They read the books. They have many things to say. And it’s all here. Find a chair. It’s super long.
When we’re bored, a bunch of us Twitter friends start playing rounds of #ShagMarryCliff. We did it once with characters from Anuja Chauhan novels, because all of us loved her books, and were eagerly anticipating the sequel to Those Pricey Thakur Girls. (That the game devolved into “cliff everyone and pass Dylan Singh Shekhawat around like a party favour to everyone except the Eshwari-stan Amba” is a different story.)
Well, the sequel dropped a couple of weeks ago, and though we’d all pre-ordered print copies, such was our enthusiasm that we all stayed up the night reading the ebook.
And then, we all took to Twitter to express our horror and dismay at how … very bad the book was. In multiple, mind-bogglingly diverse ways. Twitter character limits being what they are, we switched over to Google docs, and so here it is: a roundtable on Anuja Chauhan’s The House That BJ Built, by us, the fangirls – Amba, Anannya, Pavithra and Shyamolie.
Warning!!! Although we are providing a summary of the book to help you follow our discussion, it’s best read AFTER having read the book, because rather than a review, this is an in-depth, no-holds-barred, leave-your-squeamishness-at-the-door type critique. As such, it consists entirely of 100% shuddh desi spoilers.
So The House That BJ Built is a long-awaited sequel to Those Pricey Thakur Girls, which was set in the 80s, and was about the second-youngest of five sisters in a posh Lutyens’ Delhi bungalow finding love and trying to keep a career going. Her love interest Dylan Singh Shekhawat was a journalist pursuing the instigators of the 1984 pogrom against Sikhs.
The sequel does a bees-tees saal baad and focuses on Bonu, aka Bonita Singh, orphaned daughter of sister number two – Binodini, and her romance with her cousin Samar, who is the step-son of sister number one – Anjini. This happens under the backdrop of two B-plots. The first concerns her aunts’ collective desire to sell their inherited mansion on Hailey Road (which Bonu doesn’t want to agree to out of loyalty to her dead mom). The second concerns film director Samar’s attempt to solve the mystery of how his step-great-grandmother died, since his artistic integrity won’t let him release the film he made based on it otherwise. Subplots include a manipulative Muslim politician using naive, drunkard, weed-addicted, fame-craving happy Bhutanese immigrant tenants to stake a claim on the property and extort money, and Bonu’s grand-uncle, who is up to various shenanigans, including forgery and perjury in court, to claim his late brother’s property for himself.
The named characters we’re talking about are:
● Bonu – 26-year-old orphan raised by her dada-dadi in Hailey Road, where she’s now illicitly operating a knockoff fashion tailoring business.
● Samar – Two-hit-film old Bollywood director being pressured to add an item number to his new film, which is a tribute to his step-grandad.
● BJ AKA Bauji AKA Justice Lakshmi Narayan Thakur (Property-dispensing patriarch who was a Supreme Court judge back in the 70s. The only respectable one in a line of licentious Thakurs), grandfather to B and S above, and father to all the aunts below.
● Aunt No. 1 Anjini – Step-mom to Samar, fashionable socialite in Allahabad and editor of the Allahabad lifestyle supplement of Indiapost.
● Thakur Sister No. 2 – Binni, Bonu’s mother, who died in a car accident, but the “gosht” of her grudges against her sisters lives on in the memory of her daughter. Married to…
● Vickyji – Failed entrepreneur who was constantly cadging money from his in-laws in Pricey and figuring out ways to increase Binni’s hissa, died in road accident.
● Aunt No. 2 – Chandu, absent in the first book due to having run away from an arranged married to get hitched to an Estonian-American, she debuts in the sequel as a shaven-headed, money-minded member of some vague cult.
● Aunt No. 3 – Debjani, heroine of the previous book, current Sagarika Ghose-type journo in Mumbai, mother to the only-nicknamed Pasta and Pao, and wife of Dylan (who is the only character that never gets #cliffed by us).
