Novelist, playwright, screenplay writer, children's writer, columnist, illustrator - the many roles of Mariam Karim Ahlawat - are but just a few. A pedagogue of French Language and Literature, freelance editor, and a writer of fiction for children and adults, Mariam's second novel The Street of Mists, released this year, was longlisted for the Man Asian Prize 2009. Born in Lucknow, India, and educated at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi (India) and the Sorbonne in Paris, Mariam grew up in an army environment travelling across the country to wherever her father was posted. Her knowledge and her deep understanding of the world around her and the social issues are reflected in her writings.
Her first novel My Little Boat (Penguin India, 2003) was nominated for the IMPAC International Award 2005 and the Hutch Crossword Award. Her play The Betrayal of Selvamary was shortlisted for the Hindu Metro Plus Playwright Award 2010 and another titled Fractals Search for the Real was longlisted for the same award in 2011. 'A Bagful of Dreams', a children's musical written by her was performed in Delhi last year and 'The Undoing' was staged this year. She writes reviews and articles on literature and has contributed short stories to anthologies such as the Siècle 21, (Paris) South Asian Review (University of Pittsburgh) and Our Voice, the PEN International Women Writers Anthology. Her first book of folk and fairy tales for children was 'Tales Old and New' (Harper Collins India, 1994) and many more followed later.
Her Read Aloud page in the magazine 'Parenting' with illustrations done by her was well received for more than 11 years. Mariam has also been involved in writing multimedia design for children in subjects ranging from Science to Animation. She wrote a column on education and social issues for city-centric supplements of the Times of India for five years. For a project with the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health she wrote and edited five books for children affected by HIV which were distributed free of cost through NGOs working with AIDS.
We caught up with her for an interview with TME even as her hands are full.....
From a novelist to a playwright to a screenplay writer - do you feel the progression as natural or a difficult one?
I think of any story in an audio-visual way. When writing a novel, I visualize the characters, the descriptions and seem to hear the dialogues. Writing a novel is far more difficult than writing drama or screenplay. For a play, I see a stage, the characters, and simply write the dialogues. I shall continue to write novels for the genre has its own value. My plays are polemical; they address social issues. So basically, it's not a progression - just a going back and forth. My prose too, is very visual, cinematic. With a novel you have to be more careful to be able to put it together so that it holds.
Apart from French literature which you've studied, which other writers from other literatures appeal to you?
I have read a lot of other writers. I like Hermann Hesse a lot. Then some classic Russian writers. I love Irish literature, especially James Joyce. I've read and appreciated Umberto Eco. I have not read much of contemporary literature since lot of award winning writers left me quite disappointed. One has to go out and find literature for oneself. Award winning writers may not always be good. I recently read 'The Almond Tree' by Michelle Cohen Corasanti and liked it a lot.
You've also written a lot on parenting. What is it that children surely and definitely need to be taught to become better individuals in today's fast life of depleting values?
We in India are not a child centered society. Childhood, in our country, is not allowed the beauty that it should be permitted. Children here are treated as people who will eventually grow up to be adults. So I address children's issues in my writings - how the society does not treat the period of childhood as being of intrinsic value; rather it sees the time of growing up as preparatory. This turns children into stressed out adults. Children ought to be treated with respect.
As a Muslim woman writer who has studied French literature, you do have a very strong voice especially for women in your novels. What difference do you think can women across the world make in any field with this power of the pen?
I feel that it is very difficult for women writers to break free from the mold. The power of the pen can only be wielded if the people are ready to receive what the pen delivers. People are ready to receive certain things and not ready to receive others.
Women writers in India do write about women's struggles, their problems, the society and how it treats them. I feel that women's issues are important but then those should be integrated with other social issues. If women writers' perspective is wider, people are not ready to accept it. So peoples' perceptions must change for women writers to make a difference.
Poetry has been an integral part of your first novel. Did you never venture into this genre of writing?
Poetry is very difficult. I don't know how good or bad my poetry is. Whatever poetry you read in 'My Little Boat' is personal poetry suited to the character and the context. Poetry contains an audio content - rhythm, alliteration, repetition, rhyme etc. To me poetry is all about Eliot and Ghalib. Maybe one day I will write more of it ...but as of now I am not writing any.
Do you consider a translation of your novels into any other language?
Yes. It's my inner desire to see my novels translated into my mother tongue Urdu, Hindi and Bengali and then many other Indian languages. I want women in India to read my novels, those that do not read English.
Your children's stories are extremely interesting and deal with nature, animals and green surroundings. Is this a conscious effort to weave stories in this way to impart more to kids than just telling stories?
I wouldn't say that I wanted to impart something more but I definitely wanted to share my love for nature with children. I want children to develop a sense of appreciation for their surroundings because it is a great source of happiness; not just to kids but also when they grow up. This sort of awareness is also very important to conserve the environment. I myself love animals and natural beauty and merely share these through my stories.
Compare women writers in the East to those in the West. What difference do you find in their writings?
It depends on the language they are writing in. For those writing in English as their own language, their audience is similar to themselves. When we write in a second language we think of a different readership. It's kind of complicated. Harder in a second language. Women like MahashwetaDevi or Mridula Garg (prominent Hindi writers), who write in their own language probably have a different outlook. Many women's issues are the same in all parts of the world.