Amrita Mahale’s debut novel, Milk Teeth, is set in Matunga, Mumbai in the 1990s where Asha Nivas, a rent-controlled residential building, is rapidly falling apart in the face of climbing maintenance costs that the landlord cannot meet with the low rents he receives. Despite internal disagreements about the prudent way to handle the situation, some of the long-term residents set out to negotiate a redevelopment deal with the landlord. Sharing small apartments and limited common space, the residents’ lives are intertwined in every way. Ira and Kartik, two young professionals who’ve grown up in Asha Nivas, live secondary lives outside the prying eyes of their neighbourhood. But familial anxieties around housing, unwed children, and the future threaten the lives they’ve carved for themselves.
Mahale’s novel is well-written, engaging, and insightful – she tells us a “Bombay” story that hasn’t been told before. She talked to Scroll.in about Mumbai’s history with rent control, the fear of appearing ridiculous as a writer, reconstructing Matunga of the 1990s, writing flawed and morally complex characters, her time at Sangam House, and taking time off and returning to work.
In your TEDx talk in January 2017, you talk about the fear of “starting too late” and the possibility of “looking ridiculous” after “starting over in (your) thirties.” I am curious to hear what the publication of Milk Teeth means to you in that context.
The publication of Milk Teeth seemed very unlikely as recently as February. I had written to about 15 agents, and every week brought a new rejection. On Valentine’s day, I received three rejections, one of which was brutal because it was very detailed. I stayed up all night crying and I remember thinking, I wish I had never given that TEDx talk, now I can’t even pretend I never tried to write this book. But the next morning, I brushed it off and decided to work on one more rewrite. And it was the painfully detailed rejection letter that helped me see what was not working about my manuscript.
I remind myself every day to put this fear of rejection, of humiliation aside. I read somewhere that being a writer is signing up for a lifetime of rejection. First the agent, then the publisher, then the reviewer – there are so many people who can reject you to your face. And you start over with each new book. In fact, in a sense, you start over with every reader – they bring their own biases and fragilities to the book and might read something completely different from what you wrote. So, the possibility of “looking ridiculous” never goes away. As a writer, you better get used to it.
Was taking time off from full-time employment crucial to finishing the novel?
In my case, yes. I tried writing on weekends and on holidays for about a year and a half, but I reached a point where I wanted to immerse myself in the novel completely. In the process of writing this novel, I was also learning how to write, and I wanted to hone this craft every day, not just a day or two every week. But I don’t think that applies to everyone. Vivek Shanbhag wrote all his books while working full-time in the corporate world. He would wake up at 4.30 each morning and read and write for a few hours before he went to work. He did this for 25 years before he quit to write full-time.
Milk Teeth takes place almost entirely within Matunga. Is that a locality with which you have a personal relationship? Can you talk to us a little about that?
My grandfather grew up in Matunga and I have family that still lives there, but the personal relationship really only began when I started writing Milk Teeth. I was born in Bombay 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 Bombay, 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 Bombay. It is the place I have always thought of as home – but from a distance. So, Mumbai came first, Matunga later. I came across two books fairly early in my research –Boombay by Kamu Iyer and House, but No Garden by Nikhil Rao – which convinced me that Matunga was the right place to set the story.
Greta Gerwig’s wonderful film, Lady Bird,has a line about love and attention being the same thing. Writing this book was an act of attention for me. It was an opportunity to learn more about Mumbai and its history. I have so many happy memories of the time spent doing research: walking around Mumbai in all its seasons (all being just two: hot and wet), spending many hours at the press archives at Asiatic Library, hearing stories about the city from an eighty-year old relative and a blogger who travelled all the way from Navi Mumbai to Matunga to give me a tour of the neighbourhood she grew up in.
There’s a scene at the beginning of the novel that shows an altercation between well-fed, well-clothed children and street children. How did you go about writing a fraught scene like that? Was it challenging to get the details and tone of such a scene right?
When I began to write this novel, I knew that I wanted to tell a simple story in a gentle voice, but with a sharp eye for what lies under the surface of the familiar, the everyday. The flashback scenes in the novel unfold in the seventies, and the writing can easily be seen as being nostalgic for a simpler, more innocent time, but what I wanted was to expose the hierarchies under this facade of innocence. Children are capable of astonishing cruelty. My brother was bullied in school for years and I too have probably been a mute witness to incidents of bullying. I rewrote the playground scene several times. Multiple friends urged me to make the exchange more cruel, the dialogue more barbed, but I was nervous about making my protagonist behave so shamefully. I had to tell myself that my characters had to behave badly sometimes, that it was not a reflection on me, and that it made sense that Ira could be egalitarian in one context and an oppressor in another.
