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Writer Mahtab Narsimhan chases perfection

In latest novel ‘Tiffin’ author explores meaning of family

Mahtab Narsimhan (The Star)
Mahtab Narsimhan (The Star)
A hidden note placed in a tiffin carrier. A split-second accident. A secret lost.

This is how Mahtab Narsimhan’s “Tiffin” starts. And in a sense, it’s how it ends.

It’s 1995, and 12-year-old Kunal is living a miserable life. Orphaned and living with his foster parents Seth and Seth’s wife Gurpreet, Kunal is also one of the waiters at Seth’s restaurant.

Physically abused, and terrified of the newly hired cook Badri’s lascivious looks and innuendos, Kunal resolves to run away. Before he does, however, he discovers that he is not an orphan, and that his mother is alive. Aided by aging dabbawala (delivery man) Vinayak and the dabbawala community, Kunal sets out to find his mother, only to find that family can be found in the most unexpected places.

Narsimhan visited this part of the world recently to participate in the Asian Festival of Children’s Content, which was held in Singapore from May 30 to June 4. In an email interview, the Mumbai-born, Canada-based author discusses her idea of a “made” family.

“The bond that links your true family is not one of blood, but respect and joy in each other’s life. Rarely do members of one family grow up under the same roof,” Narsimhan says, quoting from “Illusions: The Adventures Of A Reluctant Messiah” (1989) by author of the inspirational “Jonathan Livingston Seagull,” Richard Bach.

That’s not to say that she advocates forgetting one’s biological family in favor of strangers. Instead, she refers to that connection one can forge with someone who is not related to you in any way.

“With the huge focus on blood ties,” she says, “I wanted my readers to consider the idea that family can be anyone at all as long as there is mutual love and respect. Family is all around you, if only you have the heart to recognize it.”

Narsimhan was born and bred in Mumbai, India, where she lived for 25 years. She spent a couple of years working in the Middle East (Bahrain, Dubai and Oman) before she emigrated to Canada and furthered her studies. She currently lives in Toronto with her husband and son.

“Initially I had decided to pursue a Degree in Commerce, switched to Hotel Management and finally on my arrival in Canada, decided to get certified as a human resources professional,” says Narsimhan.

And where is writing in this academic journey? Funnily enough, it was only after her first book, “The Third Eye,” was published in 2007 that Narsimhan actually decided to take a course on writing. “And now I’m a life-long learner, always trying to perfect my craft.”

She’s obviously on the right path, as she won Canada’s Silver Birch Fiction Award in 2009 for “The Third Eye,” which was the first of a fantasy-adventure trilogy for children; the other books in the series are “The Silver Anklet” (2009) and “The Deadly Conch” (2011).

“Tiffin” ― which, despite its seemingly dark storyline, was written for children ― has also been nominated for several awards and named one of the top five books for young readers by Canadian literary magazine Quill & Quire; international rights to the book has been picked up by publishers in China, Japan and Taiwan.

Tiffins and dabbawalas play a major part in “Tiffin.” When we ask why they serve as the primary mode of communication in the novel, Narsimhan explains that Mumbai is unique for the dabbawalas and their tiffin-delivery service, which started about 150 years ago while the British still ruled the country. At the time, no other city in India, or indeed, in the world, had this kind of service.

“That it is still around and going strong is testament to its uniqueness and necessity,” she explains. “The other singular feature of this service is that it is entirely manual with almost 99.9 percent accuracy. Approximately 1 box in 6 million deliveries is lost. How could any writer not take advantage of this wonderful premise? My story is about that one box that is lost, changing the life of young Kunal forever.”

Her characters are diverse and complex. There’s green-eyed protagonist Kunal, who wants a family so badly; dabbawala Vinayak, who’s had a great personal tragedy in his life; brutal and physically abusive Seth; his wife Gurpreet who loves Kunal in her own way; and the various dabbawalas in the (all-male) community.

Narsimhan’s aim with her characters is to always make them memorable in their diversity and complexity; she starts out creating a combination of people she’s known in her life, and then the characters essentially write themselves with their stories and personalities as the foundation.

And since it takes her approximately two years to write, it gives her more than enough time to discover her characters’ many quirks and to give them that depth.

Narsimhan needed the time with “Tiffin,” admitting that her first draft in 2009 was so horrible that she decided to scrap the entire manuscript ― all 70,000 words of it.

“I’d been working with an instructor, Tim Wynne-Jones, and he helped me see all the plot holes, mistakes and shallow, two-dimensional characters. It was an eye-opener and one of the best (and most painful) learning experiences of my life,” she reveals.

“It was a heart-wrenching decision at the time, but the right one.”

Happily for her (and for the readers of “Tiffin!”) the new manuscript was stronger; and since then, she regularly scraps her first draft and starts over, because “the next one is always better.”

She’s also got some hard truths for aspiring writers: “Read a lot, write every day if possible. And take courses; ask for help to perfect the craft. Enjoy the process to publication and not just the end result of being published.

“Writing is all about re-writing and unless you passionately enjoy shaping words into a story, this profession is not for you.”

She considers herself one of the lucky ones, because she is passionate about her work and enjoys it so much that it hardly feels like work most days.

As for what’s next for her? Scholastic will be publishing her new middle-grade novel in 2016. Also based in Mumbai, she’s going a lighter route with this one.

“We’ve heard many stories of immigrants to North America trying to fit in. I wanted to turn that premise on its head and have a North American try to adjust to India, during the monsoons!”

By Suloshini Jahanath

(The Star)