Andaleeb Wajid – “I don’t want my characters to be unidimensional” - Hindustan Times
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Andaleeb Wajid – “I don’t want my characters to be unidimensional”

Jun 25, 2024 06:27 PM IST

On her latest novel, The Henna Start-up being shortlisted for the Neev Book Award, writing romances, her books being adapted for OTT, and her upcoming memoir

How did you react when you heard that your novel The Henna Start-up was shortlisted for the 2024 Neev Book Award?

Author Andaleeb Wajid (Courtesy the subject)
Author Andaleeb Wajid (Courtesy the subject)

I was really thrilled! I was lucky enough to be with my mother and my brother and his family at the time, so I could share it with them right away. My mother thought I had already won! I told her it was the shortlist but she was happy for me nevertheless. This book is indeed special because Abir (the protagonist of The Henna Start-up) is the sort of girl I would have aspired to be friends with if I had been her age, but would have been a little intimidated by because of how irascible she seems. She’s ambitious and not ashamed of it and that’s what I really liked about her as she started shaping up in my head.

This year, the winner will get three lakh rupees. This sum of money is rare for Indian authors who write for children and young adults. As someone who has been in this field for many years, what are your thoughts on the impact of awards on the larger writing ecosystem?

I had no idea that the prize money was that much! To be very honest, as someone who has craved approval all through school, a prize/award seems like the ultimate stamp of approval. But at the same time, I am aware that I am no longer the same person I was back then and I’m also aware of the many other brilliant books on the shortlist. This isn’t me being diplomatic; I do think it’s an honour to be shortlisted. As for the ecosystem changing, I really have no thoughts about it. If I win, I’ll be thrilled (hello, three lakhs!) but if Shabnam (Shabnam Minwalla, author of the novel, Zen) wins, I will be equally thrilled.

“This book is indeed special because Abir (the protagonist) is the sort of girl I would have aspired to be friends with if I had been her age, but would have been a little intimidated by because of how irascible she seems. She’s ambitious and not ashamed of it and that’s what I really liked about her as she started shaping up in my head.” – Andaleeb Wajid
“This book is indeed special because Abir (the protagonist) is the sort of girl I would have aspired to be friends with if I had been her age, but would have been a little intimidated by because of how irascible she seems. She’s ambitious and not ashamed of it and that’s what I really liked about her as she started shaping up in my head.” – Andaleeb Wajid

At the 2022 Neev Literature Festival, I heard you saying, “I write from my lived reality but I don’t want to carry the responsibility of normalising Muslim characters in Indian children’s fiction. I have never seen myself as the other; I see myself as part of the mainstream.” Who expects you to carry this responsibility — Muslim or non-Muslim readers? And why?

This is an unspoken expectation from my non-Muslim readers who tend to read my books and exclaim that the characters are just like us. Well, I’m not sure why they expected Muslim characters to be different. We’re all Indian, aren’t we? My identity as a Muslim doesn’t clash with my identity as an Indian and why should it? My Muslim readers feel happy about the representation and identify with some of the issues that the characters go through and I’m glad about that. But I just want to write good stories, and not find myself bracketed to writing only about Muslim characters.

While reading The Henna Start-Up, I thought of it as a book about an ambitious girl who wants to be financially independent in a patriarchal culture. She says, “I am studying to become someone and I will.” Her religious identity seemed almost incidental to the plot. Her reality mirrors the lives of a vast number of Indian girls. Is that how you intended it to be?

Actually, this was one book where her Muslimness was not incidental to the plot. This story began because I was annoyed at the hijab ban being imposed in Karnataka and I wanted to write a story about a girl who doesn’t give a hoot about any ban and goes about doing her thing. I have not mentioned the ban in the book because I didn’t want to make the book about it. But I wanted to showcase a strong Muslim girl who is confident and sets out to achieve what she wants and doesn’t let anything stop her. Why? Because there are so many girls like this out there, who don’t feel confined by their religious identity but instead feel comfortable in it. They don’t feel the need to “rebel” against it because it’s intrinsic to who they are. In that way, Abir is a lot like me, I guess.

The mother-daughter relationship is a strong thread in this novel. Abir is upset that her mother, who is a talented henna artist, is disrespected and underpaid by rich clients so she teams up with her friends to design an app that would get clients to make advance payments. How did you come up with this idea? How would you describe your relationship with henna?

First of all, I don’t have any relationship with henna except that I enjoy applying it during family weddings and the entire process of waiting for it to dry, applying oil over it, waiting for the colour to darken appreciably feels feminine and nice. As for the idea for the story, it just popped into my head one day and I explored it a little with my editor Sayoni Basu who loved it. The thought of Abir making an app seemed perfect, given how Bangalore is the start up city of India. A college-going, visibly Muslim girl wins at making an app for her mother. What could be sweeter than that, I thought.

Abir and her mother reminded me of Simran (played by Kajol) and Lajwanti (played by Farida Jalal) in Aditya Chopra’s film Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jaayenge. You have also made a passing reference to the film in your book. Why do those characters resonate even today?

