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Interview: Maneesh Madambath on closing the distance between Bombay and Mumbai

Updated: Jul 9, 2022

I serendipitously stumbled upon Maneesh's writing last summer. The punishing slow pace of the year had allowed for fewer good surprises, Maneesh's weekly daaks from Bombay being one of them.

His investigative missives--deeply curious and accidentally poignant--carry inquiries into the condition of being a human in an unsettled world. After reading his letters, one immediately goes to writers who fostered an intimate relationship with their cities: Ghalib and the winding streets of Delhi; Ruskin Bond and the forested hills of Dehradun; John Berger and the cobblestone-clad Paris. It's a love affair as old as time--one that Maneesh faithfully tends to each publishing season.

Picture courtesy: Maneesh Madambath

An entrepreneur and a writer, he sure keeps busy. Maneesh has co-founded two startups and co-authored Not in Sight, a flash fiction zine. When he is not working on his weekly dispatches, he can be found enjoying the outdoors--high-altitude treks and road trips a preference.

In this interview, I prod him about Bombay and his childhood, about books he loves and, of course, the uncertainty of the ongoing pandemic.

Maneesh, you talk about your childhood in your newsletter and seasons changing. You reminiscence the emotional distance between Bombay and Mumbai and often bring up old friendships in your letters. It feels like your life is one long, ongoing memory. How much do you look back at what once was when writing?

A lot, at least and especially while writing my newsletter. Bombay Daak, before it came about in its current form, went through many iterations. It started as a story, then a collection of stories, then anecdotes and guides. Everything remained half done, and for a long time went nowhere.

The newsletter itself was born as a way to get into the habit of seeing things and a practice of writing about it.

The stories, real and fictional, were all about how the city had changed and how to reconcile (or not) with that. I was always coming back to that, and I knew there was something I wished to see but I wasn't able to. Given that background, it was inevitable that this project will be painted in nostalgia. The newsletter itself was born as a way to get into the habit of seeing things and a practice of writing about it. The hope being that if I do it enough, I might get to see, and say what I wanted to. To hone that missing link, and perhaps finish that story.

So has your relationship with Bombay evolved over the years? Is there a give-and-take?

This might come as an extension to the question of looking back when writing, and why I write Daak as well.

I came to Bombay when I was ten and haven't left since. It was a tricky age, I was young enough to say I grew up here thereafter, but I have memories of equal measure of growing up elsewhere. Almost all my friends were born and raised here, and they take this as home for granted. Then there are those who have moved on from it. There is a conflicting duality in this that I don't get to share, or resolve in my life. That was the genesis of the whole Bombay Daak affair that I mentioned earlier.

The city is constantly changing, trying to be something else every decade. It is hard to root yourself to that.

Bombay. Picture courtesy: Unsplash

My relationship with Bombay in that sense is an evolving exercise to root myself in it. In the early years it was all about discovering it, then it was identifying with it, and then a crippling realization that you are losing it. The city is constantly changing, trying to be something else every decade. It is hard to root yourself to that. What do you do when you recognise that what you tried to hold on to is slipping away?

I imagine that if I had come here as an adult my equation with it might have been transactional. I envy those who discover it as an adult. But as it stands, there is no give and take, it is... a home. And that is one singular great thing about it, it always lets you find your space in it, call it your own, even when you know it isn't.

Speaking of cities and connections, what do you find dents your memory more—people or places?

It's a tough choice, isn't it? People, at places. People always come first. What good is a place if you can't share it with someone?

Turning the flow of conversation to books and writing, Maneesh. What was a pivotal moment for you as a reader, then, as a writer? Something that changed things for you.

As a reader, it was reading Three Men in a Boat. It made me want to write. I had never considered writing with any particular interest until then. But the moment I started reading this book, I badly wanted to write, and I badly wanted to read. I wanted more of such things in the world. I, in fact, got hooked on reading because I enjoyed that book so much. My sister had gifted me the first Harry Potter around that time, and I never bothered to read it. That was until I read this little classic, thereafter I looked at books in a whole new light.