● Aunt No. 4 – Eshwari, vivacious schoolgirl of the first book turned sexy, single HR professional, returning from NYC to resume her complicated relationship with…
● Satish/Steesh – Neighbour and schoolmate of Eshwari in a past #itscomplicated relationship with her; now turned into rich builder who offers to buy and develop the property.
● Biren and Namgay Tring – the poor, disabled Bhutanese tenants of BJ’s annexe for thirty years. Pals with Bonu, except really, they are just the unwitting minions of…
● Mushtaq – Politician and professional do-gooding owner-manager of the Muskaan School for the Challenged, who is out to extort money from the impending property sale in the name of oppressed Northeasterners.
● Zeeshan Khan – Hottest young Bollywood star-kid actor around, and complete dudebro sidekick regurgitation of every Anuja Chauhan BFF-of-the-hero whose sole purpose is to help Samar get his HEA (Happily Ever After) with Bonu and away from…
● Susan Adams – Hotshot Bollywood designer who believes in authenticity of handicrafts (unlike Bonu, the queen of jugaad), and designing cow who is Samar’s “living” girlfriend.
● Ashok Narayan Thakur/Chachaji – BJ’s Tharki Thakur brother, lecherous ND Tiwari type till he’s laid up by multiple illnesses including facial paralysis).
● Bhudevi/Chachiji – Gossipy, stupid lady always popping over to her bro-in-law’s haveli for tea and sympathy. Beats up servants who dare to be sexually exploited by her husband.
● Gulab/Gulgul Bhaisaab – Chachi-Chacha’s daddy-dhamkaoed still-single son who would much rather be a gym owner, but is forced to become a lawyer instead.
● Parveen – Employee of Bonu’s illegal tailoring unit, beneficiary of Bonu’s savior complex when she uses a knife to assault…
● Parvez – Parveen’s abusive husband, who is enough of a god in the sack that she returns to him, after which he attempts to murder Bonu for instigating a non-consensual vasectomy on him.
● Asharfi – The ideal feudal maidservant, who is a “healthy young thing” from Allahabad. Apparently willing to do whatever/whoever it takes to help Anjini Singh nee Thakur and her sisters gain their rightful hissas.
Amba: Before we get into this super-long critique, I’d like to point out that all four of us came into this book predisposed to love it. We even tried putting together a list of stuff we did like in this book, but it basically came down to a few cute or funny phrases (“Chootiyon ki baraat”, “Don’t buy the mandi when you can get the shakkarkandi for free”, the bilingually punny item song “Aur Jee”), and one or two brief, enjoyable scenes (Eshu and Steesh ACTUALLY TALKING LIKE ADULTS in The Gambhir Cafe). But any brief pleasure I took in those glimpses of vintage Chauhan wordplay was drowned by the disgust at a narrative that seemed to want me to root for a bunch of self-centred nasty rich shitwits.
Anannya: I loved Pricey so much that it was my go-to gift for people I loved – bought a dozen copies as gifts. This one … I’m regretting splurging on the hard copy and Kindle version, such was the race, class, internalised misogyny fail and utter hotchpotch of trying too many things and failing at them all. And unlike Amba, I think that Chauhan does intend to show us that the characters are shitwits, but … likable ones? And that’s where the book fails.
Cliff all the characters. Save Dylan for me.
Amba: You know, Anannya, I gave her the benefit of the doubt for a long time. The political issues in Battle for Bittora made it pretty clear that the lead characters and their families were typical scum, but because their nastiness and privilege-abusing was so repeatedly delineated, I thought, okay, the author is not condoning this and wants to be ruthless in revealing how fucked up these people we root for are. I was uncomfortable with a lot of the of political aspects of Those Pricey Thakur Girls, but I thought it was the flaw in her trying to stick to the light-hearted romcom genre when clearly there is a realistic character-study novel being cannibalised in order to do so.
But with this book – nope. The author may not explicitly do and think what her characters do, but it’s like the GRRM rape rule – if you are prioritising the stories of abusers, making their romances and concerns central and sympathetic, and gratuitously inserting said abuses for the sake of ‘realism’ – then you, the author, are part of the culture of abuse.