I suppose that’s because they epitomise that time of our lives when everything was fluid and unknowable and there was the promise of something big yet to appear in our lives. I was 17 when the movie came out and it was unlike anything we had seen before. I wouldn’t say it’s my all-time favourite or anything but at the time, it seemed to be the sort of movie that offered hope to lovers along with parental approval, which so many of us seem to crave and maybe that’s why it’s stayed with us.

We hardly know about Simran’s professional interests. Abir is far more assertive than her and has absolutely no intention of letting a boyfriend, fiancé or husband derail her focus from her career. What was it like to write Arsalan and Sahil, the guys competing for her affection?

Oh, that part was fun! I love reading and writing romances. If you see some of my books on Amazon, you will see that I self-publish quite a few romances. Writing Sahil and Arsalan as the romantic interests was something that made Abir seem normal and human and not an automaton who is only concerned about her ambition. I was trying to make a point that someone like Abir can be ambitious but also fall for a charmer like Arsalan. That was what made her multi-dimensional, right?

I picked up The Henna Start-Up soon after reading your novel Asmara’s Summer. In both the books, you explore how technology can empower women who are creative and entrepreneurial but have their mobility restricted. What got you thinking about this subject?

In a way because it empowers me as well. Today, I’m an established writer and I get invited to literature festivals and talk at them. But back when I finished college, I was already married (quite like Abir’s mother) although I completed my education and had my son only after college ended. So, there I was, all of 21 and a mother already!

My classmates were busy getting jobs, figuring out life, how to deal with crappy bosses and the like and I was busy dealing with diapers and a colicky baby. I loved my baby but I didn’t necessarily love my life. I felt that there had to be more to it. I felt a lot like Mehnaz, the protagonist of my first novel Kite Strings, who felt that she had been meant for bigger things.

In fact, maybe it was that angst that led me to write that book in the first place. Given that I had a small baby, I couldn’t get out there and get a job and I didn’t think I was qualified for anything in any case. I was already way behind my classmates in that aspect. But I could write. And that was what I did. In the early 2000s, I started blogging, and it opened up my world a bit. And then I started taking my writing seriously and started writing short stories and having access to email made life a lot easier. I have seen firsthand how much technology can open up someone’s life, so it was an obvious choice for me to write about it, albeit in a more exciting way than what happened with me.

You seem to relish demolishing the stereotype that the rich are evil and the poor are good. In both these books, you make your characters reflect on their silly assumptions. Why is it important for you to make your readers not fall into the trap of such simplistic thinking?

This is because I don’t want my characters to be unidimensional. I don’t wasnt to play into those stereotypes. People are people and whether they’re rich or poor, they can be good or they can be not so good. However, this isn’t something that I’ve actively thought about and created as such. This sort of thing just happens organically in my stories.

Asmara’s Summer has been adapted into an OTT show called Dil Dosti Dilemma
Asmara’s Summer has been adapted into an OTT show called Dil Dosti Dilemma

Your depiction of the class divide among Muslims in Bangalore comes alive through vivid observations about different neighbourhoods in both these novels. When did you become aware of these nuances? What made you choose humour as an entry point?

A lot of my observations have been absorbed subconsciously from the time I was quite young. Most of the times, I’ve seen how people behave and other people’s reactions to them. I suppose all these nuances that I absorbed had to find a way to come out and it ended up coming out through my books. And humour because life is already very grim, so why not write about something in a way that would make people smile?

Asmara’s Summer has been adapted into an OTT show called Dil Dosti Dilemma, directed by Debbie Rao. What were some of the highlights of this experience for you? What could have been done differently?

The highlight was going to Mumbai to shoot my cameo. That was certainly an unforgettable experience. It was a night shoot, it was crazy, everyone was hopping with energy even at 2 AM and I got my own vanity trailer for the night. I think it’s been done very well and far better than my expectations. A writer always worries about how the world that they have created will be presented to the external world, especially because once the book is out of our hands, there’s very little that’s in our control. In that aspect, I am immensely grateful to Seema Mohapatra and Jahanara Bhargava, the producers of Dil Dosti Dilemma who stood by the book and made sure it retained its spirit.

Tell us about your upcoming books, and any other projects you are working on.

Harper Collins will be releasing my young adult (YA) horror graphic novel Scare Walk in late June. It’s been a project that has been delayed for a couple of years but it was been well worth the wait because the illustrations by Upamanyu Bhattacharyya leap off the page and make everything come alive in a very visceral way. I also have a YA romance with Talking Cub (an imprint of Speaking Tiger) called Everything Sucks. It is about two Instagram influencers who are at loggerheads with each other online but end up falling for each other when they meet in person. Lastly, for this year, my memoir Learning to Make Tea for One will be published by Speaking Tiger. This is about my experiences with the second wave of Covid in 2021 and the losses I faced with my husband and mother-in-law’s deaths simultaneously and how my sons and I have coped with it.

Chintan Girish Modi is a freelance writer, journalist and book reviewer.

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