If Mariam Karim-Ahlawat’s writings are versatile, her tastes in food are just as eclectic

We finally end up with chicken salad — a simple preparation of boiled chicken, lots of lettuce, a stray slice of tomato and some olive oil. After debating over the menu of Alliance Française’s cafeteria for a while, our quest for a peaceful lunch ends with the simplest item on the list. It is the simple and tranquil that clears Mariam Karim-Ahlawat’s mind for fiction.

We soon move away from the loud Punjabi disco music inside the cafeteria. Mariam has two novels, a few plays and several short stories to her credit. She also teaches French, but has lately been concentrating on her publishing work. Currently, she is juggling with a play, a novel and a film script. She certainly has a lot on her plate, even as she quickly doodles a portrait of me as the interview begins.

Making a point

“When I write novels, I leave it open ended to the reader. But my theatre is more accessible, more polemical. My plays are critiques; they must make a point about society,” she explains.

Her first play, The Betrayal of Selvamary, was shortlisted for The Hindu MetroPlus Playwright Award in 2010. The following year, her second play Fractals: Search for the Real, was long-listed for the award. The play is to be staged as The Undoing by Pierrot’s Troupe in June. The characters in her works include street children, immigrants, domestic workers and smugglers. The way she treats their lives and ideas reveals clear proletarian leanings.

“You can’t be a writer unless you empathise with the people you write about,” says Mariam. “Stories make us all the same.” Brought up in — and currently living in — a cantonment, Mariam says she’s able to get under the skin of her subjects precisely because she’s detached from their social milieu. “Cantonments allow a space outside the regular world. It protects you, but at the same time allows you to explore the world outside…It’s a place that saves my soul.”

It’s her grounding in the army way of life that probably gives her writing a pan-Indian feel to it. “The army teaches you to be innovative; to make the best of what you have. The cantonment also gives me that inner quiet I need for the kind of prose I write.”

Mariam, a scholar of French, says that though she loves writing in Hindustani, she prefers English. “I address a primarily English speaking public. Half of India does not understand Hindi. In a play like Selvamary, about a Tamilian maid in Gujarat, I use Tamil and Gujarati words, but the play itself is in English.”

Her choice of food is eclectic, yet old school. Mariam counts Delhi Karnataka Sangha canteen in R.K. Puram and, Fujiya on Malcha Marg as her favourite restaurants.

“I love to bake. I do meat dishes quite well I think. I’m also an eggs-pert. I used to eat everything from frogs to rabbits. But of late I prefer simple dal chawal,” she says.

A couple of actors from her upcoming play arrive for rehearsals. Mariam blends in well with the young crowd under the sun umbrellas they carry on rendering their lines, even as her husband arrives to watch.

“Even if we can’t, our stories travel,” she says. “Fiction helps us evolve as human beings.”

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