New fantasy adventure novel set in college that resembles St Xavier's

Jan 21, 2018, 11:06 IST | Jane Borges

A new fantasy adventure unravels within familiar sights and scenes of Mumbai, including a leading South Mumbai college

Minwalla's new fantasy adventure is set in St Paul’s College, whose arches, quaint classrooms, canteen and library bring to mind St Xavier’s College in Dhobi Talao
Minwalla's new fantasy adventure is set in St Paul’s College, whose arches, quaint classrooms, canteen and library bring to mind St Xavier’s College in Dhobi Talao

Before we even begin to read Shabnam Minwalla's new fiction, the dedication in the book catches our attention — "For St Xavier's College...the happiest corner in Mumbai". Moments later, What Maya Saw (HarperCollins), opens with a scene in a college library, where sunlight filters through tall, stained-glass windows, fans groan barely tickling the heavy air, and "books with maroon and avocado spines slumber in the sticky silence". For those, who've been associated with the famed 149-year-old institution, the shared likeness for the library's interiors have with the writer's fictitious St Paul's College is not lost. Minwalla, 49, a Xavierite, admits to finding inspiration for her writing, "within the arches and staircases" of the college. "In 2009, the college approached me to work with photographer David de Souza and write the text for a coffee table book. Strangely, although I had spent five years under the gaze of the gargoyles, I knew little about the history of the college. So, I spent the next three months in the library, reading every single one of the college and department magazines," recalls the writer.

Her readings exposed her to stories of how Father Ethelbert Blatter set up his herbarium in 1906. "And, how various priests arrived in Bombay and pursued their interests — collecting bird nests while risking life and limb, and smuggling camel skeletons out of Rajasthan," Minwalla says. "When I started writing fiction some years later, these stories bubbled up to the surface."

Shabnam Minwalla
Shabnam Minwalla

Her new novel for children is no different. Drawing parallels to the college, and its founders, the book revolves around 15-year-old Maya Anand, a bright school-goer, who joins St Paul's for a short summer course. But, from the time she steps into the college, she is afraid. Every corner she goes to, she encounters questions and secrets. Not to mention the ghostly shadows of beautiful students who will do anything to keep their youth and good looks — even kill. Maya is forced into this sinister adventure , but she's forced into it, as Professor Rustam Kekobad lets her in on the secret of the "golden, magical waters" once only known to the former principal, Father Lorenzo. Her unique powers of being able to see the unseen, means that only she can unravel the trail of clues laid long ago by a dead priest.
But In What Maya Saw also engages with the city and its rich cosmopolitan history.

"I was a journalist for 10 years, from 1993 till 2003. [During that time], I got to know hidden corners of the city. I encountered the travelogue of the Russian trader Afanasy Niketin and marvelled at photographs of Mumbai in various archives. When you talk to old-timers, read books like Night in Bombay, sit in Irani restaurants over a cup of milky chai, and visit old neighbourhoods, you start realising that you are standing amidst ghosts. It was this feeling that I wanted to capture in the pages of my book," she says. Minwalla also speaks of wanting to break away from the tendency of setting books for children and young adults in very contained environments, like a "school, vampire academy, or fantasy land". "I decided to let Maya and Lola [her friend] loose in the messy, chaotic, magical Mumbai. I hope this makes urban Indian children look at their cities with new eyes."

Then, there is the equally important theme about growing up, that Minwalla, a mum of three daughters, wanted to address. "Maya's trouble with friendships, her unwillingness to sink into geekdom, the fact that she worries about her clothes, her hair and looks. I think these are issues that most teenagers ponder over, and I felt they would help the readers to identify with my protagonists," she says.

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