Author Interview: Daddykins by Kalpana Mohan
June 08, 2021
Daddykins book cover

Daddykins: A Memoir of My Father and I

by

Kalpana Mohan

The book:

When journalist Kalpana Mohan’s elderly father falls ill in Chennai, she is on the next flight over from California and the home she has shared with her husband for three decades. Caring for her sometimes cranky, sometimes playful, and always adored father at his home in Chennai, Mohan sets out to piece together an account of her father’s life, from his poverty-stricken childhood in a village in south India, to his arranged marriage, to his first job in the city, all the while coming to terms with his inevitable passing. 

Daddykins is an intimate and deeply relatable account of our relationships with our parents whatever our age, and the shared experiences of love and grief that unite us all.

The author:

I met Kalpana Mohan at a book reading in Singapore where she was presenting her second book, An English Made in India. At that time she also read from her first book, Daddykins, published in 2018 by Bloomsbury India. When Kalpana arrived in SIngapore during the pandemic, I attended her online book club reading of Daddykins last month. 

My review:

Memoirs by Indian authors that deal with the everyday life of ordinary people are uncommon.

Kalpana Mohan’s tribute to her father through this book is an exception and therefore important.

The book reveals her father and his life through a series of stories crisscrossing decades and countries. From details collected through phone and in-person conversation with her father in his last years plus her own coming of age vignettes, the author weaves together a moving story.

What sets this book apart is the subtle undercurrent of humour in the interactions between her father, his caretaker/chauffeur Vinayagam and others, during the daily business of living. The epigraphs include short dialogs and quips that made me laugh out loud. 

Yet there is travel and tragedy, success and loss, celebrations and grief, as in every life. There is movement across countries, from India to Pakistan, then Tanzania and later, a year-long stint in the US when the author hosts her parents at her home in California.

Home, after all, is where you can be yourself and when you have loving parents who let you flourish in your own way, their loss can feel irreparable. I could empathise with the author having lost my own loving parents not so long ago.

Kalpana’s loving tribute to her father through Daddykins, reminded me of my father and the entire generation of Indians who came of age along with India’s independence. In her stories are embedded the stories of other similar families who can identify the scenes that played out in their own homes.

A pleasant, humorous and interesting read about family, society and how the two intersect and shape us.

Kalpana Mohan and Ranjani RaoThe interview:

Question 1: Do you have a formal background in writing?

I have a bachelor’s degree in English literature. But it’s one thing to have a degree in English and a diploma in journalism and quite another thing to write a journalistic story. The world of journalism is quite different from the world of literature and creative writing. While all of my background informs my writing today, I would say there were many years of self-teaching, too. In addition, my background in computer science (my master’s degree) also helped to hone my writing. Recently, someone I’ve known for a few years now compared a good computer program to an elegant work of prose. I was surprised by that comparison but upon thinking about it, I saw what he meant.

Question 2: What came first? The idea for the memoir or the material?  

My life with my father in the years he was ailing informed my memoir. I began writing regular posts about life with him when readers wondered if I had thought of writing a book. So, yes, the material came first.

Question 3. How did the idea for this memoir originate? 

My readers on Facebook certainly seeded the idea. When I went to India to take care of my father, I began writing daily posts about him. It is hardly easy to live with a parent after you’re an adult and I began to write about all facets of my life in India. I had no idea that all those posts would be the “bread crumbs” leading to the destination as I began to write my father’s story about a year before he passed away in June 2014.

Question 4. Who/what were your primary motivations for writing this memoir? 

My father, my sister, my brother-in-law, my husband and one of the key characters in the book, Vinayagam (my father’s chauffeur), and, certainly, myself. My father was one of my greatest cheerleaders. He was passionate about my writing and when he found out that I was working on a project about him, he was terribly proud. But by that time, he was also too weak to truly absorb the import of it. I wrote about his reaction to my work in this essay for The Hindu.

A large part of the revisions happened in Chennai. My sister, Urmila, was a huge physical support during both writing and editing; I’ve lost count of the number of days Urmila cooked a lovely meal for me just so I could focus on my work. She didn’t have to do that at all but this was her way of keeping me going on some low days when nothing seemed to work on the page. How can I forget the small things so many others did? My brother-in-law decided to install a power generator in my father’s apartment so that I did not swelter in Chennai’s heat just in case the power went out. Vinayagam bought me samosas and pakodas and made me his world-class chai several times a day. My husband always asked after my work and offered me moral support. Let me not forget to say that today he has, against my approval, taken on the role of my publicist.

Question 5. Did you write this book in parallel as events transpired or much later? 

While I took notes as events transpired, I did not write in parallel. A lot of times, for me at any rate, it’s a little after an event when I can process what happened. So I observed keenly and wrote down details but I left the writing for later.

Question 6. How long did it take? 

The first draft of the book I finished in May 2015, about two years after I began writing it.

Question 7. How did you organise the chapters – did you write chronologically or at random and then pieced them together? 

It was chronological but it interleaved past and present to keep the interest alive and to let readers see the connections inside a life. There are chapters in the book where something in the present is completely explained by something in the past.

