It’s difficult to tell how many book ideas she stores in the folds of her burkha. She finds inspiration everywhere. Eavesdropping on a conversation between two adults—“How can a woman do this? How can she just leave her family and go"—when the author is 12 can result, years later, in When She Went Away, a daughter’s quest to find the mother who upped and walked out of home one morning.
Waking up with a start after midnight in her mother’s house to someone screaming in a nearby apartment can cause the writer’s mind to start ticking and, the next thing you know, her overactive imagination has translated that experience to House Of Screams. Driving through Bengaluru’s Tannery Road and thanking her stars she doesn’t live there is the seed for Asmara’s Summer, the tale of a posh teenager who must spend a month in this lower middle-class Muslim neighbourhood. Not understanding the fuss about turning 30 provides the catalyst for Twenty-nine Going On Thirty, published this year, a decade after the author passed that milestone.
Closer home, the extended family inspires an immersive multi-generational tale, More Than Just Biryani; and memories of a maternal grandmother who loves to crochet while she tells stories form the heart of her just-out book, The Sum Of All My Parts.
Andaleeb Wajid’s absorbing portraits of the inner lives of Indian women—aged 15-70—should have made her a household name, but for now Wajid is probably the most prolific Indian author you may not have heard of.
Her stories are centred around universal themes of love, loss and identity. The conversations are real, the lived experiences likely to remind you of someone you know. Her writing has that elusive unputdownable quality every author covets. She burrows into the choices women make, how relationships metamorphose, how our marriages look different from the outside and the inside and the guilt we are all wracked by. Yet her books don’t dig so deep to make you squirm with discomfort—Wajid is the queen of the breezy read.
The Sum Of All My Parts is Wajid’s 17th novel in the last nine years. In October, her 18th novel—and the fifth one to be released this year (yes, you read right)—will hit bookstores. It’s easier for her to list the publishers she hasn’t worked with (HarperCollins and Westland) than those that have published her books. She writes one chapter, or around 2,000 words, every morning. When she’s not writing, she says, an uneasiness envelops her.
Growing up, Wajid was impatient and never paid attention to her grandmother’s stories. Still, that childhood memory was enough to conjure Mariam, in her 70s, the protagonist of The Sum Of All My Parts, who loves crochet because it allows her to think her favourite thoughts while still creating something beautiful with her hands.
At first, and when viewed through the eyes of the four younger women who attend her crochet class, Mariam is your generic “old person". Until she asks them to help her with a task and tells them the story of her life. “When we look at older people, we don’t really care about the lives they have lived. After I wrote this book, I looked at them differently," Wajid tells me over tea.
She wrote her first novel Kite Strings from the perspective of a young girl who—as she tells readers in the introduction—“has a simple desire …to be someone other than the roles society has defined for her." She is “bound by a few conventions of her orthodox family and her experiences may seem limited. Nevertheless it is the only life that she knows and all she wishes is to make it bigger and better."
It’s tempting to draw parallels to the writer’s life. She’s lived her entire life in Bengaluru and most of her books are set in this city. “Sometimes, I feel handicapped. I try not to make the city too much of an element in my writing," Wajid says. Her grandmother’s sprawling house in Vellore, where she spent many happy summers with her cousins, features in more than one book.
Wajid’s father died when she was in class VIII and she was married at 19—most of the women in her family marry at this age—to her cousin Mansoor. “I was the one girl in college who got married while she was studying. It was mortifying to walk into college with toe rings." Yet, marriage was liberating. Suddenly, her mother didn’t control her movements. “After I got married, I was left alone," she says. She was the first woman in her family to get a job, and, the first woman to travel solo and stay alone in a hotel when she went for the Pune Lit Fest.
In her early books, all of Wajid’s characters were Muslim, because it was the easiest way to write authentic stories. Now she’s an expert in the craft and experiments with a wider range of characters. She supplements her income with creative writing workshops. Yet, many stories continue to be set in her milieu because “it’s nice to read about Muslim characters in normal scenarios. It helps people see us beyond burkha, daadi and niqab stereotypes." Wajid’s books are sprinkled with words like valima and asr azan, but her stories go beyond any religion. They are certainly about more than just biryani, to borrow from one of her more popular titles.
Most of Wajid’s books are categorized as romance novels or family sagas but she’s dabbled in young adult fiction, science fiction and, her relatively new love—horror stories. “I get scared easily, I don’t know why I’ve started writing horror," she says. “When I watch horror films like The Conjuring, I read the entire synopsis first to see who dies and how invested I should get in each of the characters." She ensures she watches horror films only during the day.
Sometimes when she’s alone at home and wakes up from her sleep, she sees her daily-use burkhas hanging on the hooks on the door of her bedroom. “It suddenly looks like there are people standing there," she says, sending a shiver down my spine. I’m waiting for this experience to inspire an Andaleeb Wajid novel.
Priya Ramani shares what’s making her feel angsty/agreeable.
She tweets at @priyaramani