Maya, all of 15, wanted to be like the popular girls in school. But her t-shirt was just too long and her hair too tidy. She enjoyed watching Netflix, gorging on butterscotch brownies and experimenting with lipsticks, and no longer wanted to be Maya “the misfit”. However, soon, she became aware of her special powers that allowed her to look through illusions. Thereafter, she found herself unravelling a trail of clues left by a dead priest in Mumbai. What Maya Saw (Rs 299, Harper Collins) couples fantasy with realism, which has become Shabnam Minwalla’s forte.
The Mumbai-based author wrote her first book five years ago. “I was 10 when I decided to be a writer. So I did my masters in journalism and worked in the print media for 10 busy, fascinating years. Then my three daughters came along and for some time I did the nappy-and-pram thing, which was claustrophobic,” she says. To write a murder mystery, for adults, set in the nooks and crannies of Mumbai seemed like an idea worth exploring, but what emerged was a children’s book — The Six Spellmakers of Dorabji Street. “I thought this was a one-off. But other ideas strolled along, books got written and I realised that this was something I really loved doing,” says the 49-year-old.
A former journalist, Minwalla used to write on education, public health and human interest stories for a national daily, a job she quit in 2003. “I saw many corners of the city and met many remarkable people. Some of them have trickled into my fictional characters,” says the author. Upset that most children’s books are set in pretty cottages in rural England, small-town America, or the cobbled streets of Paris, she felt there was a sense of deprivation when the action took place in faraway places.
“I want to tell my young readers that there is as much magic and adventure in Mumbai as anywhere else. I want to capture the city’s past and its ghosts, and to show that they still wander the streets of our modern megapolis,” says Minwalla, who studied at St Xavier’s College. When it completed 140 years in 2009, she wrote a book, for the college, on its history, and her research has also infiltrated into What Maya Saw.
While she notes that a lot of thinking goes into naming her characters — from the super-strict principal Dolly Divecha to Speech and Drama teacher Mrs Braganza — she also likes to empower her characters with super powers. “It is this willingness to believe in magic that helps them to fight and win their battles. They are not exactly Marvel superheroes but their powers nudge them in the right direction. After that, they have to struggle like everybody else,” says Minwalla, who is now working on a horror story and a middle-school series on a girl called Nimmi.