Romancing the contemporary

Niharika Mallimadugula | Updated on July 11, 2013

Anuja Chauhan, adwoman-turned-author. - BHAGYA PRAKASH K.

Anuja Chauhan’s bestselling books are a rib-tickling concoction of Hindi and English.

Boarding school and homesickness led her to concoct “elaborate love stories, with dialogue” — all in her head — to get her through the night.

All three of Anuja Chauhan’s novels are romances at heart. While The Zoya Factor (2008) is set in the highly-charged world of Indian cricket, her second, Battle for Bittora (2010), revolves around a Lok Sabha election in a small town called Bittora. Her latest, Those Pricey Thakur Girls (2013) is set in 1980s pre-liberalisation India. The books are much like their author — crisp, uncomplicated and entertaining. “I stick closely to write-what-you-know. I’d seen the absurdities of cricket advertising up close, so I wrote that into The Zoya Factor. I’d campaigned with my ma-in-law (Rajasthan Governor Margaret Alva), so I wrote about that in Bittora; and I grew up in the eighties with three elder sisters, so that forms the nub in my latest book,” says the former vice-president of advertising major JWT.

After 17 years in advertising and several memorable campaigns and punchlines — Kurkure’s Tedha hai par mera hai, Lays’ Dillogical, Mountain Dew’s Darr ke age jeet hai — she set herself a more self-indulgent goal. “In advertising you have very little creative control. You’re basically just helping bring up somebody else’s baby. You’re the maid, not the mummy. I wanted to be the mummy.” And her choice paid off handsomely — her novels are bestsellers, with the third ranking No. 2 on a top ten fiction bestseller list. Moreover, Bollywood production houses have bought the rights to the books.

The stories are couched in breezy, colloquial prose and imbued with optimism. The characterisations are rib-tickling, often inspired by real people. “My kids pointed out this girl to me in the park one day, saying it’s rumoured that she doesn’t go to the beauty parlour to get her underarms waxed; she just pulls them off with her teeth. It was such a strong, graphic image that it stayed with me. So when I was devising this tough, no-nonsense NGO lady character called Hasina behenji (aka Pasina Behenji, because of her body odour!) I just gave her this underarm hair-ripping trait, because somehow it seemed to fit. So every character is inspired by somebody I know or have been intrigued by. I just add and embellish till they feel right. Nobody is just cut and pasted from reality; everybody is a portmanteau.”

The brazen style of humour, the settings, and the amusing concoction of Hindi and English make her stories richly Indian. But that perhaps also means a specific kind of readership? “Yes, I do realise a lot of the stuff in the books won’t make sense to people who don’t know Hindi, or India. But I’m cool with that. It’s a choice I’ve consciously made. I’m conscious of not letting down my regular readers; at the same time, I don’t want to second guess them, because that way lies creative death. So instead, I just work hard at not letting my own standards down.” And while she finds that pigeonholing books into popular categories like chick-lit and rom-com can be presumptive, she also cannily admits that living with the label of popular is better than being unpopular.

On the multiple roles she dons — as a mother, columnist, author and screenwriter — she puts it down to a vital domestic detail, “I’m just blessed with a fantastic cook/ housekeeper who loves my children like they are her own, and a fairly tolerant husband.”

She is equally clear about why she left an exciting and successful career for the unpredictable life of a writer — “It was just a lust for control. When you write a book, you have total control. You can wake up in the morning and kill off people, or change their hair colour, just like that.”

Published on July 11, 2013

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