Books
Author Khyrunnisa, known for the humour in her books, talks about her intricate plots, and questions of gender equality and political correctness in her stories.
Photo courtesy: Christopher

The lemon yellow butterscotch ice-cream is on the table. Khyrunnisa lets it melt, she has a slight cold. But that doesn't deter her from giving an interview, sitting among the many books that her Pattoor house in Thiruvananthapuram is filled with. Khyrunnisa A is as cheerful as the novels and stories she writes, about a 13-year-old boy called Amar, fondly nicknamed Butterfingers.

Two months ago, in a Thiruvananthapuram hall, Khyrunnisa’s newest in the Butterfingers series – Of Course It’s Butterfingers! – was launched by the MP of the city, Shashi Tharoor. He has been launching all her Butterfingers books, ever since Howzzat Butterfingers! came out nine years ago. Having spoken much about the humour in her books, this time Shashi Tharoor commented on the intricate plots in her stories that she takes so much pains about. Khyrunnisa felt good that someone at last has made note of it, for it’s not been easy at all, and few have appreciated this little fact.

This time around, it had been especially hard for Khyrunnisa, who had to write three new stories for the new book, a little after her US trip in May last year. But coming back, she had to deal with the sudden passing away of her aged mother, and then there were the floods that had thrown Kerala out of gear for days. Flood waters had entered her house too.

“Lots of things were happening and it was difficult for me to get into the mood to write a fun story, to bring humour in. Finally, with a lot of self-discipline and will power, I kept all that aside and began thinking of Amar’s world,” Khyrunnisa says in a rare solemn moment. When she comes back to the world of Butterfingers, she’d easily turn into one of the characters there, more Amar than anyone else.

Curiously, it is not the mother figure that resembles the author, as you might imagine. Amar is also the name of Khyrunnisa’s son – no, not 13, but a married grown-up living in the US. The characters playing his friends in the book are also named after Amar’s real-life pals. This happens so much that every time she writes a book, Khyrunnisa, who has been a teacher for decades, gets a whole bunch of requests from the people in her circles – students, friends, children of friends, and readers – to include their names too in her new story. So when Khyrunnisa invented a ‘girls versus boys’ cricket match, the first of her stories – a novella that’s much longer than the rest of the stories – she knew she was going to kill many birds with one shot. A girls’ cricket team would mean 11 new characters, and 15, if you include the extras and reserves.

Not about gender equality

“Look at the reasons why I am writing about a ‘girls versus boys’ match,” she laughs her characteristic laugh. She has always wanted more female presence in her books set in a mostly boys only school. Two girls – Minu and Reshmi – get added to Amar’s class through earlier books. But then Khyrunnisa adds seriously, “Getting more girls in had nothing to do with gender equality. That wasn’t my intention. If you try to examine these stories for my views on gender, that’s taking it too far.”

But she agrees they come out in the natural scheme of storytelling, when in a story Amar eagerly wants to mend his pants after watching his mother do a lovely job of it and in another, he wants to help her in the kitchen. But there were readers who opined, on reading about boys making gender stereotyping comments about girls, that boys today are not like that. Khyrunnisa disagrees. “The story is a reflection of who we are – this is how children are, mothers are, men are. There are many men who still think girls need to know to keep the house well and cook. They – the boys – are conditioned by what’s happening in their houses.”

So in the novella, you find 13-year-old boys, on learning about the girls versus boys match, drawing stick figures of girls playing cricket with kitchen utensils. One boy asks the principal if girls play cricket, because his mother had told him girls should play snake and ladders.

Meet the parents

Amar’s mother, however, is not one such mother. Shreya, if we notice, is one who’d take her scooter out and go to the bank, defying her husband’s suggestion of trying the ATM. But she is not all that present as the father – Mr Kishen – is. Not something Khyrunnisa has deliberately planned.

“I have not really thought about it. She might come across as the conventional mother, and is more in the background, backing her son. Somehow, I have created the father’s character as someone with whom Amar has minor confrontations. The mother backs the son, though she is often critical too. I don’t want a battle among the three of them”.

