Every few years, when her father got a new posting and the family trundled from one defence base to the next, young Anuja Chauhan would count her privileges. Within the walls of the cantonments — “gated communities before there were gated communities,” she says — everything was larger than life: from manicured lawns and May Queen balls to “handsome, fit young officers and conversations about conflict at mealtimes”. “It’s a very different life. It’s secluded and you feel different, special and snooty. There’s a sense of pride, a spirit of adventure. You learn to cope with the fact that you will have a posting every two years, that conflicts were a part of life,” says the Bangalore-based writer.
Outside, the cadences of civilian life, of an India trying to come into its own in a pre-liberalisation era, would filter in through her many conversations with the people she found herself amidst, in regions as diverse as Jhansi and Assam, Meerut and Sikkim. Over time, she would realise, both these lives — the vaunted and the everyday — were bookended by grit, even if it was of very different sorts. “When we were growing up, I never questioned nationalism. India meant everything. The national anthem and the army, and even, to a large extent, though I have become better, the Rajputs. I was a Rajput and (I believed) Rajputs are better than anyone else. It took me a very long time to realise ki aisa kuch nahi hai (There’s nothing like that). Everyone’s cool. I still have a lot of pride in being a fauji. But, as you grow older and you meet more people, it widens your outlook,” says Chauhan, 46, when we meet her in Delhi.
Chauhan’s pride in her defence forces background would have been reason alone for her new book, Baaz (Harper Collins) — a period romance set during the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War — which had seen seven of her family members as serving officers. But, for a writer in search of a story in a nation in churn, it seemed like uncanny timing. “There’s a strange, jingoistic, hypernationalistic space that we are in currently and it’s frightening. It’s not empowering to our defence services at all. You put soldiers on an altar and make them into little gods and holy cows and then you muzzle them. It’s like Irom Sharmila, in a way — you are a symbol and you better not rattle your cage. Don’t say OROP (One Rank One Pension), don’t say we have issues and don’t say that we don’t have spare parts for our planes and what are you doing about it. Then, you are questioning nationalism, and you are the soldier. You can’t,” she says.
When she began writing, instead of the feisty rebel girls who populate her novels, Flying Officer Ishaan Faujdaar, batch of ’68 — a short, fair-skinned and cocky Jat from Chakkahera, with a flair for living dangerously — jostled for attention. “He was based on one of my son’s friends in kindergarten. He sort of took over the book. I liked him and I liked where he came from and that whole underdog space. Also, I think in Those Pricey Thakur Girls (2013) and The House that BJ Built (2015), there were so many girls, I didn’t want to write about girls anymore,” she says.
In Chauhan’s literary universe, if grit has been the saving grace, conflict has always been a rallying point for change. In Baaz, this conflict is both internal and geographical. Ishaan knows what his job entails and has no qualms about it — “Say what you want, but I won’t hesitate if I have to kill some Paki soldiers — and I won’t be racked by guilt afterwards either! They’re enemies of India, and it’s my job to kill them, to protect our civilians and keep the country safe.
It’s that simple…,” he says. But he is also a man hopelessly in love and for someone so certain of his mission in life, the counterpoint can only come from another of Chauhan’s firebrand heroines. In this case, it’s Tehmina Dadyseth or Tinka, second-generation fauji daughter, a graduate of Delhi’s Miranda House college and a war photographer, who challenges every notion of nationalism that Ishaan holds dear. “People are just people. Before they are Indian or Pakistani or Hindu or Muslim. Any religion, any nation or any person who tries to make itself or himself bigger by putting down another nation, religion or person is to be condemned. I will say Hindustan zindabad a million times and with full feeling, but even if you put a gun to my head, I will never say Islam murdabad or Pakistan murdabad,” says Tinka.
Chauhan says she has followed the ongoing nationalism debate in India with fascination and some amount of trepidation because, suddenly, “the concept of the enemy is no longer as clean cut as Pakistan or China or whatever. Now, it’s like the enemy’s within you,” she says. She had been in the middle of her final edits earlier this year, when the Gurmehar Kaur row broke out in February. Kaur, daughter of an army man and a student of Lady Shri Ram College, Delhi, had been trolled and threatened with death and rape after she started a “Save DU” campaign on socal media to protest against violence at a seminar organised at Ramjas College. Chauhan says Kaur’s resemblance with her Parsi leading lady took her by surprise. “The whole thing of the girl with the Forces background and a shaheed in the family, going to a girls’ college and saying these things was really quite eerie. But, I think there are certain issues in our country that become relevant again and again,” she says.
In Indian English mass market literature, Chauhan is something of a rarity. Her prose is nuanced, and her humour — both sharp and colloquial — still bears traces of her two decades in advertising. She is an adept hand at romances — the chemistry between her leading ladies and their men has only gotten better with each novel, and her dialogues — a curious mix of the many Englishes of India — give her books a chutzpah worth savouring. “I like talking to people and listening. I try to have more conversations with people who are not the same age as me, not the same social and economic category and not the same gender. I think that’s what helps my vision. (I talk) with carpenters, maalis, the people who work in my house, my daughter’s friends and boyfriends and all kinds of people. So, I try to cut it in as many slices and I always enjoy it,” she says.
With Baaz, Chauhan also returns to her old publisher Harper Collins after a brief stint with Westland Books (which has just brought out Hindi translations of all four of her novels in collaboration with Yatra Books). “For me, it’s always the search for a wider audience. I think you are always trying to reach out to more readers and whoever can give you that by putting more money behind your books, it makes sense to go with them,” she says.
While The Zoya Factor (2008), her first novel, has supposedly made it to the curriculum of School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, back home, Chetan Bhagat’s Five Point Someone (2004) will now be a part of the popular fiction section of Delhi University’s English Literature programme. Does it ever bother her? “Only if I think of the royalties — imagine if everybody in DU was reading my books! But, thik hai, Chetan padh lo,” she says.