Aruna and I were published together in 2005, as part of a collection of short stories called Curtains, stories by 9 women. Even in that selection, I have to admit, her stories had its own brand of gentle humour that brought a smile to your face. When her debut novel Mango Cheeks, Metal Teeth came out a couple of years ago, I picked up a copy and of course enjoyed it a lot.
I brought up how books that have maps or family trees in the very beginning intrigue and intimidate me at the same time, as a reader. It implies that the author has put in a fair amount of effort into mapping all this out and they expect me to be an alert reader because I will need this information later on. As a writer, I find it interesting as a process. I asked her if she mapped out the family tree before she wrote the book or after.
Aruna agreed that having the entire family tree and that too, three of them in this book, was an afterthought. One of her earlier readers suggested that it would be helpful to readers considering the number of characters there were in the book.
I asked her how she came up with these alliterative names like Terrible Tasneem, Koovait kannan, Ration Raman, Meen Mohammed… And she said that it’s typical of a Kerala small town where people do get remembered or called thus.
I brought up the point that there are two threads running in the story… Of Geetha and her middle class family and on the other hand, Koovait kannan and Ration Raman. Both threads are not parallel and intersect most interestingly. But they’re so different from each other. Was there a favourite when she was writing? Which thread did she enjoy writing more?
Aruna said that the Nair family with the cousins converging on the ancestral home for summer vacation was true to her own experiences but the story of the other half, the domestic help and the people like Koovait Kannan etc was different. She said that writing that thread was more interesting and even fun.
Aruna then followed this up with a reading from the book that was quite funny. It made me remember how she’d said once that she wasn’t aiming for humor. But when she wrote this book it kind of crept in. The studied humour that shows a mirror to our lives, set in the 80s is not just a nostalgic trip. There are some painful growing up moments that Aruna deftly weaves in, so that the reader is left with a feeling of, ah, so that’s what the book was about, once they’ve finished it.
We spoke a little more about characters like Geetha who is the protagonist and how it appears that she seems to have grown the most in the book. There were several questions from the audience too, about various situations that arise when you write a coming of age novel.
Overall, it was a really nice event, intimate and yet, blessed with an interested audience.