I began to read like a writer should. I began to see things as a writer might.

In terms of writing, it wasn't until I read Milan Kundera's The Art of the Novel that I understood what it takes to be a writer of novels and books. The book isn't about teaching you how to write a novel, not explicitly, but it opened my sensibilities as a writer. I spent the next two years reading only European novels after that, trying to see what Kundera saw. I began to read like a writer should. I began to see things as a writer might.

These two books have remained etched as points of inflection, however, there are others such as reading Naipaul's Guerrillas, Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day, Calvino's If on a Winter's Night a Traveller, that have also played pivotal parts in my evolution as a reader. They were momentous to me in terms vividly recognising how they shifted the paradigm on what all can happen in a novel and only in a novel. I should also add Jeet Thayil's poetry collection, English: Poems, took me to a similar place.

Tell me, can writing contemplative letters ever be formulaic? Is there a writing routine you abide by or flirt with?

I wish it was. It would make writing them far easier than they are.

I don't know if it can be. One good thing about writing a newsletter like Bombay Daak, is that it can be experimental. I can hide what I want to say or keep repeating it across issues blatantly. I have the leeway for it, that a professional writer under a deadline might not. So I try to use it.

I try to keep a theme going for 3-4 issues together. The idea is to link them somehow. It's easy to spot such streaks from their headlines/titles.

My writing routine changes slightly when Daak is in season. The letters go out every Sunday, and the writing process begins on Wednesday. Until Friday night I usually have my first draft done and it always is utterly unusable. The useful writing happens on Saturday mornings, in the second draft by the end of which I know what I don't want to write or say. By Sunday I'd have a third and final draft ready to go. I keep a space of two hours every day to write them during those days. That said, I have considered ways to follow a template on some occasions; the idea was to make it both easier for me to write and create a consistent experience for the readers. I haven't made it work yet however. That said, I do try to be formulaic with the topics I write about or how I view certain topics, I try to keep a theme going for 3-4 issues together. The idea is to link them somehow. It's easy to spot such streaks from their headlines/titles.

What about the last book you loved reading?

I was recently reading How Asia Works by Joe Studwell, and it upended a lot of ideas I had about the world. I was genuinely fascinated. The Wizard of Earthsea that I came around to read only during the pandemic is another contender, so was The Invention of Morel by Adolfo Bioy Casares. But a book that I absolutely loved reading was The Parameters of Our Cage. It is a collection of letters exchanged by photographer Alec Soth and writer C. Fausto Cabrera over the course of 2020. I find it hard to describe why I love it, I've tried to, in multiple issues of Daak in one way or the other.

The context of these letters obviously are a big reason, Cabrera writes his letters to Soth from the Minesotta State Prison, where he is serving time since 2003. But once their conversation starts rolling, you see how the minds of two artists work, and it is a fascinating piece of literature and art and adult relationships we have by the end. Not perfect, but interesting and rewarding, which is hard to say about a lot of books today. The number of times I have recommended it, it seems I can't get enough of talking about this book.

It would be tone-deaf to not talk about the pandemic. So what has these last two years taught you about isolation, society, and lastly, yourself, Maneesh?

To have survived the lockdowns itself seems unbelievable at times if I am honest. I am not someone who contemplates on what this all means. You take everyday as it comes. If you have survived, you have adapted in all its possible meanings. And that's how life was always. The pandemic just brought this to the doors of the rich and the privileged as well this time.

In hindsight I can only say that I was genuinely afraid the first year, really angry the second, and currently mostly exasperated with it. And I think that is almost all of us now.

You can subscribe to Bombay Daak by Maneesh Madambath here and stay updated with his upcoming projects on Instagram @maneesh30 and @bombaydaak, and on Twitter @maneeshm

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