Of Sweets and Ghosts – A conversation with Nandini Nayar

Award-winning children’s author Nandini Nayar is back with her new book “The Curious Case of Sweet and Spicy Sweetshop” by Puffin, and Team KidEngage got a sneak preview of the book. While the review of the book (which looks gorgeous, BTW) is on its way, we couldn’t resist a chance to ask Nandini a few questions about the book in particular, and reading, writing and stories in general.

Edited excerpts here:

KE: What drives you to write for children? And what do you keep in mind while writing for children?

 NN: I feel an enormous joy when I am writing stories for children. I truly enjoy the process of thinking like a child, remembering my own childhood and that’s why I write for children.

When I write for children I think of all the seemingly small and unimportant things that appear very large to children. I like to have moments of fun when writing for children because childhood is about finding joy in the ridiculous. And of course food becomes an integral part of any childhood, real or imagined.

KE: How did the idea for this book come about?

NN: Ideas for any book come either as a phrase that sticks in my mind or as a ‘what if’ question. For this book I had a picture of a gloomy place where it rains a lot and a man who appears gloomy creates glorious sweets even though his heart is not really in it. What would happen, I wondered, if something came along to disturb the even and unexciting tenor of his life? Once I had begun following that thread of thought, it took me places I had never imagined. And that’s how the story was born!

KE: The names of the sweets – Pumpkin Cinnamon Squares, Kala Jamun Barfi, Coconut Apple Rolls – make one drool. Have you tried any of these interesting sweets yourself? What inspired you with such creativity inside a sweetshop?

NN: No, I am afraid I have never tasted any of these sweets. However, it seemed to me like these sweets were combinations of things that would taste terrific together. And that’s why I put them in the story.  Writing a story is all about putting two seemingly different elements together and then getting to work to see what happens. That’s pretty much what I did, except that I did it in the part of my brain that plans and imagines and dreams of trying out new recipes.

KE: The book is as much about the tug between one’s passion and respect for tradition as it is about food and ghosts. What do you think is more important – doing as one pleases, or bowing down to traditional wisdom?

NN: I think each of us has to find our own way of doing things. There are some people who love following traditions because it imparts a sense of security. There are others who want to follow their passion and very often this treads a very different path from the one marked by tradition. For all the others, the best way forward is to use the guidelines set in place by our ancestors and then give it a little twist so it suits the contemporary demands and sensibilities.

I think Vishnudas Mithaiwala in the book is the poster boy of this way of living. He follows the tradition of making and selling sweets set in place by his father and grandfather. But then, he follows his own passion by inventing savouries. Of course, Vishnu is fortunate to have two enthusiastic children and three ghosts to help him. For the rest of us, finding this middle path is often the most difficult thing in our life.

KE: One can sense varying tempos in the story – the laidback life of Vasantpur, the fun and activity in the Mithaiwala household with the two children, to the taut pace of climax when one is at the edge of the seat. What goes on in your mind when you are writing for such varying paces?

NN: When I begin a book, my mind is full of doubts and fears.  Will I succeed in translating the story, the atmosphere and the characters from my mind on to the computer? Once the story gets going, it puts on muscles and tendons. At this point there is a lot of excitement and uncertainty, because very often the climax is only a hazy pattern of what I think should happen. Once that reveals itself, there is real excitement and often I am typing away at a mad pace, trying to get down all my ideas and all those interesting dialogues on to paper before they disappear.

KE: So many of your stories are about food – which books about food by other authors are your favourite, esp in the contemporary writing?

NN: I read somewhere that if you want to write a certain type of book, you should avoid reading other books written on the same topic. If I dreamt of writing about magic, for instance, I would do well to steer clear of other fantasy titles. So, while I do have many favourite books, I can’t think of any that specifically focus on food and are full of food descriptions.

KE: I’ve read in one of your earlier interviews that you are very brutal about editing your own work.  Which part of this story did you edit out of this book, that we can’t see now? 

NN: All stories require editing of some kind. Some require major rewriting and ruthlessly chopping sections out. I don’t recall chopping anything out of this book. Yes, descriptions have been rewritten, dialogues polished till they sound real and anything that seems unnecessarily ornate junked altogether.

KE: Which is your most favourite sweet?

NN: I am tempted by jalebis and gulab jamuns but I am often more interested in learning the secrets that make these perfect than I am in eating them. I am a bit like Vishnudas Mithaiwala- I love chaklis and murukkus and all things savoury. At the same time nothing beats the satisfaction of mastering a difficult sweet and making it well.

KE: What are your thoughts on the importance of reading in today’s time?

NN: Reading has always been important but in today’s time it has become an acknowledged and accepted cause to fight for. When I was growing up, reading was a habit that we fell into naturally, learning from friends and neighbours. I like to think that reading gave our imagination wings and that it allowed us, for a very short time, to step into other people’s shoes. That imagination, that empathy and kindness are what today’s generation needs and that’s why reading is so important, if we hope to raise generous children who will know how to do the right thing with grace and dignity.

Have you read the review of ‘The Curious Case of Sweet and Spicy Sweetshop‘ yet?

Leave a Comment