By Ila Ananya
The first time I read Anuja Chauhan, I was 12 years old. Her book, The Zoya Factor had just come out, and I read it secretly, because everyone I knew had told me it was for “older people”. I read it anyway, because I loved cricket—the book is about a girl born at the exact moment when India won the World Cup in 1983. But it was also the first time I read about attraction between two people in a novel. It mattered, because it seemed like a world I didn’t yet understand, but wanted to know.
Ever since The Zoya Factor, and particularly with Those Pricey Thakur Girls, everyone has talked about how Chauhan’s sharp ear always brings us an unexpected turn of phrase — she uses a mixture of Hindi and English that makes the writing seem familiar, while managing to surprise – ‘Pricey’ being just one of those perfect words that should have been in a book title always but never has been. This ability has been her particular gift to popular Indian fiction in English. In our less than scientific survey, we know that Anuja Chauhan is catnip to many women readers who are otherwise clueless (and/or prejudiced) about the popular fiction scene.
Her latest book, Baaz, which will be out on 1st May 2017, is set during the Indo-Pakistan war of 1971. In this long interview, Chauhan tells us about her latest book, how her many years in advertising (she coined the iconic Pepsi slogan Yeh Dil Maange More) has influenced her writing and why after five books she still doesn’t call herself a writer.
How did the idea for Baaz come to you?
I have a very larger than life maama, my mother’s brother. He’s really fun, very high energy, and a great person to have around. I heard so many stories about him when I was growing up—he was in the Indian Air Force (IAF), he was a fighter pilot, and he used to fly planes low over the house to scare his sisters. He managed to inspire a whole generation of men in our family to join the Forces. He’s still alive and kicking and says things like alcohol has killed all his germs and all that. I think that’s where the fascination came from. You’re always looking for backgrounds and worlds, something that you find interesting and exciting to set a book in. Any original thought that comes to you will be from your own experiences. And because I’m an Army kid, I wanted to celebrate that kind of childhood.
Do you have a schedule, a specific time you like to write?
I have to write. I start writing in the morning and go on till 4 pm. Then, after everyone goes to sleep, I pull it out and revise it again.
Do you plan what the novel is going to be in advance?
I vaguely know what it’s going to be about; I have some idea. I discover the rest of it as I write. Initially, I have a vague idea of where it’s going. Then as I keep writing, it’s like mist. Other things start appearing, and you realise where everything goes. You kind of excavate, and it’s a bit of a discovery. Sometimes you wake up one day and you’re very excited about where the book is going.
What about the plot? Those Pricey Thakur Girls had multiple plotlines. How do you manage them?
I think you just stumble upon the plot as it goes along. The key is to build up strong characters. If you have strong characters, you know what their motivations are, and when you put certain situations in their way, they react. It’s like a wire frame. If you throw a ball once you’ve got a frame in place, you know how the frame will leap up to catch the ball. Once you know that this is the character’s insecurity, or their secret flaw or obsession, then you know how the character will react. So it’s really important to have character and plot. You have to balance both.
Is it different to write from a man’s perspective?
Not really. Baaz is written from both perspectives, like in my other books. It’s an omniscient voice that I first used in Those Pricey Thakur Girls. I enjoyed that voice because you can be god; you can get into anyone’s head.
In Baaz, I liked talking in the stepfather’s voice too. It was fun to write from their perspectives. I must say after Those Pricey Thakur Girls and writing so many girls, I was sick of writing their characters. In Baaz, it was nice to have multiple boys and get into that world. It was a great relief for me.
Was it difficult to get into that world?
I think this has all been put in our heads. What is a male voice, what is a female voice? A voice is a voice. The fact that I was writing in another voice didn’t come in the way. It’s also true because emotions are pretty universal. I think writing from a voice of a particular socio-economic category and things like that is more challenging and more fun than just saying, “Oh, it’s another voice.” The fact that he’s from Chakkahera is more fun than “Oh, he’s a man.”
How has working in advertising influenced the way you write?
Advertising trains you to think very visually and in short sentences. In fact, I’ve always struggled, especially with The Zoya Factor, because you’re like ho gaya yaar, kitna likhoge. But actually you haven’t written very much. Also, being programmed to write short, makes you go back to what you’ve written.
It’s like one bright blob of paint that lands on the page. Then you have to use water and spread it around. Advertising doesn’t teach you how to spread. Advertising will only teach you to make bright blobs of colour, and here you can’t do just bright blobs. You have to dilute it, spread it around, make it bigger, add things inside the bright blob.
Advertising has pros and cons, and its pros are that it teaches you not to let people get bored. So you’re always looking to leave a sparkly bit here and there on every page, so that there’s shine on every page or some kind of joke. That’s advertising training.
Do you spend time rewriting?
