I have the bad habit of putting authors on a pedestal. After all, these are people whose words have often bestowed me with a sense of inherent optimism, sometimes dismay, made me feel things that actual human beings couldn’t. I am a journalist who is supposed to be objective and sharp but I am also a reader who understands the hurdle of writing coherent prose that transcends beyond our normal realm of being. Was it then a blessing in disguise that I had never read Anuja Chauhan? Always an over-preparer, I researched extensively about the 46-year-old Chauhan, to compensate for the fact that I wasn’t quite familiar with her work.
Writing books have been liberating in a way – she isn’t answerable to clients anymore and every page is a canvas to unleash her creativity.
As I sat on an adjacent table from the author at the Claridges Hotel, New Delhi, to interview her for her latest book Baaz - I went over my notes. The author of five books despised the word chick-lit (could you blame her really) and any comparison to Jane Austen would perhaps be met with a cold hard stare and a roll of eyes even. She loved being in advertising for almost two decades, but writing books have been liberating in a way – she isn’t answerable to clients anymore and every page is a canvas to unleash her creativity. In interviews over the years, she has come across as articulate, nuanced, opinionated and even a bit goofy.
I introduced myself and sat in front of Chauhan who was dressed in a loose shirt and pants. She noticed that I hadn’t finished my sandwich on the other table and says in a matter-of-fact way, “I’m gonna have that. It is better than ordering more food.” And she kindly dismissed the waiters on her way and got the plate herself. I was almost ridiculously pleased that she liked the sandwich as much as I did. She adds, “I am having this for breakfast tomorrow as well.”
“I stalk my stalkers. I Google myself and read all the reviews that come out in the first few days. There is no doubt about the fact that I would want people to like me.”
Anuja Chauhan has written five books in 10 years – she has got abundant commercial and critical acclaim and even then she admits that being a nervous wreck before the release of a book is kind of her thing. “I stalk my stalkers. I Google myself and read all the reviews that come out in the first few days. There is no doubt about the fact that I would want people to like me.”
Her new book Baaz is based on the lives of Indian Airforce Pilots and set against the backdrop of the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War. Writing about this monumental time in India’s history was quite special for Chauhan because her uncle and one of her first cousins had fought in the war – the latter was even a recipient of the Veer Chakra. Her research for this book included interviewing retired officers who had served during the time and reading a copious amount of nonfiction to get her facts right. At the end of the writing process, a military expert had fact-checked the novel as well. Was it challenging for her to have a male protagonist for the first time at the heart of a book?
“I don’t look at it like that. For me, it is not a matter of gender really. It would be very easy for me to write about a middle-aged man who comes from a similar milieu as I, than about a young woman from an agrarian background. For me people are people – once their stories are clear in my head, I can write about them.”
The author who is a great believer in ‘writing what you know’ says that her primary motivation to finish a book is to find out for herself as to what will happen next. She lives and breathes her characters during the process – “1000 words a day and at the end of a year you have a book in hand.”
Chauhan enjoys writing dialogues the most. A few pages into Baaz I realise that they speak to you and not at you. Her dialogues – a concoction of both Hindi and English is rhythmic and flows naturally. “I try and keep it real because dialogues can’t be declaiming. They need to be written in the way you would want the characters to react and express themselves, their insecurities and ambitions,” she informs.
“What I miss most about working in Advertising is the office politics and gossip.”
And what about her 17 years in advertising during which she came up with legendary taglines such as ‘yeh dil maange more‘, ‘darr ke aage jeet hai‘, does she miss it? She slips in a wise quip, “What I miss more than anything is the office politics and gossip. There was always this excitement of stepping out of my cabin and becoming privy to new information.”
Chauhan says that to be a good writer one has to be a prolific reader. While she enjoys rereading her favourite authors like Joseph Heller, P.G. Wodehouse and Vikram Seth, she has also read and loved book series like Harry Potter and Percy Jackson which her children had introduced her to. She has even reread her older books and has chuckled at her own jokes. Does she hope that her children will follow her footsteps?
“No, they are at absolute liberty to do whatever they want to. But all of them are good writers. My eldest is already a journalist and my son’s teacher recently praised him for his essays – which a bit difficult to believe in the family,” she adds in good humour.
And is she a feminist, I asked her with caution. The f-word which has been misconstrued to the point of being distanced by women themselves?
“I have two daughters – of course, I am a feminist.”
She says, “I have two daughters – of course, I am a feminist. I believe that men and women are equal but different.
There is a lot of public debate about gender and sexuality these days but we need to move past it to an extent and celebrate our inherent potential and our achievements. One of my friend’s son recently came out to her as trans – that he identified as a woman. But his mother told him – ‘that is okay but tell me if you want to be a CA or study Hotel Management?’ My point is we need to get over our gender and do whatever it is that we want to do.”