As a child, Mala Mahesh loved hearing stories about life in the village that her grandparents narrated to her. Her grandmother often spoke about an ancestor who endured endless humiliation and harassment because she was unable to conceive. Mala felt it was unfair to blame a person for a problem beyond her control. And that inspired her to pen a story imagining the pain and isolation of such women and the impact it had on their lives and on their families.
The result? The interesting and captivating book Padma, which intersects the stories of Padma and her descendent Naina, based in the early 1900s in Mannnilkara, Kerala and modern-day Mumbai, respectively. Both face a similar situation in one sensitive matter – the inability to conceive. The books takes us on a journey with these two incredible women across different time periods and situations.
This intersection was not something the Singapore-based author had always planned on, it came to her during her research. She had initially planned on writing a story set in the early 1900s in Kerala, about a character named Padma and her struggles with infertility. She was surprised to find that the taboo surrounding infertility still exists globally. That’s where Naina’s character stemmed from.
We catch up with Mala over coffee, discussing the ethos behind the subject, her approach to the narrative and the need to juxtapose the stories of the two women to create a contemporary setting.
Despite the book being centred around infertility, you also touch upon relevant themes like patriarchy and gender inequality. Was that a tough thing to achieve?
Even today, there are incidents steeped in patriarchy and gender inequality. While societal attitudes are changing, it’s not fast enough or widespread enough to reach every section of the society. We hear several instances of abuse, neglect, alienation, and depression of hapless women within our own circle of friends, relations or neighbours that there is a need to highlight these factual cases.
How did you go about doing the research for your book?
Thanks to my grandparent’s excellent storytelling skills, I was able to recollect tiny details of their village lifestyle. Those nuggets of valuable information helped in the description of the traditional customs and settings mentioned in the book. I had a list of topics for research and further reading, like Kerala history, culture and customs of Tamil Brahmins, migration of the Iyers from Kerala, architectural and building styles of Kerala homes, political and social environment of Kerala in 1900s. I visited the Singapore Public Libraries, newspaper archive libraries and extensively searched on the net for reference books, images and old articles. I also cross checked certain legal terms, medical procedures, psychological references and architectural details with my children, cousin and few friends.
Did you base the characters on anyone you know?
The story of Padma was inspired by one of my ancestors, who was childless. I created Padma’s character from a mixture of personalities of my ancestors; some of these women were homebound yet alert, intelligent, and resourceful. I heard several anecdotes where wisdom and their presence of mind saved the day and the family. The strong, loving character of Seshadhri, Padma’s husband, was inspired from my grandfather. He was big built, imposing and a little terrifying when he got angry. He was also an affectionate and generous person, who had his own way of showing love and concern for his family, especially for my grandmother.
How did you envision this book in terms of how the lives of Padma and Naina intersect?
Padma and Naina are women from different generation but facing the same issue of infertility. There are subtle similarities and differences in their character, psyche and in the way they react to situations. Both are victims of patriarchy and face societal pressure typical to their respective time period. To bring out their pain, struggles and innermost fears, I wrote a plot interweaving Padma and Naina’s stories, using a common connection as a catalyst for the climax.
What would your message be to the reader who picks up a copy of the book?
I hope my book creates awareness and empathy for those facing the issue of infertility. Since whenever we understand a person, kindness follows.
Overall, this book is about womanhood, about standing up for yourself, and finding what you want in life with courage and honesty.
Where do you look for inspiration when you really need it?
Books always inspired me to write, and so do people. If we notice carefully, there are many real-life incidents of courage, love and resilience which are eye openers.
How do you unwind?
I love to reading historical fiction, murder mysteries, thrillers and comics. My husband and I enjoy our daily dose of exercises like brisk walking, cycling, golf, dancing or going to the gym.
A book you keep going back to
Amar Chitra Katha comics and Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls
Your favourite author
Your go-to book for inspiration
Who Moved My Cheese? by Spencer Johnson
A quote you often use
“There’s no bigger fool than they who lie to themselves.”
What you are currently reading
The Magicians Of Mazda By Ashwin Sanghi
Also read: Author Nandana Dev Sen On Translating Her Mother Poet Nabaneeta’s Work