Of course, I rewrite a lot. I think it adds layers. The first time you’re kind of vomiting on the page, just putting stuff out. After that you pull back a little and look and relook, so that with every iteration, things get a bit better, clearer and more spread out. Rewriting also helps manage several plot points and when you read it through, you suddenly realise where to move chunks.
It’s always a very deep dive. There’s a point when you’re writing, when it consumes your whole day. Earlier on, there are points when you can pull out and have a life and function normally. But there will come a point when you’re totally immersed. That’s the only point when you know you have all these balls in the air, and everything has to land in place. At that point it demands all your focus and attention. But that hopefully shouldn’t be more than a two-month stretch. I mean otherwise your family will leave you.
Do you read a lot even when you’re writing?
I don’t read much when I’m writing. I have a writing cycle and a reading cycle. Now, since I’m done with Baaz, I’m reading like a mad person. There are a few months in the middle, when I get sucked in by what I’m writing. After I emerge from this, I read. I only keep up with the news because I write columns.
Is there a distinction between romance and chick-lit genres?
I think these are all labels. But labels are so clichéd, why would you go there? I wouldn’t like to categorise my novel—not just in these two categories, but under any. It’s a book, just take it at face value. Novels are a spectrum, so why are you shoving them into boxes? It’s better to categorise a novel by the author; I’m okay with that because it’s by your work. But as someone writes more and more books, I think categorising them in any way is a little unfair, although as your build more of a body of work, you stop worrying about these things.
Do you show others what you’re working on, as a work-in-progress, or do you prefer only showing the final?
I show it to people whom I really trust. They are people who’ve read all my books, and whose literary worth I respect. I have a mental tuning with them. They are not afraid to be very blunt and say whatever they need to. The worst thing is to give your book to somebody who is trying to keep you happy. It must be given to someone you trust and who knows what’s happening in your head. I have a bunch of people like that.
Does showing people your work-in-progress help?
It does. Since I’ve worked in advertising my whole life, I have zero ego about criticism. I really do. Because in advertising they’re always telling us “Yeh badlo, woh badlo [Change this, change that]” so I don’t sulk. I only listen to people whom I feel are bringing something, and only push back when I’m very sure about something. I think my acknowledgments are so long because I have a bunch of people who give me feedback as I write.
When was the first time you called yourself a writer?
I don’t know, I still don’t call myself a writer. People look so blank when you introduce yourself as a writer, you know. People hardly read books in India. So if I go to a party and people say what do you do, I just say, “I make ads, you’ve seen that Pepsi ad?” They’ll say haan haan and everyone knows. If you say you write books, then everyone looks very sweet and trapped, and ask which book have you written, would I have seen it? Then you have to mumble and say I wrote this book called Those Pricey Thakur Girls or whatever it is. It’s just easier to say I make ads. I haven’t called myself a writer on many occasions.
Writers are always asked who they write for…
I think most writers say the same thing: that you write for yourself. And that’s the truth. Eventually you are going to spend a year, or two years, or 10 years writing a book, depending on how slowly you write, or for whatever other reason. So it’s very important that you be excited and satisfied. A reader will read your book in four hours and be done with it, and I spend one year writing it, so I’d better be excited. I mean it’s my reason for getting out of bed for a whole year. I’m important.
Do you have an audience in mind when you write?
No, not really, I don’t do that. I do enough of that in advertising. But that’s okay there, because it’s an applied art. But here, I’m hoping in my own pompous way, that what I’m doing is pure art. So I don’t want to have somebody in my head.
Do you have many stories that you’ve stopped working on because they didn’t work out the way you wanted them to?
I think everyone has them. But I usually don’t sit down to start writing until I’m quite sure. I spend quite a few months having conversations with people, or mooching around thinking. I only sit down to type once I’m quite sure, so I don’t have many drafts that I’ve written 30 pages of and left.
What about reviews—do you like reading them?
The first few reviews are important. I remember how once, my daughter and I spent time on Goodreads because we saw that a girl called Sangeetha had named Those Pricey Thakur Girls as “to read.” Then, six days later, it said Sangeetha “is reading”. My daughter and I don’t know who she is, but we were waiting for her to finish. Then one day, I was fast asleep, and my daughter came and woke me up, and said, “Mama look.” It said “Sangeetha has given Those Pricey Thakur Girls five stars.” Sangeeta must have moved on with her life, but we were so happy.
After that, I read some reviews. You are vulnerable. Everyone likes appreciation. But it goes both ways. Sometimes when I get negative reviews, it’s always informative and valid. Other times, I also think, kya hai, kya hai tera problem, because sometimes it’s bullshit.
What do you do when you can’t write?
I think it’s important to write your way through a block, so that you work through the phase and come to something good, even if you delete it later. You have to write through the crap. It’s like exercise; some days your body just feels heavy, but you can’t not do it, you have to.