In an interview with TNM, Megha Rao talks about the world of her book ‘Teething’, its characters and plot, her process and relationship with the craft, and more.

Author Megha Rao Photo by Harsh Jani
Features Interview Wednesday, January 19, 2022 - 11:45

Kerala-based poet Megha, who is three books old, narrates the story of three children and their dysfunctional family’s past traumas, through poetry or “scattered memories” as she calls it, in her latest book Teething. In the book, the confessional poet takes readers through a pleasantly comforting and painfully searing ride as her protagonist, Achu, narrates the aftermath of her brother Kochu’s suicide. What sets apart Megha’s book is that she unpacks complex themes like sexuality, homophobia and recovery from childhood trauma within 73 pages. 

The book, like the city drenched in poetry by Achu’s (Kochu’s elder sister) mother, is damp with fragmented memories and metaphors. If Achu carefully folds her mother’s poems into paper planes, sends them out into the horizon to where they become one with clouds to return as a downpour, Megha’s retelling of growing up in a dysfunctional family through intimate poems is as scattered as rain across the book.

In an interview with TNM, Megha Rao talks about the world of Teething, it's characters and plot, her process and relationship with the craft, writing that moves her and more.

Why did you pick the title Teething?

I’d like to believe the experience of a book’s title is unique to every reader. When I wrote Teething, it meant the painful yet crucial process of growing older. When I was editing it, it meant the excitement of having your milk teeth being replaced by adult teeth, the tangible validation of becoming a brand-new self. And when I was rereading it again after seeing it in print, it felt like rebirth. That you could lose your teeth as a kid, and still get another shot at life. That there were second chances, come what may. It’s definitely open to interpretation too!

The personal and political often get intertwined while exploring complex themes like the ones you discuss in the book.  Do you feel the pressure to be politically correct?

A lot of what I write is extremely personal, but I think the personal can also be incredibly universal.  At the heart of Teething is trauma. The trauma of a child; the traumas of an entire family, and the traumas of society. There’s an urgency to tell my story, which is a sliver in the story of the world. Our encounters are so very different, but there’s this golden thread running through all of us, holding us together. The way we bleed, it’s truly the same.

Are the characters in Teething an extension of your own personality?

I used to be a lot like Kochu as a kid. His sister Achu’s angsty teenage self was me in college. Molu’s feisty disposition is my spirit animal. Their mother is me at my most vulnerable, utterly devastated. I am their grandmother’s kindness, their grandfather’s devotion. I am also the lover, who mysteriously disappears. I am giddy and naïve, like Kochu’s bride. I am their euphoria, their grief, their bitterness, their innocence. But I’m not like the father, Sunny Kochachan. It doesn’t mean they aren’t familiar; they’re people I know, but they’re just not me.

And a lot of Kochu’s experiences aren’t mine, and I refused to take them. I was able to understand a character as complex as Kochu’s after real-life conversations with people who had similar experiences as him. That’s why some of these characters aren’t written in first person. That’s why the book is written from Achu’s perspective. It’s her gaze, their world.


Author Megha Rao. Credit:  Photographer Harsh Jani 

The book is rife with references from Kerala, such as the titles of some of the poems: ‘Coconut oil for trauma wounds’, ‘Gooseberry Pickle’, ‘Mattancherry Beef Biryani’...

I grew up in Kottarakkara and Trivandrum. Identities are shaped by environment, you can understand so much about a character’s history from their setting. When I was a child and had bruises, my mother would always apply coconut oil to them. The solution to everything, just about everything, was coconut oil. I grew up believing it had magical healing properties. Susamma was a sweet old woman I met in Vagamon, who caught me roaming around looking for a place to eat on my way back from a pine forest. She wrapped rice and curry and pickle in a newspaper and gave it to me. She even got her son-in-law to drop me in his auto because it was raining. It was brief, unforgettable. The beef biriyani has its own story. And of course, gooseberry pickle is something my grandmother makes. She even makes pickle with this lololikka. We have a tree in our front yard.

When did you start writing Teething and what is your process?

It took me around three years. But it sped up at the start of 2020. I plan the story, I have the plot and characters and setting ready before I dive in. From there, I free-write. 

I free-write so that everything is raw, unfiltered, a journey of spilling. I don’t have a definite writing process. If you look at my room, there are sticky notes everywhere. I like my ideas levitating, hovering over me like fireflies while I open up the conversation, dip my fingers into the narrative. I always pretend I’m in a spaceship, looking at surreal, swimming creatures.

The book dosen’t have a linear timeline because I wanted memories to tell the story. Every poem is a memory. And put together, they create this beautiful montage, like a family photo album. I also wanted it to remain fragmented because that’s what the retelling of traumatic events is like. There’s no timeline, you just go back and forth, ricochet here and there, without a definite structure.

Actors often talk about method acting and the process of getting into the skin of the characters they play. Do you carry your characters with you too?

Actors can become another person, that’s so, so fascinating. I can’t ever dream of doing that! I’m introverted and serious and awkward. And I can’t put myself in a role, I’d be terrible. Because even when I’m performing poetry, I’m really just playing myself. So I can’t shed off the people in my book either, they’re in my blood, they cut deep into the bone. There’s no snapping out, we simply learn to co-exist.

You are known for exploring multiple formats as a writer. Do you pick the medium for storytelling before or while writing?

The idea picks the medium. Once I make sense of my thoughts, they lead me to the right medium, whether it’s a poem or a painting, or a podcast episode. Ideas that have multiple selves find themselves everywhere – there are some ideas that can be rewritten into the spoken word if you give them the right weapons, the right rhyme or repetition. Ideas that can be sketched years after they found home in audio. Really, anything can happen with ideas. 

 

You had said on Instagram that this was a difficult journey. Were you talking about finding publishers?

That, certainly, was a difficult process. The book almost didn’t make it, you know. I had all these rejection letters, and they were so, so kind, that’s what truly broke my heart. Editors were intrigued, they asked for the full manuscript too, but then they’d come back saying they didn’t publish poetry. Or that they only published classic poetry. It was confusing for everyone because Teething wasn’t really a collection, it was also a story. Finding a publisher was also a long, long process. You wait and while you wait, you lose your mind, yes. You’re constantly checking your emails, you’re putting yourself down, it’s hard not to be a mess. I don’t know if all that’s worth it, but seeing your book in print, holding it, sleeping next to it, it’s a miracle. I'd do it again. All of it.

Who are artists and writers that have influenced you?   

I’ve been influenced mostly by English, Tamil and Malayalam literature. Silappathikaram, Thirukkural, Kalki’s Ponniyin Selvan. KR Meera’s Aarachaar is my current favourite. I love Basheer, and as a child, I was exposed to a lot of older Malayalam poets like Vyloppilli.  

I have a strange relationship with English, because it’s the colonizer’s language, but I think that’s what provoked me to master it, conquer it. I hated how there was so much focus on white literature when I was studying literature. I wanted more Mahasweta Devi, Jhumpa Lahiri, Perumal Murugan. I think it’s changed a lot more now. But there are some non-Indian writers I like too, of course, like Joan Didion and Rimbaud.


Megha performing spoken word poetry. Credit: Photographer Harshith Prabhu

Could you tell us a little about your future projects?   

I’m working on a storytelling module for children in Ethiopia, Nepal, Peru, Egypt, India, Cambodia and some other countries with the help of a wonderful nonprofit focused on girls’ education, and maybe a book or two.

You can buy the book here 

READ: Making warriors out of women with words: Meet Kerala poet Megha Rao 

ALSO READ: The growing popularity of podcasting – the south India story 

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