Bina Nayak on debut novel Starfish Pickle, and why water is a strong theme in the book
In an interview, Nayak talks about a different version of Goa, the world of diving, why raves are like modern-day tribal gatherings, and more.
Joanna Lobo Last Updated:October 13, 2021 10:46:12 IST
Carnivals and rave parties. Deep sea accidents and death. Spirits and suicide pacts. Costume parties and celebrity crushes.
Bina Nayak’s debut novel Starfish Pickle is a wild ride into Goa. This is a glimpse of Goa of the 90s, the ones we heard about even if we weren’t active part of it. The raves and trance parties that transformed hillsides, sending up intoxicating smoke and psychedelic lights; the cops who turned a blind eye to the happenings, the locals who ignored the hippies thronging their beaches and cottages who came here searching for ‘tolerance and a surrogate home’.
Nayak is a graduate from JJ School of Arts, a graphic designer and illustrator who sought writing inspiration from Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things. She wrote Starfish Pickle in 2002 but it remained languishing till this year (released on 8 September; Srishti Publishers).
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Starfish Pickle is about Tara. Tara is a commercial diver, a ‘glorified sweeper’ working for Martins’ Dredging Pvt Ltd. A water baby [just like the author], she lives with aquariums. The Bombay-bred Goan loves her job, despite the fact that it gives her night terrors. Nayak’s protagonist is headstrong, impulsive and intriguing. She does what she likes. She is good at her job. She catches starfish. She is most at ease under water.
The book follows her life as she struggles to deal with a job that doesn’t reward her enough, the attention of two suitors, an overbearing grandmother, and the secrets of her past. Her story is aided by Nayak’s beautiful illustrations.
Edited excepts from an interview with the author:
You’ve given us a glimpse of a different side of Goa. Is this your version of Goa?
It is not my version of Goa. This Goa exists. But most Goans have an ostrich attitude, so we would like to deny it. A lot of what I have written about is what the government, the tourism brochures hope you will not see. What’s the fun if I tell you what is fact and what is fiction in the book! From the descriptions, you will know.
Why a diver/ look at the world of diving?
Some of my friends, critics and reviewers have read my book and found philosophical undertones in it. That’s how they chose to understand it. I did not set out to do that. I just wrote about something I loved — water, swimming and diving and built a whole novel around it. But yes, for me swimming is meditation.
For someone who lived beside two swimming pools and the sea in Bombay, I learnt to swim rather late — at 11 years. Even before I learnt to swim, as a child I would do stunts like pinch my nose and hold my head in a bucket of water, trying to set a world record for holding my breath under water. Bath times were fun, and long. When I did join the pool, I was more fascinated by the diving board and diving. I learnt to dive before I learnt to swim. So, my first heroine had to be a diver. But I did not want her to be a scuba diver or instructor. I increased the degree of difficulty and made her a commercial diver, because that’s a back breaking job, and I could relate to it.
For research, I read a lot on commercial diving in the US and Europe from company websites, diving journals and I also subscribed to their journals and E-zines.
Water is a strong theme in the book, in Tara’s world and in her nightmares. What is the fascination with it?
The fascination with water is the same as fascination with life, or death. We are born of water. A new born baby can breathe under water, but slowly loses the ability. The earlier you teach a child to swim, the better s/he will be at it. Humans should be most comfortable in water.
I have always maintained that in Bombay (and now in Goa too) it makes more sense to own a boat than a car. The monsoons remind us that Bombay was seven islands.
But the real reason for the fascination is that as a new born baby I almost died because of water. My mother says that when I was just a few weeks old, she was giving me a bath along with a little servant girl. That child emptied a full tumbler of water straight on my face, choking me. I was admitted to the hospital as I had turned blue. After that, my parents became hyper vigilant with me when it involved matters of water. (I had to hide in the bathroom and create my world records!) Even though the said swimming pools were within walking distance, and most of my building friends were swimming at the ages of 5 and 6 years — I had to fight for my right to swim. At 11 years, when I did join the pool, I made up for lost time.
I do not remember the water incident but I’m sure my body does, some cranny of my brain still remembers.
Because they are not actually fish. They are amazing creatures. Even today if I pass a fish and pet store, I will enter and gaze at the fish tanks — more so if they are marine water tanks with starfish and live corals. I have spent many hours at the Taraporewala Aquarium (in Mumbai).
An interesting comparison in the book is that connecting raves and zatras. When did this thought first dawn on you that the two are similar?
I attended my first zatra at the age of 6, the Shirgao zatra at Bicholim. That memory remained with me. When I attended my first rave as a college-goer, the texture and feel of the heightened atmosphere felt familiar. Just that the zatra hysteria goes in the name of religion. Another comparison — the Chowpatty Ganpati immersion has a rave party. I’m happy that there is no hypocrisy there and DJ Whosane was allowed to have a stage near the immersion area. Now a host of other DJs also play. But leave aside for a moment that the Bombay municipality and traffic police allowed this government sanctioned rave party — what do you think happens with the feverish beating of drums and cymbals? If you’ve been in the crowd at Chowpatty during Ganpati — and even if you are stone cold sober, when you get out of it, ears ringing — you will not be. Sometimes, just the music can get you high. Even better if you have some help.
Dancing to the beating of a drum is the oldest thing known to mankind. Raves are just modern-day tribal gatherings.
Starfish Pickle is set to be turned into a movie. Can you share more details about it?
According to my agent, it was a tough MS to sell because of the theme and the illustrations. But with Covid, with the increase in OTT viewership, and with people wanting to ‘see’ new and unusual content (as opposed to reading it, I’m guessing), a whole lot of film production houses are looking to buy interesting plot lines. The story of Starfish Pickle — even without the illustrations — is very visual. He got a contract with a film production house first and then got a publisher interested in it.
Being an artist, I conceived my book visually first. I ‘saw’ the situations and then I wrote them down. Having written and art directed many ad films — it just came naturally to me. I could have story boarded my entire book — I almost started doing it when my agent told me that perhaps it would sell if it were a graphic novel.