Nandita Basu, author, Rain Must Fall: ‘Basic human nature doesn’t change’
On her graphic novel about the life of a non-binary teenager that won her the Neev Book Award 2022 in the Young Adult category
In a country like India where homophobia and transphobia are rampant, what gave you the confidence to write a graphic novel around the life of a non-binary teenager?
I don’t write stories because I am confident. I don’t know if I have any confidence. I write because I need to tell a story. So, honestly, there was no thought process or fear of rejection. When that doesn’t exist, there is freedom. In hindsight, I do feel that a lot of the phobia that we as the older generation carry, the younger lot don’t. So it is easier to reach out and speak to them. Of course, there was a moment when the thought did cross my mind, where I wondered if someone would buy this book for their kids. But it was just a passing thought.
Tell us how you began writing and visualizing Rumi.
Initially, as I began conceptualizing the character, I did have some kids that I have met in mind. That became my starting point. How they dress, the shirt they wear… you know little details like that. And then the character just took a turn of its own; came alive in its own way. I could hear Rumi speak, watch Rumi walk, etc.
Have public or private interactions with readers made you rethink or regret some of the choices you made in terms of Rumi’s coming out story, clothes, hair, and pronouns?
No, quite the contrary! The acceptance has been amazing. As a character, Rumi doesn’t seem to shock anyone, even the parents and teachers that I had a chance to interact with. Rumi is a misfit in the book. In the real world, Rumi seems to be a misfit whom people can accept.
Why did you name the character Rumi? It reminded me of Nemat Sadat’s novel The Carpet Weaver where poets Jalaluddin Rumi and Shamz Tabrizi are spoken of as lovers and “partners in a life of poetry”. Were you thinking of them while writing the book?
I named the character Rumi because I love Rumi’s poetry. His poetry helped him cross all the barriers of the human body and reach the divine. For me, he represents the ability to go beyond the idea of the human body. I thought it would be a good non-binary name. I am anyway very bad at naming my characters. I go crazy. I, however, had no visual image playing in my mind of Shams or Rumi when I was drawing. The world of Rain Must Fall was a different world.
Let’s talk about Rumi’s friendship with Rain. Why did you get them to meet in Shankerpur, a seaside town where Rumi’s father has an ancestral home that is being turned into a bed and breakfast? Were you drawing on tropes from other ghost stories?
I am a Bengali. Allow me to play on a stereotype. We are always looking for ghosts. I had in mind a quiet seaside town. In India, it’s difficult to think of any town that is small and quiet. But there is a place called Shankerpur that I had visited many years ago. At that point, it was an idyllic town. I drew from that memory. As far as the house goes, I do have the wonderful experience of living in a 120-year-old house. There are many stories lurking in every corner.
Would you mind telling us about this house? Where is it? What does it look like?
Well, I don’t particularly like talking about it. It’s just too personal. But the house I had used as a base for the story exists in a different version in Calcutta.
We meet Rain as the ghost of a man who loved to dance but was forbidden from doing so by his parents. While you do not explicitly say he is gay or queer, he could be read as a gay or queer character. How have readers responded to the rejection he faces from his family, and his sad death in a bus accident? Were you afraid of triggering readers?
Well, from the start, Rain – for me – was spirit. He is the symbol of what we actually are inside. He is the counterpart to Rumi’s struggle. Rumi is a character struggling with the idea of expressing and identifying through the human body. And there is Rain, who is still who he is. As a personality, he does not stop existing or feeling though he is not a man anymore. His fears need to be seen. He too seeks a friend. That’s where the entire thing about a body identity drops. If I throw a question back at any reader – Who are you? – their answer would be a lot deeper because the human form is just a layer like clothes. It is not the real identity.
His human form was really not my focus. And I do not come from that premise that just because a man is a dancer, they have to be gay. That would be as good as saying that I should like pink if I am a girl. As far as rejection and loss go, I think that we can all relate to it in some way or the other. And I am never afraid to speak about loss and pain. My readers have been amazing; they have related far more to this novel than I ever imagined they would.
Rumi’s friendship with Indu is a beautiful strand in the book. What was the thought process behind writing this intergenerational bond that also probably transgresses class and caste boundaries. Were you drawing from personal experience?
This was a deliberate plot. In every story, you need a moment or character to give the reader a breather to glide back into the main story. Indu Didi was that. I was skeptical about people noticing her. She was not just noticed but liked by everyone. Sometimes, in our caste and class-related boundaries, we feel we are the ones breaking boundaries and are change makers. Our knowledge becomes our pride. The truth is people from sections of society who don’t have a similar education and opportunities are the real change makers. I wanted to show that.
It is often assumed that teenagers are more open-minded than older people in terms of thinking about gender and sexuality. Your book shows how cruel teenagers can be with people who do not fit in. How did you manage to do this without talking down?
Basic human nature doesn’t change. Children/young people are often the cruelest. I have experienced enough in my own life and I am sure others have as well. But I also believe that no one in life is a perfect shade of black. We all shuffle within these ranges, so there is no hero or villain.
How did you zero in on the visual style for this novel? Were you keen to distinguish it from your previous one The Piano? What inputs did you get from the publisher?
The Piano was a shorter book, and intentionally so. I always knew Rain Must Fall was going to be longer compared to that. I knew, I would dwell a little more on building characters.
As far as Duckbill goes, I don’t want it to sound like a love letter but I have a great comfort level with them. Even though I have only two books with them, I can say that they are pretty amazing. I don’t have to think twice putting across a book like this to them. I am not sure how many publishers would have picked up a graphic novel and one with a non-binary character. Even on the marketing front, I suppose it may not have been such an attractive decision.
Of course, there were inputs for basic things like fonts, ease of reading, etc. which is very important to a graphic novel. And as minor as it may sound, it changes the entire feel of a graphic novel. In this particular book, there was a tiny but important part about Rain that I really wanted in the book. It was edited out. I was not too excited about this development in the first few days but then I think it made sense. And I began to appreciate that.
How does it feel to have won the Neev Book Award in the Young Adult category? What did you think of the other two books that were shortlisted in the same category – Bandilanka’s Forgotten Lives, and Somnath Hore: Wounds?
Well, I never expected it. A graphic novel winning was a far cry. I am really happy. This recognition, in some significant way, acknowledges the graphic novel form as a part of literature. Most people even now don’t see it as that. The award feels super. The other shortlisted books and authors are tremendous. Each book had a beautiful theme, which was masterfully explored by the authors and the illustrators. The fact that Rain Must Fall was chosen along with these books and authors was an honour. I can only say I feel humbled.
Chintan Girish Modi is an independent writer, journalist and book reviewer.