood, Vikram Seth. A lot of women writers in that list, writers whose work is quite explicitly feminist. And I think the writer, or rather the book, that convinced me that I wanted to write a novel was Arundhati Roy and The God of Small Things. I was 13 when the book came out and it transformed my life. It’s now been over twenty years and I still remember how I felt when I first read the novel. That’s an amazing effect to have on another person, isn’t it?
Listen to Amrita Mahale read this excerpt from her debut novel, Milk Teeth
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