The Colombo Swimming Club was a blur of pleasant yet health-conscious activity when Nilu Abdulhussein and I sat down for a brief chat about her “lockdown-born book” Mandvi. When she started off by telling me that her debut book was written targeting an Indian teledrama audience, my first thought was “how did she manage that?”
It is no secret that Indian teledramas, much like some of our own Lankan teledramas, are rife with dramatic stories of love and loss. It is also no secret that these teledramas are never-ending.
“This book is dedicated to my mother,” shared Nilu, adding that her mother – Salma Osman Aboosally – was an avid follower of Indian teledramas. “Unfortunately, in her 80s, she had a stroke, and I used to sit with her every evening and follow these teledramas. Sometimes, when I had to travel to Australia for one month and come back, those teledramas would’ve still not progressed. They’re never-ending; they go on for years. So I told my mother that I will write her a teledrama which will have all the weddings and funerals and everything she wants but the story will have a beginning and an end.”
A town that won the heart of the author
“Mandvi”, a port city located where the Rukmavati River meets the Gulf of Kutch in Gujarat, India, seemed an interesting title for a book. Nilu recalled listening to her father-in-law tell her stories of this shipbuilding town and how some prominent business families from Sri Lanka trace their roots back to this city. “Their (Nilu’s in-laws) ancestors used to trade down the west coast of India, and because of a storm, they got washed to Sri Lanka and landed in the South. This story always fascinated me.”
In 2017, Nilu and her husband made a trip to India to visit some friends. Having a few extra days at their disposal, the couple decided to explore Mandvi. With her Indian saga already in her head, it wasn’t long before the locations in this Gujarati city – the houses, the bazaar, the mosque – started becoming prime settings for her novel. And so it was decided; her story would originate and travel back to this mystical seaside town throughout the course of the book.
The book itself is just 186 pages long but beautifully paced to capture the stories of five women – stories that tug at your heartstrings in all the right ways. Bhoomi (Mother Earth) is a small town girl whose talent for embroidery takes her on a journey that raises her life beyond her humble circumstances. Deepani (still waters) poses an intricate juxtaposition between an innocent, sheltered teenager with a passion for dance, and an eager girl overwhelmed with the sensations that come with awakening to the pleasures of one’s body. Pavani (blowing in the wind), often referred to as the “poor little rich girl”, leads a life in the lap of material luxury, but this doesn’t shield her from the poverty she experiences in other areas of life. Strong-willed and vibrant Magni (Agni, God of Fire), brings a completely different tone to the entire book. Surya’s (the Sun) unique beauty is celebrated in the book; her foray into the beauty and fashion industry takes her on a journey of self-realisation, independence, and glimpses into her past.
Five women and five interwoven stories spanning three generations and a few striking men who cross these women’s lives, Mandvi cleverly captures the attitudes towards gender, sex, marriage, and race at the time. Although their stories span other parts of India and even the world, Mandvi still remains the central point of uniting these stories and the tale keeps coming back to this city. “Ummi’s voice rang through my head, making Mandvi come alive,” narrates Surya on page 132. She also speaks on page 136: “Two strangers, just silhouettes, strangely at ease, comfortable companions…We spoke of Mandvi, its history and beauty…”
All life is connected
What Nilu found most enjoyable when penning this book was the research that went into getting all the timelines correct – the roadmaps connecting three different generations. Although the process sounded the most daunting to me, Nilu’s face lit up when she explained how she went about trying to get the dates, names, and stories to fit the narrative she had in mind.
Although written in a way that doesn’t necessarily assign blame to any one party, Mandvi tackles important social issues like teenage pregnancy, belief in astrology, marital rape, as well as dowry. “These are all social issues pertaining to females, but I’ve delved into them in a very subtle way. They are talking points,” said Nilu.
What I found quite unique to the book and its form of storytelling was that the reader is presented with all sides of each story; there’s no finger-pointing and blaming. Instead, what we, the readers, are left with are all the facts and perspectives so that by the time you turn the last page of the book, you’re somehow deeply engaged in all of the stories. You’re left with an overwhelming sense of having to decide for yourself whom to blame and whom to be kind towards – a masterful accomplishment in a book so small.
The choice of elements as the names of the protagonists was purposeful too, as Nilu wanted to depict the interconnectedness of life – how each one affects another. True to her word, the stories carry the shock, drama, and interlacing nature that embodies Indian teledramas. The women’s lives are deeply interconnected (even though some of this isn’t apparent till the end), with many twists and turns that leave the reader in suspense. But unlike the Indian teledramas, the story moves at a fast pace, a merciful manoeuvre made by the author.
Also a notable theme in the book is the world of fashion, embroidery, colour, and garments. When asked, Nilu confessed that she didn’t realise this feature in her book. “I do love Indian clothes and it definitely fits into the Indian teledrama content,” she shared upon further prodding.
I finished the book in two days. Not being one to ever read that fast, I was surprised by my feat and grateful for Mandvi.
“I call myself an accidental author,” Nilu laughed, saying that her promise to her mother and the pandemic-enforced lockdown were the main reasons why this book writing project saw the light of day. With help and encouragement from her children and friends, Nilu transferred her longhand writing to an iPad and completed her book in under six months. She’s grateful to her husband Zarkir and four children, whose support and encouragement aided her in her goal.
Nilu is currently working on her second book, after having carefully taken into account all the suggestions people who’ve read her first book have given her, the most loud of which is that Mandvi wasn’t long enough and “ended abruptly”.
Mandvi was published by Notion Press in India and went on sale in December 2020. The book has been sold in London, the US, Canada, Singapore, Dubai, Australia, and New Zealand. Although Nilu got down two consignments for private circulation in Sri Lanka, she is only now approaching bookshops in Sri Lanka for the sale of her book, after numerous requests from people asking her where they can get their hands on a copy.
Nilu’s debut book “Mandvi” is available at Milk on Horton Place, Pendi at Lakpahana, and Hype Studio on Instagram.