Tanuja Chandra’s new book ‘Bijnis Woman’ chronicles strange, funny and intriguing tales from small town Uttar Pradesh. These stories have been passed down orally from one generation to the next, and have now been put to paper by author Tanuja Chandra.
In her book, we meet a lazy daughter-in-law with a bizarre ailment, cousins who are inseparable till death, a blind teacher who falls in love with a neighbour with large eyes, and a court clerk who loves eating chaat more than anything else.
Apart from being a Director, Chandra has also co-written the screenplay and dialogues for various films, including Yash Chopra’s Dil Toh Pagal Hai. We speak to her about the relevance of Indian storytelling, her writing, and much more.
What makes the stories you recount unique to Uttar Pradesh? Why are these stories important to tell?
Uttar Pradesh is a land of unusual people, its culture is unlike that of any other Indian state – don’t ask me why it just is! These stories, while they speak of universal, human emotions and longings, could have only taken place in U.P. Something about the air there, I suppose. They were important to recount precisely because of this uniqueness. Books are a record of the lives of ordinary people – surely these lives are as relevant to put down on paper as histories of kings, wars and famine.
Which story or character resonates with you the most?
They each have something so human in them that I can’t help but relate to even the most obnoxious or painful character. A character may behave as badly as he will, but if the narrator looks at him with some amount of compassion, if the writer recognises his helplessness and wretchedness, anything he might do will appear human. And so, they all resonate with me.
I’m obsessed with equality. It’s bound to seep into my writing. However, I’m also careful to try and avoid a kind of moral outrage that has a narcissism at its core.
How do you think storytelling traditions and the way we tell stories affects how society perceives women?
The world is a sad and shiny model of patriarchy. Right from when the scriptures were written and laws created, women have had it tough. Writers can’t be outside the world, they come out of this kind of conditioning of centuries. And yet, writers try and question the rules around them. I’m so grateful to writers for doggedly pursuing a more just world, or at least the idea of it. I can hardly overstate the importance of stories in trying to change age-old perceptions about women.
The stories in the book touch upon themes such as dowry, widowhood, the stigma against daughters in law who do not do housework. How did you treat these rather controversial topics, while retaining the authentic flavour? How should we keep India’s traditional stories alive, while moving into modernity?
Me personally – I’m obsessed with equality. It’s bound to seep into my writing. However, I’m also careful to try and avoid a kind of moral outrage that has a narcissism at its core. One mustn’t wear a crown of self-importance; it’s important to laugh at oneself as much as is possible. So if there’s affection in your tone, as well as a recognition of your own flaws, then characters must be written with a raw honesty, warts and all.
India is a fascinating mix of old and new at this very point in time. There is no option but to move ahead and we must. And keeping in our consciousness, what India was many, many years ago, will only make us more sure-footed as we move along to an uncertain future.
What would you like readers to take away from the book?
At the end of it all, if there’s empathy in the heart of the reader, I would’ve done more than I thought possible.
Hard work is as if not more important than talent, there are simply no shortcuts. So, my process has no great mystery about it – I just write.
What is your writing process like and what tips would you have for aspiring writers?
Someone had rightly said, ‘writing and writing every day are two entirely different things.’ I would say to writers, write every day. Not easily done, I assure you, not impossible either. Writing teaches us how to write. We can never master the craft, we can only remain eternal students of it. Hard work is as if not more important than talent, there are simply no shortcuts. So, my process has no great mystery about it – I just write.