Anannya: I think it’s worth making this point clear right now – because I can foresee a lot of comments about how we are the humourless PC police – that the difference between this book and Pricey is that the humour in Pricey depended largely on social commentary of her own class, while any humour in this book largely comes across as punching down. Oh sure, there are all the jokes on language and accents in Pricey, but there are also gentle digs at, say, Dabbu’s unconscious snobbery. I’m not too impressed with the jokes based on regurgitation of the same Hinglish at different social registers when most of the other jokes depend on racism and snobbery. I’m not sure if I’d forgive them in a lesser writer, but with Ms Chauhan, we know that she can do much better.
Amba: Yeah, the unexplained humour of ‘original’ pronounced as ‘virginal’ doesn’t make up for the fact that the people talking ‘funny English’ would actually be speaking perfectly fine Hindi in real life conversations with their employers.
Shyamolie: I think it becomes very clear where the sympathies of the novel, of the writer lie. The racism, the internalised misogyny, the classism, these are all markers of how the hissa plot – the 80-crore pot of gold at the end of a very problematic, frankly disgusting and selfish rainbow of individual fuckery – eats up every other possibility and narrative, every critique Chauhan could possibly make, and any space at all for condemning the behavior of some of the characters. The hissa plot itself isn’t the problem – obviously they had to grow up, things changed, BJ dies, etc etc, but the politics of the novel are at are various points so skewed that it became impossible for me to even enjoy some of the usual one-liners I really would’ve. The narrative never attempts to critique the material and social realities of the sisters’ decisions, or their political stances, and that’s just sad.
Also there is very little that stands out for me, in terms of individual scenes. From Pricey, I remember fondly the kot piece with BJ, and so on. Here, not so much.
Anannya: I’m trying to figure out how nostalgia is colouring our responses to both Pricey and this book. The elitism in Pricey was never as bad as this one, but even in cases like Eshu’s chinky fetish, I think I tended to look away with a “That was then”. But this is now, and with characters we’ve known and liked when they were younger, and they haven’t grown, haven’t changed for the better, have only grown more insular. And that’s also part of the reason why the way Chandu is written is so infuriating – there is no backstory and no insight. We never ever get one real PoV from her, only Chandu-as-seen-by-Steesh/Bonu/Samar/The Other Thakur girls.
Amba: Agreed; there is definitely an element of self-forgiveness when we read about the 80s, because all of us in that era were privileged kids who were clueless in so many ways about how racism, casteism, classism etc. worked, and Pricey seemed to be a story of Dabbu’s coming of age via realising that privilege. Though her live newscast bombshell move may be melodramatic and a savior complex, it still meant the heart of the book was tied up in learning to love someone because they were interested in being ethical to the world around them. As opposed to … 80 crores ka-ching!
Our Lead Characters, Whom We’re Loath to Call Heroes
Anannya: For all that talk about how ballsy she is, and how she is not going to sell, I read Bonu as a lost little child. She’s haunted by her mother’s very age-inappropriate confidences, has a love-hate relationship with her aunts (especially Eshu, who seems to have been really uncharacteristically harsh with an orphaned ten-year-old), and apart from her employees, she doesn’t seem to have any friends outside the family. Which is mighty strange for someone who was born and brought up in Delhi – without even the excuse of a gaggle of sisters/girlfriends that Dabbu had in Pricey. I didn’t love her as much as I loved Dabbu; I thought she really could have used some social contacts outside that family (and she clearly has such approval issues), but I didn’t hate her as Amba did.
And there is something about how parental issues play out in this book, both with Bonu and Gulab. Think about it – Gulab is adopted and smothered by his mother and constantly dissed by his father for not being a manly, haraami Thakur, and he admits as much to his cousins – it has fucked him up, and he can’t completely wish them well. And Bonu is the orphan who was saddled with doting but aging grandparents and aunts who never seemed to welcome her wholly, and has a whole host of unresolved mommy and daddy issues. They are both constantly struggling for approval from the family and yet dealing with resentment for never quite fitting in. There is the badass, ballsy character that the omniscient narrator keeps talking about (except Eshu already has the Cool Girl bit covered), and the rather messed up kid who probably needs a lot of therapy and new friends, whom you see in the book – and maybe it is my fondness for Gulgul, but I didn’t loathe this Bonu.
