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‘The performance of class lies in hiding it’

By April 17, 2019No Comments

Source : The Hindu – SUNDAY MAGAZINE  



The author ofMilk Teethsays she wanted to write about middle-class Indiaas an insider, without condescension but also without romanticising it


One week before I meet Amrita Mahale, there’s a pedestrian bridge collapse in Mumbai. While reading Mahale’s debut novel, Milk Teeth , I keep going back to the distressing incident. The novel is set in 90s’ Bombay, and one of the protagonists, Ira Kamat, is a civic beat reporter.

As she goes about covering issues related to roads, stormwater drains and monsoon flooding, there’s a great deal of mulling over the crumbling infrastructure of a changing city caught in the throes of gentrification. Twenty years later, it feels like much has changed, and yet nothing has. Through the characters of Ira, Kartik and Kaiz, Mahale paints a compelling portrait of a city’s social fabric, underpinned by heartbreak and the turmoil of sexuality, caste and class. Excerpts from an interview:

What made you choose the 90s as the setting for your novel?

The 90s is a very interesting decade — so much changed with liberalisation, Babri Masjid, Bombay becoming Mumbai. If you were born in India between the 60s and the 80s, I’m sure you had a lot of common childhood experiences in a way that would not be true for someone born in the 90s or after. It was easy for me to take my own childhood memories, tweak a few details, and transpose those.

There was also a more mechanical reason for picking that period. The book is a little filmy, in the sense that people part and meet again and coincidences play a big role. Some of those plot mechanics are much harder to pull off in the age of the smartphone.

I really wanted to explore this idea of people finding their place in a changing world. And when I think of change in India, the 90s is the most pronounced example.

There’s a wonderfully accurate sense of the places and buildings that make Bombay, from the BMC building to Udupi cafés…

I’ve always been very interested in urban planning and development… understanding a city through its buildings and the way it’s laid out. The idea of heritage architecture and what buildings tell us about a city and its people fascinates me.

Also, the reason I made Ira a civic beat journalist is that I love the idea of a woman walking around the city and making sense of it through its built environment. You don’t often see female characters do that.

Many readers feel that the novel is almost a metaphor for growing up middle class in India.

I feel that middle-class India is not written about in literary fiction as much. Today, small-town films have picked up again, but for a long time we only had NRI movies or gritty rural U.P.-Bihar dramas. The last time somebody looked at the middle class closely was probably in the 70s, in those Amol Palekar-Hrishikesh Mukherjee movies.

So, in some ways, I had a visual reference and wanted to write about this big slice of India as an insider, without condescension and also without romanticising it too much. I think there’s a lot that’s wrong with middle-class morality and values that we didn’t realise growing up. All these harmless interactions and jokes, and the bigotry and power dynamics that underpin these interactions, became apparent to us only in the last 10-15 years.

It’s a balance I had to strike all along — documenting the middle class with love and tenderness, but also looking at what lies under the surface of all these heart-warming details.

When Ira and Kartik discuss his office in a five-star hotel, there’s an observation on how people who frequent these hotels are dressed in ripped jeans and T-shirts, how “the performance of indifference inflates wealth.”

In college, my friends and I would save money to go for the buffet at the Marriot. We would be quite dressed up, like the others who ate the buffet at the coffee shop. But the people who went to the proper restaurants were never that dressed up. Anyone who’s paid attention to how we perform class will have the same observations — at a certain point the performance lies in hiding it.

I also wrote this scene when I was working at an Indian design house and was surrounded by discussions on what constituted luxury. Subtlety was a big part of the brand’s design philosophy and it took me some time to fully absorb it.

While this was something I had thought about for a long time, it really came together in this period: the idea that the truly elite only ‘signal’ their wealth to others of their kind, there is little place for flash or loudness in their lives. Now, this theory has its limitations — just look at the Ambani weddings — but there is a lot of social truth in it.

Arundhati Roy has been a great inspiration in your writing journey. Tell us more.

I was 13 when The God of Small Things came out. I remember reading an excerpt in a magazine and telling my father to get the book for me. It was my first adult novel and my mind was blown. After I read the book, I knew I wanted to be a novelist. I grew up in Gujarat, where not too many people cared about creative writing, so I decided that Arundhati Roy is my guru.

I would take part in all these creative writing competitions, and look at her author photo at the back of the novel before I went in. I was always thinking of Eklavya and Dronacharya as I did this, and it’s such an embarrassing memory now.

What impact does your aerospace engineering life have on your writing process?

My novel is not linear, it jumps around a lot. This can be a daunting task but what helps is that I’m a very structured thinker. I can hold multiple timelines in my head. I think some of that comes from being a very analytical person.

It also helped with the research — I’m a problem-solver, so it was easy for me to see and work on holes in the book. The flipside is that I often approach my writing as an engineering problem, where as a system there’s an input, output, and a transformation in between. It is a tendency I’ve had to fight a lot. That’s the flipside of being an engineer writing literary fiction.

The idea of heritage architecture and what buildings tell us about a city and its people fascinates me

The Kannada of ‘coconut country’ of the old Mysore region, of the unlettered, is quite different from that of Bangaloreans

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