A Conversation with Amulya Malladi
Amulya Malladi and Priya Raghupathi, a business analyst from New Jersey,
have known each other for many, many years. They went to engineering school
together in India and have remained friends, through job changes, moves to
different countries, marriage, and children. Amulya borrowed Priya’s
name for the protagonist of The Mango Season, as well as some
of her emotions, though that is still murky.
Amulya Malladi: Well, this is vaguely uncomfortable, talking
about something that must make sense after the conversation is
Priya Raghupathi: Oh, I don’t know, I’ll turn the floor over to
you, as the phrase goes.
AM: Ah, but you have to talk about the book and ask me questions
about it, because I already did my job. I wrote the book.
PR: Okay, let’s start with the names in The Mango Season. They
were all very familiar.
AM: Names as in, the names of the people?
AM: Hmm, I did notice that . . . but later on. I know different
writers write differently, but I need to have the title of the book in
place. I can think about the book, even write a few pages but if I
don’t have a title, I can’t move on. And the title just comes; I don’t
work very hard at it. Same with names of characters, my fingers
just type the names and I settle down with them. I don’t secondguess
myself too much.
PR: We’ve heard all these names in our close circles.
AM: I think I borrowed a lot of names from people I knew. I didn’t
realize that I was borrowing your name for Priya until later when I
started to read the blurb of the book and saw that she went to Texas
A&M and so did you. I did get some hints when Priya’s brother’s
name started out to be your brother’s name but I changed it without
thinking much. And maybe there were connections that came
from our time together in Hyderabad, as Neelima was also the name
of your roommate (and I didn’t realize that until right now). I did
quote another classmate of ours, Sudhir, in the book and used his
name. Ashwin, Priya’s father’s name, came from an ex-boyfriend’s
brother’s name. Ah . . . the list is endless.
Even, Priya’s boyfriend’s name came from an unusual place.
One of my husband’s friends had a baby boy and they didn’t give
the kid a name until he was almost six months old. And I think I
was working on the book when my husband told me they finally
named their son Nicholas. And I used it.
I don’t “steal” names consciously. Later on I can draw lines
and make sense of it, but right then and there . . . it’s just something
that works out.
PR: You also have a lot of references to the Bay Area and Hyderabad,
places you’ve been. Do you write only about places you’ve
been to? Even in your first book, you wrote about Bhopal, a place
you were familiar with.
AM: I think it’s easier to write about a place you’ve lived in. The
research element definitely shrinks and you can write more confi-
dently. I also feel I have an obligation to write about a place I’ve
lived in. I have moved a lot in my life, as a child and even as an
adult, and I just feel that it would be such a waste if I wouldn’t
write about the places I have lived in.
My third book, Serving Crazy with Curry is set completely in
the Bay Area, while the book after that is going to be set entirely in
India in this small town by the Bay of Bengal that I was familiar
with when I was a child. And now that I live in Denmark, I feel I
must write a book set in Denmark with Danes. After all, I am so
intimate with this society, not just because I live here, but also because
I’m married to a Dane.
PR: And I also think because you’ve lived in these places you relate
with them and don’t make up stuff.
AM: I don’t mind making up stuff, especially about a place. After
all, I’m writing fiction, not a travel book. But I’d rather not make
PR: I guess writers do write about places they know. Hemingway
did go to Spain a lot when he wrote his books with that backdrop.
AM: Even Naipaul does that. He writes about Africa and Indian
immigrants who live there. Amy Tan writes about American
Chinese characters who live in China and the San Francisco Bay
Area.Maybe writers like to revisit the places they have lived in, the
experiences they have had there.
For me writing The Mango Season was like taking a trip to
India. I’d forgotten how good chaat tastes, or how good ganna
juice tastes and when I was writing about it I could all but smell
that sugarcane juice. I miss sugarcane juice! I remember how you
and I would get off the bus from college and eat roadside chaat
and indulge in a tall glass of sugarcane juice. Our mothers were
never too pleased about us eating and drinking that junk. Never
stopped us, though, even when we fell sick because of it.
PR: Speaking of food, you know I found something similar between
your book and Like Water for Chocolate, that you put recipes
before every chapter, or almost every chapter.
AM: Well, food is an integral part of Indian society.When we go
to visit my parents, my mother will ask us to sit and eat even before
we have set our bags down.Whenever I’d go to visit relatives,
I’d find myself spending a lot of time in the kitchen with someone
or the other, watching them cook or helping them cook.