You are vaguely reminded of Calvin and Hobbes, the comic series about a unique six-year-old boy who uses big words in his lines and, in the company of his toy tiger that he imagines to be real, slips off into many fantasy worlds. Calvin’s mother too is more the conventional kind, busy in the kitchen or doing some paperwork while the dad would occasionally sound as crazy as his son. Khyrunnisa, who enjoys the Calvin comics and who has a framed strip on her dining room shelf, says, “You may not be directly influenced, but there can be a lot of unconscious influences. In most of these books you find mothers have a more subdued role to play.”

But Mr Kishen makes it clear how crazy Amar drives him when you read how happy the father is as the son takes a trip away from home, and how he worries when the son has to cancel the trip after catching chickenpox. That’s from ‘A Spot of Bother’, one of Khyrunnisa’s favourites in the collection and one that was half lifted from a real-life incident. Amar, her son, too had to come home once from his job in Chennai with a bad case of the pox. The doctor, like in the book, jerks back on learning it is the pox and, ordering Amar into a corner of the room, announces he has never had it before and to stay away from him, even as he jots down prescriptions. The rest of the story is of course Khyrunnisa’s skill of intricate plotting, that Tharoor had so rightly observed. It is difficult to see it when you are busy enjoying and laughing at the idiosyncrasies of a crazy bunch of kids.

Khyrunnisa with Vijayakumar (left) and Amar

Real-life incidents turn triggers

Another real-life incident she plucked became A Sartorial Adventure, where Amar, in his enthusiasm to reduce the length of his long pants, messes it up, cutting the same trouser leg twice. That’s something Khyrunnisa did to her husband Vijayakumar’s pants, who like Amar, was very thin. But it is only a little detail she picks from life, the rest has to be plotted in her head, she says, touching her neatly tied up curls. So, the story ‘Booby Trap’ that begins with the old children’s game being reintroduced into Amar’s world, goes on to have a plot, with many twists and turns and traps!

In June when she sat down to write the new stories, all Khyrunnisa knew was that there had to be a story about a ‘girls versus boys’ match and another about an Egyptian mummy. She had already committed as much to Penguin, her publisher, and helped them catalogue it months ago. Vijayakumar, one of the first readers of her stories, had asked her in wonder how she could pull that off. But Khyrunnisa, confident after years of writing humour, knew she could. It is not just Butterfingers, she has written humour columns for newspapers for years. “I like humour and I wanted to read more humour stories when I was growing up. So then I began writing them.”

Humour lover

The humour is not always in Amar’s clumsiness or the messes he falls into. It could be the principal Jagmohan blabbering malapropisms one after another, or one of Amar’s friends with their peculiar traits (one has a strange passion for the English language, another is an absentminded music buff). You can spot Khyrunnisa’s own little traits scattered across her characters – the love for the language is as much hers as it is Kishore’s. She wouldn’t like someone to speak with a lot of ‘like’s however stylish the slang might seem to be. So you find the kids avoiding new age lingo like ‘like’, ‘anyways’ and ‘cool’. There would be the occasional cool, Khyrunnisa says, but she’d rather make something ‘great’ or ‘lovely’ than ‘cool’. It could be the teacher in her slipping out. “Yes, and sometimes the quiz master in me comes out too,” she giggles. But mostly, all three parts of her – writer, teacher and quizzer – are in agreement with each other.

Khyrunnisa with former cricketer Brett Lee who is mentioned in the book

Being politically incorrect

Even as she takes such care with the language, Khyrunnisa says there is always a risk of being politically incorrect. In one of the stories, ‘The Music Makers’, the kids make a fuss when they learn there’s going to be a classical music concert in school. They’d rather listen to rock music. The story runs the risk of offending connoisseurs of classical music, Khyrunnisa knows.

“But I have to write, imagining how children will talk. All those who criticise are the grown-ups. There is a belief that if you like classical music, it is a sign of culture. In the story too, Amar’s dad hates classical music but when Amar talks of it as a sign of culture (quoting his principal), Mr Kishen immediately agrees that is so.”

Khyrunnisa then brings to the story a rock band called Heebee Jeebees, and you as a reader, get the special thrill that readers get on seeing recurring characters and names appear out of nowhere. Their names, like the names of the kids, cannot be pinned down to a state or region. Khyrunnisa never mentions a place, you just know it is pan India, reading the surnames. And you really can’t tie Butter to a place – he could be that kid that every place has, one that always makes a mess and still manages to find a place in your heart, for you know this little one always means good.

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