Hooked by the stories that objects tell: Soumya Ayer

"As a kid I loved listening to stories from Indian mythology. My father told me one story every night, otherwise my day was not complete," says Soumya Ayer, the author of 'The Ghost of Malabar', a children's fiction book published by Harper Collins India.

Soumya Ayer, the author of 'The Ghost of Malabar'
Soumya Ayer, the author of 'The Ghost of Malabar'.
Photo courtesy: Soumya Ayer

Having already written a series of books on Indian mythology, 'The Ghost of Malabar' is Soumya's first foray into children's fiction. According to its blurb, her latest work is "a spooky tale…set in Fort Kochi, once a seaside town with a long colonial history".

The book tells us the story of twelve-year-old Edwin, a boy with a dysfunctinoal family and pre-teen angst to spare, and his encounters with Velu, the ghost of a fisherman who was slaughtered five hundred years ago by Kapitan Vasca da Gama.

Here are excerpts from Connected to India's interview with Soumya Ayer about her life, work and journey.

Connected to India (C to I): What inspired you to become an author? Please tell us about your journey.

Soumya Ayer: As a kid I loved listening to stories from Indian mythology. My father told me one story every night, otherwise my day was not complete. Stories build people and these stories shaped me. At the age of four, I knew I wanted to tell stories too. I loved reading, and reading and writing tend to go hand in hand. No matter what I did or where I was, I was always writing in my spare time.  Writing is my way of relaxation; it brings me joy. This led to the publication of books on Indian mythology for children. I also wanted to try my hand at fiction for children, and was delighted when The Ghost of Malabar was accepted by a major publisher like HarperCollins India. It’s been a long journey, but a worthwhile one. I have had manuscripts rejected by editors several times, but I would get back to my computer and start all over. I just persisted and kept repeating to myself, like a mantra: it’s not a matter of if, but a matter of when. 

C to I: Any advice for budding authors? Do you have any tips on how to get your manuscript on publishers' radars?

Soumya Ayer: Find a writers’ group. It really helps. I joined the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) here in Singapore. The feedback, encouragement and support of the group really helped me improve my manuscript and stay focused. It is great to network with fellow writers and see what they are reading, writing and share in their journey to getting published. It’s really a great resource in terms of learning about the industry. I would also say that one should read the genres and age-groups one is writing for, to see what is getting published. 

C to I: Please tell us about some of the stories and storytellers who have influenced and inspired you and your writing.

Soumya Ayer: We have a rich storytelling tradition in India. Every festival is a celebration of stories. Apart from Indian myths, I loved the wit and practical wisdom of folk tales. My father, who is a great raconteur, has had a big influence on me. Like most Indian kids, I too read a lot of Amar Chitra Kathas, Enid Blyton, Agatha Christies, followed by English classics and later books by Salman Rushdie, Rohinton Mistry, and Amitav Ghosh to name a few. The list is endless. One of my favourite books as a teenager was 'The Scarlet Pimpernel' by Baroness Orczy set around the French revolution.

C to I: What is the significance for choosing this particular setting, genre and protagonist for 'The Ghost of Malabar'?

Soumya Ayer: In 2008, I had this idea visit me – of a boy, a ghost of a fisherman and Vasco Da Gama – but I had no idea how they were connected. I knew I wanted to tell the story of the early encounter of the Portuguese with the people living on the west coast of India. This period of history receives only brief mention in our school books, that Vasco Da Gama, the great explorer, found the direct sea-route to India in 1498. I wanted to examine this early encounter from an Indian standpoint.  In 2016, I volunteered to guide an exhibition, called ‘Port Cities: Multicultural Emporiums of Asia, 1500-1900’, at the Asian Civilisations Museum. This exhibition highlighted the cosmopolitan nature of Asian port cities. The textiles, paintings and other objects on display, brought this period to life for me. Through my research, I came across a little mentioned incident that took place in the year 1502, where around 35 fishermen were rounded up and slaughtered under the command of Vasco Da Gama on his ships in Kozhikode. Quite by chance, I now knew how to link my characters. 

growing up I really wish I had the books that are available now.
Growing up, I really wish I had the books
that are available now., says Soumya Ayer.
Photo courtesy: Soumya Ayer

C to I: Describe what you want your readers to feel after reading 'The Ghost of Malabar'. 

Soumya Ayer: Firstly, I want readers to enjoy the story. There is history, mystery and loads of spookiness in the book. However, I also want readers to be aware that the great explorers as we know them today were responsible for the taking of many innocent lives. This was a period when violence went hand in hand with the production of objects of great beauty. I also managed to come across a stunning crown which is at the Hill Palace Museum in Kochi, which I have used in my story. So if anyone visits Kochi, they should go see it.     

C to I: What are some of the biggest changes you've seen in the publishing and reading worlds over the years?

Soumya Ayer: I am amazed at how much content is consumed online. The access to e-books and audio books has made books accessible widely and instantly. In the Indian kids lit space, the availabilty of books in regional languages is an inclusive and much needed movement. I have noticed a shift in the willingness of Indian publishers to bring out unconventional stories and to explore complex characters. The Indian kids lit scene is a really exciting space at the moment, and growing up I really wish I had the books that are available now.

'The Ghost of Malabar' is Soumya's first foray into children's fiction.
'The Ghost of Malabar' is Soumya's
first foray into children's fiction.
Photo courtesy: Soumya Ayer

C to I: You've also published a series of children's books on mythology, particularly about Vishnu and his avatars. Please tell us about them.

Soumya Ayer: My retellings of Indian mythology have been brought out by Vakils, Feffer & Simons. I have written a book on Krishna’s childhood which is illustrated with art that is inspired by the Tanjore and Mysore school of painting. I have written a book on the ten avatars of Vishnu which is for older kids. I also wrote a book on Rama, titled 'Lights for the Blue Prince', a story of Diwali, using shadow puppet photography for illustrations. This book was first developed as a script for a short shadow puppet performance which I would do in my kids class to share one of the legends associated with the celebration of Diwali. I then decided to adapt this into a book, and had a talented photographer, Ito Corrado, who is also a dear friend, photograph these shadow puppets to illustrate this book. 

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