Rehana Munir lives in Bombay among food-obsessed family and friends. She ran a bookshop in Mumbai in the mid 2000s, a few years after graduating with top honours in English literature from St. Xavier’s College. An independent writer on culture and lifestyle, she has a weekly humour column in HT Brunch, and a cinema column in Arts Illustrated magazine. Her debut novel “Paper Moon” has been published recently, which somewhat draws on her experiences of running a bookshop in Bombay and has been described as ‘A bright, frothy and fun peek into the business of books, and the triangular love life of its protagonist Fiza Khalid’. Chirdeep Malhotra connected with the author for an exclusive interview, in which she talks about her debut novel and her writing process for this book.
Please tell us a little bit about yourself.
I was born and brought up in Bombay. I graduated in English literature from Mumbai University, and ran a bookshop in Mumbai in the mid 2000s. I am working as an independent writer for many years now, and my work has appeared in India Today, GQ India, Firstpost, Mumbai Mirror, Brown Paper Bag and other publications. I am also an occasional copywriter, and a local expert on migraines, 1990s nostalgia and Old Monk. My debut novel, Paper Moon, has been published by HarperCollins India in November 2019.
You have chosen Bandra as a setting for the story. For the book, in a way, the zeitgeist of 2000s Bombay and the backdrop of suburban Bandra is a distinct character in itself. How essential was this to the story? Can you say a bit more about your relationship to the place and why you wanted to set your first novel there?
I studied in a Bandra convent and spent the first twenty years of my life in nearby Santacruz — which is where my bookstore, ‘The Reader’s Shop’, was also located. My maternal grandparents’ home was on Perry Cross Road. So the Bandra setting and its endearing characters offered themselves naturally to my story. The early 2000s coincided with my early adulthood and it seemed appropriate to locate Paper Moon in that era marked by technological advances, as also the promise of the new millennium. Then came 9/11 and its legacy of hate. Much like the time it is set in, the novel too is centred around hope and optimism in the face of political and emotional uncertainty.
When you were writing the book, were you reading any other novels set in Bombay?
I consciously avoided reading any fiction during the year that I was writing Paper Moon; it would have been too unnerving as a debut novelist. EM Forster’s A Passage To India was perhaps the only exception.
Is the protagonist Fiza modelled on you? How much similarity is there?
Fiza Khalid and I share Bombay roots, the bookshop connection and parts of our worldview. She is, however, a version of some past self. There are dissimilarities, too, especially when it comes to primary relationships and personal history. The best part about writing fiction is the freedom to seamlessly move from biography to invention, all in the service of the text. It’s an unrivalled feeling.
This book is inspired from your experiences of running and managing a bookshop in Bombay in mid 2000s. Is there a particular anecdote that you have incorporated into this book almost originally?
A lot of Fiza’s initial excitement and bewilderment at running a bookshop comes from my own experience. Her first book-buying spree; her struggles with interior decoration and software; her relationship with customers; her early lessons in the business. Nothing in the book mirrors reality exactly, but there are so many echoes and resonances. Through the book, and Fiza, I had the opportunity to set many things right. Ah, the joys of living vicariously through one’s characters.
The character of Fiza’s English literature professor Frances D’Monte is modelled on the late Eunice de Souza, a revered poet, professor and literary critic who taught at St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai. You have also dedicated your debut novel to her. Can you tell our readers more about this literary stalwart, your association with her, and how she has influenced you?
Eunice de Souza was that rare force that hits you when you’re young and unleashes its full impact as you grow older. Erudite, witty, acerbic, feminist, humanist — if you caught her attention as a student, you were both flattered and terrified. The things she said, the books she recommended, the phrases she quoted are a literary roadmap etched clearly in my mind. And any good literary roadmap is also the route to a more sensitive and compassionate life. Eunice was proof of the adage that literature sensitizes; she lived a life devoted to her students, family members in need, and in her later years, to stray dogs and her beloved parrots. She taught me how to read and write, in the true sense. The character of Frances D’Monte in Paper Moon is my little tribute to the institution that was Eunice.
Where do you draw inspiration from for your writing? What are some of your favourite works and writers?
I’ve been a lifelong reader and a bookseller for a short while. Writing fiction is such a satisfying addition to this story. I’ve been a fan of Iris Murdoch and Muriel Spark for many years, and have recently discovered the simple yet significant novels of Barbara Pym. The psychoanalyst and literary essayist Adam Phillips is another favourite. Vikram Seth’s poetry, Arundhati Roy’s prose, Edward Gorey’s illustrated works, Dorothy Parker’s verse — the list is long and varied.
In an article describing how authors write and their various quirks, you write—“Coleridge used opium. Hemingway alcohol. Dickens did it standing up. Virginia Woolf needed a room of her own. It’s always interesting to read about how writers get their writing done.” How do you get your writing done?
I approach fiction writing just like I do my columns, copywriting or other assignments: without any fuss. But unlike work that runs on a deadline, fiction follows another command. There has to be space in the mind and the urge to fill up a page. I was lucky with Paper Moon; the words flowed uninterrupted. I guess that’s what happens when a book is so strongly rooted in one’s own experiences. And I decided early on not to come in the way of a book that was leaning towards lightness and laughter. The challenge was not to overwrite it.
Finally, on to quick literary word associations. Tell us the first book that pops into your mind for the following.
Bombay— Bombay Balchão by Jane Borges
Friendship— My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
Booker Prize— The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy
Bookstore— 84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff
‘Paper Moon’ by Rehana Munir has been published by HarperCollins Publishers India. Read more about the book here and buy it here.