Rent-controlled apartments and tenancy rights in Mumbai form the (basic) premise of the novel. Would you be able to tell us a bit about what role rent control has played in the history of the city?
The Rent Act, that froze rents in Mumbai at 1940 levels, was mainly intended to protect the tenancy rights of low-income residents right after the Partition when an influx of refugees and hence a shortage of housing was expected. Even though the Act was not intended for them, middle and upper-class residents benefited greatly from it since they could live in comfortable houses and pay much less than what they could afford to. These artificially low rents eventually led to a steady decline in the quality of rental housing: landlords claimed (in many cases rightly so) that they could not afford to maintain their properties anymore. It was only in 1991 that bye-laws were amended to incentivise what we now call redevelopment: old buildings could be rebuilt with more floors and a lower setback (the distance between a building and the boundaries of the plot it stands on), and some of these flats had to be given away to the tenants. So, the coop-like high-rises of Mumbai and the shrinking distance between buildings, the very look and feel of Mumbai’s urbanity, has been shaped by rent control to some extent. I strongly recommend Kamu Iyer’s Boombay to anybody interested in the history of the built environment in Mumbai, be it architecture or urban planning or municipal regulations.
How did you go about reconstructing the Matunga of the late twentieth century?
A lot of research! I interviewed nearly ten Matunga residents, some of whom have lived there for over half a century. Books and movies too. I might have watched all of Amol Palekar’s Bombay movies again (I strongly recommend Rajnigandha). What also worked for me was that in many ways life in the country did not change all that much from the early seventies to the late eighties, even the early nineties. It was easy for me to take many of my own childhood memories and transpose them to a different decade by tweaking a few period details. I am not sure someone born in the nineties or after can do that so easily. It was a conscious decision to set the novel in a time without smartphones, before the internet became ubiquitous. If the novel were set in today’s India, the WhatsApp chats of the parents could have been a whole tragicomic chapter.
Ananya, a young woman who crosses paths with Ira, plays a minor but fascinating role in Milk Teeth as someone whose privilege enables dismissiveness and cruelty. I wanted to hear a little bit about the genesis and development of this particular character.
I had a lot of fun writing Ananya’s character. I don’t think of her as consciously cruel, but we see Ananya only through Ira’s eyes, and as she holds a mirror to Ira’s class anxiety, the reader also feels condescended to. That said, I have met many people like Ananya in Delhi, slightly snarky liberals who treat a social gathering as a performance; they seem to allow themselves a bit of meanness in the interest of entertainment.
Her famous line, the one that haunts Ira for years – try as hard as you may, the first coat of paint always shows – I stole directly from a dear friend (he, thankfully, has a good sense of humour about it.) I considered writing Ananya as a man but the undercurrent of rivalry and sexual competition between her and Ira would have gone. And that dynamic is a large part of the feelings of inadequacy that she churns up in Ira. I also made sure that nothing that Ananya says to or about Ira is actually insulting, but there is an edge of condescension if one wants to look for it. And Ira looks for it, dwells on it: this is what social anxiety feels like.
I am always interested in hearing what residencies have contributed to a writer. Can you talk to us a little about your time at Sangam House, and what it meant for the novel?
Sangam House is one of the best things to have happened to me in my journey as a writer. And it could not have come at a better time. I started my residency a week after a stressful move and for the first few days, I had nightmares each night that there was one more suitcase left to pack! Nrityagram is such a serene, beautiful place that I was forced to slow down. To write without interruptions, without the worry of cooking or cleaning or other errands is an absolute luxury. Some of the quietest parts of the novel – the long walks and the reflections in the first section – were written there.
It wasn’t just the solitude that was precious. I have never had the peer group or the space to discuss literature and literary traditions from different parts of the world (and of India) – it was an incredible experience. I remember I read from the first chapter of my novel one evening, and Vivek Shanbhag, who was in my cohort, suggested I shuffle a few scenes around. I took his advice, and the effect was transformative. And when I got three brutal rejections from agents in the span of a few hours in February, it was Rahul Soni I reached out to (he was the season coordinator when I was at Nrityagram), and he talked me out of abandoning the manuscript. So, Milk Teeth owes a lot to Sangam House.
Have you gone back to working in the corporate world? Do you see yourself taking time off in the future to write again?
I am back to full-time employment, but at a non-profit research lab that works on Artificial Intelligence solutions for social good. I have an idea for a second novel, but it’s at the marination stage. I don’t have the energy to give my all to another book just yet, and I enjoy my work too, so no plans to write full-time again just yet, but in a few years, why not?