Why Mayil should not keep quiet: A chat with authors Niveditha Subramaniam and Sowmya Rajendran

Niveditha Subramaniam and Sowmya Rajendran wish they had asked the same questions their spunky character does in their books

Published - April 23, 2019 04:16 pm IST

Eight years with Mayil Sowmya Rajendran (left) and Niveditha Subramaniam

Eight years with Mayil Sowmya Rajendran (left) and Niveditha Subramaniam

Mayil Ganesan was introduced to the world in 2011 with Mayil Will Not Be Quiet . The second book, Mostly Madly Mayil, was published in 2013 and the third, This is Me, Mayil , (all published by Tulika) was released earlier this year.

The Mayil books: Three in eight years

The Mayil books: Three in eight years

The creation of Niveditha Subramaniam and Sowmya Rajendran, the spunky and curious Mayil is a keen observer and has an opinion on everything that's happening around her, from ordinary and everyday situations at home to identity politics, gender discrimination, sexual harassment, domestic violence, caste conflict and more.

Mayil is a very unusual protagonist, agree the authors, but say they “wanted to create a character, a girl, who asks the sort of questions that we wished we’d grown up asking. And we wanted to set it in Chennai, in a milieu and environment we knew well.” Sowmya reflects, “Mayil came out of the realisation that if only we had done our unlearning of several social norms much earlier (we both discovered feminism in college), we would have had a better time growing up.”

Plaudits for Mayil Will Not Be Quiet
  • Sahitya Akademi’s Bal Sahitya Puraskar (2015) for Best Children’s Book in English
  • Crossword Honour Book 2012
  • Recommended by CBSE for schools in India

Since the books are all in first person, Niveditha says, “we were able to engage with the shifting frontiers of adolescence and all its colourful upheavals with authenticity.” Sowmya adds, “The writing process made me revisit my own childhood. Much of it seems comic now, with the perspective that time has given me. As a parent, too, it has been useful to remind myself that I didn’t always know what to think about everything.”

Across the three books, Mayil, the people who populate her universe, the things that happen to her... are all very real. “Both of us also enjoy observing children around us,” explains Niveditha. “Some of the characters are definitely an amalgam of people we’ve met in real life, our family, friends and others. Some are simply inspired by people-watching and overhearing conversations in buses, trains, beaches and public places!” There are some fictional inspirations, according to Sowmya. “Benson, on whom Mayil has a crush in the third book, is based on actor Nivin Pauly from Ohm Shanti Oshana , a film Niveditha and I have watched several times for obvious reasons.”

Favourite reads
  • Niveditha: I read everything I could get my hands on when I was a child. I loved the Russian picture books and NBT books (Mamani’s Adventure and Rupa the Elephant to name two); and was fascinated by Asterix. Even before I knew how to read, I remember poring over the comics. I was six when I first read The Enchanted Wood and The Faraway Tree and have re-read them more times than I can remember. At 15, I read the first book in A Series of Unfortunate Events and remember thinking that this was something I too wanted to do. The ones I read more recently and enjoyed are Siddhartha Sharma’s The Year of the Weeds and Mamta Nainy’s A Brush with Indian Art. Apart from children’s writing, I mostly read non-fiction (long-form pieces and books).
  • Sowmya: I was an obsessed Enid Blyton fan and, apart from that, there were the Russian picture books, comics like Tinkle, Gokulam, Chandamama, Champak, the Three Investigators series by Alfred Hitchcock, RK Narayan’s Malgudi, Premchand, Agatha Christie… I’m reading Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls with my daughter right now. Other children’s authors I enjoy reading are Paro Anand, Deepa Balsavar and Manjula Padmanabhan. For adults, I absolutely loved Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels. I read a lot of non-fiction too, but am currently hooked to Celia Fremlin, a very underrated British writer I discovered by accident.

Though Mayil has bits of them and they have bits of her, “she doesn’t always do what we would have done when we were her age,” says Sowmya. Niveditha adds that they wanted to realistically show how teenagers struggle to make sense of things that happen and so “they didn’t predetermine her response to situations.”

Finally I ask how they work together and resolve any differences. Both say that the process is quite smooth, as “so our wavelengths and vision are in sync,” in Niveditha's words. Sowmya says, “Frankly, we never wondered if it would work. We find the same things funny and we find most things funny.”

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