Author interview with Shabnam Minawala – ‘What Maya Saw…’

Text by: Prakriti Panwar (Intern), Staff Writer

It is a known fact that even the smallest of details and incidents ignite a spark in an author’s mind. Shabnam Minwalla’s ‘What Maya Saw’ was no exception. This famous young adult’s fiction is a beautiful story about a teenager figuring out life in her mysterious college, St. Paul’s. A tale of ‘shadows, secrets and clues’, the book is Shabnam’s first in terms of writing for a slightly older audience. An eerie college, mysterious classmates and a historical city- this book is the perfect fantasy thriller!

Shabnam Minawala
Shabnam Minawala

The Inception

Shabnam nostalgically remembers her teenage years in St. Xavier’s, Mumbai and talks about her love for the college. She recollects how ‘What Maya Saw’ came alive. “As a teenager, I attended St Xavier’s College in Mumbai, which is a truly magical place. I adored my college then and adore it now. Naturally, when the principal of the college approached me sometime in 2008 and asked me to write the text for a book about the college, I was thrilled. This assignment meant researching 140 years of the history of the college and I spent a fair amount to time in the college library – a glorious, golden room that seems suspended in time.”

Shabnam recalls the mysterious event which took place in the college library gnawed at her for a long time.“ One hot afternoon, I was quite alone in the library and working away, when, suddenly, I sensed movement and looked up. There was a girl standing in front of me. Sunlight was pouring in through the windows and for a terrifying moment, I thought that she had horns coming out of her head. I was absolutely petrified.”

Though Shabnam now knows that it was nothing but a trick of the light, she admits that ‘the second of terror’ stayed with her for years.

“That second of terror stayed with me for years, and I often asked myself the question, “What if that girl really had horns coming out of her head? What if? What if? What if?” One day, I sat down to tackle that question. And that is how `What Maya Saw’ was born.”

The Dream of becoming an author

As she says, Shabnam was just ten when she decided that she wanted to become an author and once she did, she worked hard towards it.

“I became editor of my school magazine, did internships with magazines and newspapers when I was in college and did my MA in Journalism. Then I worked with the Times of India for 10 years.”

She says, “To write books was always my ultimate goal but it seemed unattainable.”

But Shabnam got back to her dream once she had her three daughters and quit work “I suddenly had a chance to experiment without pressure. I started writing ‘The Six Spellmakers of Dorabji Street’ as a lark. I had no idea if it would find a publisher. Even after that first book was published, I never imagine that writing for children would become my second career. I still feel amazed by how things have worked.”

The Theme

Shabnam reveals that though her book is meant for young adults, she wanted it to be more than a normal one, “I wanted it to be a book set in Mumbai, with an element of fantasy. But I wanted it to be more than just a fantasy-adventure. I also wanted the book to be about growing up, about believing in yourself and about realising that it is wonderful to be different.”

She talks about how the city of Mumbai has a major role to play. “I wanted the city to play a starring role in the book. One of my main aims was to make teenagers actually look around them in the city that they inhabit. This is why I am so delighted when my readers come and tell me that they actually visited the various clues in the hunt that Maya undertakes.”

The message

Shabnam discloses that St Paul’s (Maya’s college) is actually based on her own college, St Xavier’s. “Though it is a fictional college, its history and structure greatly mirror that of my beautiful, atmospheric alma mater.”

She greatly hopes that her readers realise that there is no single way of being a teenager. “It is fine to be different. In fact, it is marvellous to be different and to realise your special strengths and powers. I also wanted to emphasise that superficial beauty has very little to do with inner beauty. This is something that Maya realises again and again through the book. And I hope that the readers do too.”

What Maya Saw... by Shabnam Minawala. Publisher: Harper Collins Photo credit: Goodreads
What Maya Saw… by Shabnam Minawala. Publisher: Harper Collins Photo credit: Goodreads

The relationship between fiction and reality

“I tried to infuse the book with my love for Mumbai, and also with titbits of the city’s history,” Shabnam says.

She counts the real details which influenced various aspects of her book. “As a journalist, I visited many corners of Mumbai and noticed fascinating aspects. Little sculptures or architectural details. Quirky streets, old artefacts. When I started planning the clue hunt which is at the heart of the book, I made a huge list of all of these corners of the city. And then I chose a few as clues. It made me sad that I had to leave out so many.”

The Challenges

Shabnam admits that when she starts writing, she usually doesn’t know much about the plot. “When I start on a book, it is usually open-ended and I don’t know where my plot will take me. In the case of What Maya Saw, I knew the beginning and I had a faint idea of the end. But I had no idea how I would get there. So I wrote and rewrote parts of the middle until I was perfectly satisfied with the story and felt that the suspense was maintained through the book.”

She also confesses that sometimes, some things are hard to balance .“I have just finished a big horror book for HarperCollins, and here too I found it tricky to balance the creepy with the credible. The answer lies in rewriting and tweaking and editing until you are satisfied. This can be tedious, but is really worth the effort and time.”


Though Shabnam’s books have received plenty of awards, have been converted into plays and even read in schools, her favourite part is when she receives letters from her young readers. “What really thrills me is the response and letters from my readers and the fact that some of them know my books so much better than I do.”

Shabnam Minwalla has written several books for readers of all ages and all of them have been instant hits among children. A journalist, author and mother, Shabnam seems to be an expert in all fields! In fact, she is also experimenting with new genres such as horror for young adults which will be out in the form of her new book, ‘Saira Zariwala is Afraid’Currently, she is writing a young adult romance novel, which she finds ‘ tricky and exciting’. As for adults, she has also written about Colaba for Speaking tiger as a non -fiction.

About our Intern:

Prakriti Panwar

Prakriti Panwar

Prakriti Panwar is a Grade XI student of DPS School, RK Puram, New Delhi. She is a wordsmith and a bookworm. At the age of 14, her short story was selected to be published as part of an ebook after she won a countrywide contest. She loves to weave stories, paint, play the guitar and piano and sing. She plans to pursue her interest in writing by becoming a journalist.

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