On summer afternoons in a boarding school in Meerut, left to no devices, not even a television, young Anuja Chauhan sat her friends down and came up with love stories. Each story tailor-made for a friend. The sporty girl got to travel to Dehra Dun for a basketball tournament, meet a bus full of jocks and fall in love. The arty one took it slow, but still found the one. There was no way that a girl who could hold a gang of skittish teens in rapt attention wasn’t going to grow up to be a writer. “I have always been a storyteller. The joke in the family was that: Ye Chauhan maar maar ke kahaani sunaati hain,” says the 45-year-old author over the phone from Bangalore.
But it took Chauhan nearly two decades in advertising and several award-winning campaigns before she started on her first novel. “Advertising is like writing in a very tight box. I had begun to tire of it. The day we bought a Mac Pro, I began writing The Zoya Factor (2008),” she says. That novel was about the “Karol-Bagh-type” Zoya Singh Solanki fighting to fit into the “unabashedly shallow” world of advertising, and the sparks that fly between her and cricketer Nikhil Lodha. It ended up too baggy for her liking, but also a word-of-mouth bestseller. In the seven years since, Chauhan has written two novels (Battle for Bittora and Those Pricey Thakur Girls), and her fifth, The House That BJ Built, is out soon.
In popular Indian English publishing, when the bestseller tag often leads you to earnest mediocre prose (unless you pick up a Chetan Bhagat, where you also find solutions to Great Indian Problems for free), Chauhan occupies an unusual space. Her sentences shine with elegance and wit, and her stories carry a wicked sense of the absurdities of Indian life. The many Englishes of urban India come alive in her language, a skill that comes from being a “compulsive eavesdropper”. And, despite the fact that the critics love her, she sells. Those Pricey Thakur Girls, set in Hailey Road of the 1980s, is that rare thing — a fine Delhi novel. Indeed, a joyous one, where the city’s rough edges are blurred by flaming trees of amaltas and harshingar, and the cackle of laughter from a house full of lively characters. Early on, she bristled at the tag of a chick-lit writer and it is easy to see why. She is a writer of comedy, in an expansive, life-affirming sense of the word, her influences being as much Vikram Seth as Joseph Heller.
But Chauhan is not content to be a bestseller writer for the literary-minded. “I know for a fact that there are many more Amish Tripathi readers than people who read me,” she says, before going on to narrate an anecdote about appearing on a lit-fest panel with Ravinder Singh, the immensely popular writer of lachrymose romances. “All the while on the stage, I thought I was very smart. But the moment it was over, the girls just ran me over to reach him.” That’s one of the reasons she has moved out of HarperCollins after eight long years. Westland had far more ambitious plans for The House That BJ Built. “While her earlier books have sold between 35,000 and 50,000 copies, Westland is looking at a minimum of one lakh copies a year. That they have also offered her an advance, a six-figure amount in US dollars, shows they are betting big on her,” says Anuj Bahri, Chauhan’s literary agent.
With The House That BJ Built, we are back to the sprawling house on Hailey Road, which was home to Justice Laxmi Narayan Thakur and his alphabetically-named daughters in Those Pricey Thakur Girls. But this is an emptier, sadder house, with the judge’s wife dead, the sisters scattered across the world, and Laxmi Narayan Thakur being looked after in his dotage by Bonu Singh, the daughter of B for Binni. Bonu Singh, whose first spoken words as a toddler were “balls”, is a modern desi girl, with a chip on her shoulder and a great ambition to suceed where her parents hadn’t. That she does by running a garment business that specialises in ripping off the latest designs at cut-price so that Hailey Road aunties can wear the “Cavilli Aishwarya wore in Cannes before she became fat”. “I didn’t want this book to be about Dabbu’s daughter. If Binni has raised her daughter to have grudges against her aunt, then it was interesting for me to look at the family through that lens. I like girls like that, I have a thing for the underdog,” says Chauhan.
The Anuja Chauhan leading lady, unlike many others, is not really single in the city. She is embedded in family, in the whole jingbang of aunts and sisters and female friendships. The youngest of four sisters, Chauhan was also a part of a rambunctious household. “My father was in the army and he had people come up to him and say, ‘If only you had a son, he would be in the army.’ But my parents were very unapologetic about their four daughters and they brought us up that way. The need to be independent was always drilled into us,” she says. The women in her novels are also full of spunk. “I like girls to have strength of character, some sort of larger life plan than just finding a man or cooking for their children. I like them to be well grounded, so that even when they’re swooningly in love or maddened with lust or swamped with public adulation, their brains don’t stop working,” she says.
And the city, even the secluded quarter of the Thakur house — in some ways, Chauhan’s two inches of ivory — has moved on from the genteel 1980s. The house is up for sale, according to the judge’s wishes. So, old family grudges, property sharks, forged wills and musclemen come in the way. But this is not a book stewing in in nostalgia. “BJ, the grandfather, being a very wise man, says it’s better to break up the house and keep the family together. That’s what we are seeing in Delhi with so many lovely houses being sold. But that is not such a terrible thing. I do think we need to embrace the change,” she says.
Meanwhile, in Halli, Bangalore, is a house that Chauhan and her family have built. She is on a swing in the verandah of her new home, watching the hills as she speaks. “I have a love for big family homes, with trees to climb, a big pond, and a granddad asking someone “bachho ke liye Coca Cola le aao’. This is some place I wish our grandchildren would come and visit.”