Amba: Let me explain why I loathe her. Partly it’s the shoddy way she’s written as a cross between a Mary Sue and a Manic Pixie Dream Girl. I realise that neither of those labels is entirely accurate for her character, but the narrative keeps objectifying her to be this disproportionately charming or woebegone or feisty or heart melting or tantalising Female Romantic Lead, purely on the basis of how pretty she is. I can take that kind of cardboard signage in erotica that I’m reading just for the porn, but not in books where social justice issues are deemed Somewhat Relevant To The Plot.
There is also the hypocrisy of how flaws get narrative treatment based on the glamour of the character. Chandu is vindictive and spiteful probably because she rightfully resents her family cutting her off just because she married a gora, but she’s bald so she’s evil. While Bonu has bouncy curls, so her refusal to follow the dying wishes of her grandfather (by selling the property – a wish triggered by HER illegal occupation of someone else’s share) is a charming act of petulance. The Trings are alcoholics who mess up the plans of their saviors because lolz racism, but when Bonu (and Samar) do stuff Under The Influence, it’s all good. Susan lies to the producer about expenses because she’s a Romantic-Lead-hogging bitch, but when Bonu lies about not doing free stitching, or illegally occupying someone’s property, it’s cute.
Bonu reminds me a lot of those Sassy White Girls who keep being written by YA writers talking about diversity. I resent being told that their brand of feminism is what I should back, otherwise I’m letting down the side. And similarly, I resent being told by this narrative that Bonu’s version of caring for her employees and neighbours is a sign of her Pure and Loving GoodAtHeart (insert Cinnamon Roll gif). And if I wanted to read about a selfish brat whose biggest ambition in life is to make lots of money by being a ruthless businessman like her scumbag dad, then I’d read Gone With The Wind (which, like this book, comes marinated in racism).
Shyamolie: I didn’t loathe Bonu as much as you did, Amba, but I didn’t fall in love with her as I did with Young Dabbu. Now Dabbu is mostly heavily unlikeable, except for her grey hair, which I imagine I’d dig. When I started reading it, I had a crush on Bonu, but that faded quickly. The thing is, Bonu could have made for an amazing protagonist, but it falls apart because she’s written as a pair of very stormy, yet vivacious boobs with pretty hair. If her actions had been interrogated (by herself, instead of by her aunts), if she had any character growth whatsoever rather than going from realisation to realisation and eventually running to Bhutan, we’d have something. She points out that Samar is a “racist pig” or something, but, well, continues in the same vein. Anyway, I really, really wanted her to have a better story, and like Anannya, I felt that where we began with Bonu – her relationship with her mom, her constant defending of her dad, her relationship with her aunts, the fact that BJ dies – all of these things endeared me to her, and I wanted her to be happy and badass, but eventually, I was dissatisfied by how it went. And her romance with Samar didn’t do anything for me. I miss Dylan and Dabbu, and young Steesh and Eshu.
Amba: Thank you for reminding me of the crux of my problem with Bonu – her dad! This is a child with shitwit, selfish parents who tragically died, and now she wants to avenge them. But because there is room for only one Batman origin story, the logical conclusion of Bonu’s arc should have been her realisation that being a scummy, cheating, selfish businessman is what ruins familial relationships with people you are financially entangled with, and that just because parents are dead doesn’t mean they’re worth idolising.
But did any of this happen? No! All we got was the sisters making random apologies for making fun of their bro-in-law’s looks, as though that was the core of their beef with him.
Anannya: Maybe BJ and Mamtaji banned those discussions, partly because of their own guilt about Binni being on her way to plead Vickyji’s case with them and partly out of consideration for the orphaned Bonu?