And I love to cook. So, even though Priya (not you, the book
one) isn’t a great cook, I think she appreciates good food because
she grew up with it. And I wanted to show the kitchen dynamics
and politics as well. A lot of women in one kitchen, there has to be
some masala there.
The Mango Season is nowhere as brilliant as Like Water for
Chocolate, which is one of those books where the lines between reality
and fantasy blur and the end result is a beautifully written story.
PR: Like Water for Chocolate is like a water painting with no de-
fined lines. When you look at something, you think it’s sort of a
tree but it could also be part of the mountain behind it.
AM: That’s a fabulous way of putting it. Laura Esquivel does have
that magic touch. I’d like to be like her when I grow up.
PR: When I first read The Mango Season, I thought, “Why is
everybody sounding so emotional? Do we really talk like this in
India? We definitely don’t talk like this in the U.S.” And then I
thought about it some. In the U.S. you try to stay politically correct
and calm and balanced. Even with family and friends. But
when you go back to India you realize that people say exactly what
they think. They do tend to get more visibly upset. And the bad
part is if you stay there long enough it can start rubbing off on you.
AM: Was everyone emotional in the book? Probably.
Well, it’s a matter of time and place. Priya has come home after
seven years and she has something to say that no one is going
to like to hear.Her parents want her to get married and they’d prefer
to somehow do it without her permission. At Priya’s grandparents’
house there is a lot of tension because of what the sex of
Lata’s baby will be, and they’re trying to get their youngest daughter,
Sowmya, married. After years of trying and not succeeding,
that is a matter of constant concern. And then there is the continuing
battle over Anand and the fact that he married a woman out
of his caste. They are all emotional because of the conflict-laden
atmosphere they are in.
I don’t think it’s a matter of being politically correct or not, it’s
just a matter of what the situation is. People are not extra polite
with family because of the societal need to be PC. I think families
are families and every family has a different dynamic. I know several
American and Danish families where the conversations get
loud and direct; feelings are bruised and mended, same as any
But you’re absolutely right about Indians being direct and
emotional. I feel that most Indians don’t have filters. They say
what they mean and what they feel, without paying much heed to
who will be hurt and how much. And yes, Indians are very emotional
as well and I have seen it very clearly depicted when I interact
with Americans and Europeans.We feel too much and we react
so strongly.My Danish family probably thinks I am a little cuckoo
because I go off the deep end very easily and often.
PR: Another thought I had was that things seemed to tie up a bit
too nicely at the end. Do you feel like books are better when there
is sorting out at the end? Do you foresee writing a book where you
stop at “Well. So that’s how things are. They didn’t get any better
or change and there you have it. Such is life.”Not necessarily a sad
ending but rather a non ending.
AM: I don’t know if things did get tied up too nicely. Her grandparents
and parents are still fighting over Priya’s choice of a husband.
She’s still not able to tell them that Nick is black and when
they find out, it’s obviously going to be considered yet another betrayal.
I actually wanted to leave things to show that this is how it’s
going to continue. She’ll never have her parents’ full support and
they will always find something to complain about, and she will
probably give them enough reason.
From personal experience, I know that my marrying a Dane
was not well received by my parents and even though, finally, it
came down to, “You have to do what you have to do and you don’t
listen to us anyway,” we’re not all living like one big happy family.
Sure, there are other reasons why my parents and I don’t get along,
but I think one of the reasons is that I’m married to a man they
didn’t approve of. And I think Priya will probably have the same
Regarding if books should have a nicely wrapped-up ending
or not, it depends upon the book. Sometimes I read a book and
the ending is left hanging and I feel it’s done for effect and not because
the story demanded it. Sometimes it’s nice that the author
didn’t tie it all up. But again that is a personal choice based on how
a reader reacts to a story.
Take Gone with the Wind. I’m sure there were readers who
wished that at the end Rhett and Scarlet would hold hands and
walk into the sunset, while I was pretty happy with the ending and
thought that was the only way the book could end.
PR: Strange isn’t it? After all those years, so many things have
changed—our lives, our careers, and yet here we are . . .
AM: We’ve known each other . . . oh, since we were in diapers. I
think it’s rather nice that you and I can still have a conversation
about this or anything else. I have found that I have lost touch
with many of my friends from the old college days, yet you and I
have managed to hold on and have some semblance of a friendship.
Thank you so much for doing this with me.When my editor
said that I could do the Q&A with you, I was quite thrilled that we
could work on a joint project like this and it has been absolutely
PR: I agree. This has been fun. I’m really happy for you, and as always,
my love and best wishes are with you.
AM: Well, that’s a wrap!