Question 8. How did you choose the narrative style – essay vs story arc? 

It depended on what I was trying to narrate. In a plot-driven chapter, it was so easy to determine how it should get told. There were some, however, which demanded an essayistic approach. I blended both most often I think.

Question 9. How did you choose what goes in and what stays out? 

I tried hard to keep what made the most sense in the context of my father’s personality and his life. A lot of this was also determined by my editor so this is a hard question to answer. I will say, however, that I fought hard to keep moments that illuminated my father’s personality and his life. 

Question 10. What was the easy part?

While I put a lot of effort into research and corroboration of everything my father told me about his life, I was also lucky that I had a ton of interview material about my father’s life. In January 2011, months before he fell ill, my sister felt he seemed depressed. She wondered if I could keep him entertained in some way. I thought I’d interview him about his life and set out many mornings in a week to chat with my father. 

Question 11. What was the difficult part? 

Probably the hardest aspect of the writing of this book was the last chapter which deals with my father’s death. While writing it I felt I was reliving the entire ordeal, especially the last many months of the slow, arduous skid to his death.

The other very difficult part of this journey was not the writing as much as the revision. When the editor lopped off sections, it was gut-wrenching. But I think I have a thick skin and I could deal with being edited. But I really could not brook it when my editor decided that it was perfectly appropriate to end the story earlier by decimating the last three chapters of my book; this would have meant that readers would never have known how my father’s life petered out in the end; they would never have known what it means to live in a house where a parent is dying bit by bit. The point of the book would have been entirely lost. I let my editor and publisher know that I was willing to walk away from the book if they did not publish it in its entirety and in the way I had experienced the last years of my father’s life.

Question 12.  What was your path to publication? Did you have an agent?

Yes, I had an agent. Mita Kapur of Siyahi. 

Question 13:  Did you learn any lessons – during writing and after publication of our memoir – any surprising or unusual takeaways?

I think it’s terribly important, especially in a memoir, to be aware that it’s your story. Agents and editors may polish your work and try to improve it, certainly, but if they attempt to blow a hole in the heart of a work, a writer must know to recognize that, too, and have the confidence to push back. I think every writer must ask the editor if he/she has read the story deeply, not once, but several times. I know that most publishers do not allow this kind of time to editors who are often worked to the bone; still, going in, I would expect that level of sincerity and commitment from an editor. I believe that someone who deeply reads a manuscript will be in alignment with the writer—for the most part—and know what must go and what must stay.

Question 14:    What is the one thing you want the reader to remember from the book?

To readers, this is my advice. If you’ve decided to read a book, read it deeply and well before you choose to comment or pass judgement on it. In a recent discussion of my book, one reader, who had not even arrived at page 89 (in a book of 192 pages), concluded that the book paraded the typical “stereotypes” in a Tamil Brahmin family. 

My book is hardly a stereotypical look at a Tamil Brahmin family. My father’s life story with his stay in Pakistan and Tanzania made his story different. The cast of characters, with a driver as my father’s friend, philosopher and guide, is unexpected, too. My father was an odd, yet principled, man with a zany bent of mind and a whacky turn of phrase. 

Just as every shell on Chennai’s Marina Beach is different from the other, my book also tells a unique story. Give me two shells and I’ll find a hundred things different about them. Readers who wish to participate in a book discussion, must be able to do the same with a book. They must know to sift, weigh and introspect even as they read and, certainly, before they pass judgement. 

Question 15.  Any words of advice to aspiring memoir writers?

A memoir is hard to write. You have to remember to be truthful but you have to be kind, too. As a memoir writer we don’t have the flexibility to invent twists and turns in the plot. We do have a choice, however, in how we choose to tell the story. We can tell it such that it can change a reader’s life in some way, not just through the power of the story itself but also through the values gleaned from its storytelling.

More about the author:

WORK:

Website: kalpanamohan.com

Newsletter: kalpanamohan.substack.com

Books: kalpanamohan.com/books 

CONTACT:

Twitter: kalpanamo

Instagram: kapsmo

Facebook.com/kalpana.mohan

Email: mohan.kalpana@gmail.com

SOME COOL THINGS

Read Kalpana’s answers to An interview by Kanakavalli

Listen to a book discussion on An English Made in India

Hear some 38 takes on One Story With Kal

Watch Kalpana’s short spiels about her books

Photo credit Ranjani Rao

You may also like:

It’s Launch Day!

It’s Launch Day!

  It’s finally here!  15th October 2021! The day my book becomes available to readers everywhere. Under my ribs is a feeling that is a curious mixture of happy butterflies and a quiet sense of accomplishment, with a pinch of anxiety about how my book baby will be...

Comments

0 Comments

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published.

My Book

Podcast

Categories

Are you ready to rewrite your happily ever after?

Sign up to receive a gentle reminder that it is possible to joyfully claim your authentic life today. Stay inspired with personal stories, resources and tips delivered to your inbox every two weeks. And receive a free chapter from my new book - Rewriting My Happily Ever After!

Thank you. Please confirm your subscription to receive your gift!