Pavithra: Bonu, savarna Hindu, who orders the sterilisation of her Muslim employee’s violent husband (instead of assuring her of financial stability if she did one day choose to leave him). That was the first stumbling block to liking Bonu. Thereafter I tried a lot, because in the early part of the book her struggle is fairly easy to empathise with. Later on though, her aunts’ relationship with her really got in the way of me liking her (unfair I know) – at least some of them, including Dabbu for a brief moment, seem to like Bonu at least partly because she is pretty? Not because she is their niece, and marginally less of an ass than some of them? Also Bonu herself: nothing really changes inside her head throughout the book. Her relationships, her apprehensions, her attitude, her internal monologue, all remain the same from start to finish. She gains a man, but that is really all. Bonu isn’t (but Ms Chauhan is) to blame for the fact that we see the evolution of this relationship primarily through Samar’s emotions rather than hers (which have been more or less the same since she was a teen!), but it does make it harder to get to know and like her.
Anannya: Also Samar. Or our Hero. Urgh.
Dude is introduced to us as having been caught on tape bitching out the very industry he works in, and it is a sign that he is the injured party because Lol! Bollywood! Er, were you in the running for any of the awards? No. Were you doing anything in particular that merited more attention from the industry apart from the 125 crores invested in what turns out is a vanity project about your family history? What about the fact that the money and work of a bazillion people is left hanging midair while you throw diva-like tantrums about authenticity? Kheench ke lagao saale ko, privileged twat he is.
Shyamolie: Also, Anannya, Samar our dear hero reminds/asks Bonu twice about the fact that she’s wearing shorts (WHILE JOGGING OH HOW INAPPROPRIATE) the morning she’s attacked.
Amba: Samar left me cold, but then I’ve never cared much for Chauhan’s masterful male leads, so whatevs. Instead, I’m going to take this opportunity to state for the record that I have been stanning for Eshwari since she was a 17-year-old girl whom I had to mentally age up so as not to be skeevy in my crushing thereon. I was even prepared to be okay with her being a straight, such was the generosity of my passion for her. My absolute favourite part of Pricey was the way it ended, with Steesh having made the gesture, said the words, and it still not being enough because that is actually how life (and high school crushes) go.
But this book took my feels for Eshu and Steesh and made bharta out of them. And then left the bharta out of the fridge in May so that it’s stinking and rotting and I have to throw it away. I am left with no feels, is what I am saying.
Anannya: Who is this Eshu who is nervous before every meeting and calling Steesh up after one night of sex and feeling like a clingy woman? I’m not saying she can’t have feelings, just that the narrative doesn’t give us enough buildup for that sort of behaviour and just takes the zingy chemistry from Pricey as a given. And had it not been for that one tiny (but delightful) scene in the new and improved Gambhir Patisserie Delicatessen Whatchamacallit Cafe, I’d just read Eshu’s behaviour as a mix of (undeserved) guilt for what Steesh did in college and uncharacteristic unmooredness at being “jobless and manless”, plus nostalgia.
Is “eighth and last penis” a suitable declaration of commitment, by the way?
Amba: Enh … it passes muster (though I’m still holding out for the part when Eshwari mentions the hot wife she’s in an open marriage with back in NYC).
Anannya: Look, I want them together. But they deserved a better HEA.
Shyamolie: Yeah, Anannya, I think their narrative is very rushed – and like you said, that one moment where it’s slowed down and they actually sit down and talk in a scenario that is Pricey-era Steesh and Eshu – the jogging, the cafe – we get some actual insight into their relationship, see them actually talk. It’s almost like the only positive and well-written part of their romance is the one that harks back to Pricey, to young Eshu and Steesh. Present-day writing is pretty rubbish – it ends with Steesh saying let’s get married in that big house then I’ll bring a bulldozer in and destroy it. Come on. Is that shitty romance or wut? Eshu and Dabbu were my favourites from Pricey and now Dabbu’s an obnoxious PETA type racist, and we see Eshu either having a meltdown over Steesh or just described in her physical appearance and “chicness.” I think that’s also the case with several characters. It’s like good writing’s found a substitute in shiny, reflective Chandu and young and healthy Asharfi and grey-haired Dabbu – for a book 500+ pages long, it does very little to explain motivations or create any real connect with Pricey.
Pavithra: There are bits, including the “eighth and last” line, where Satish still talks like a hormonal and dumb teenager. Some part of this actually feels authentic because we all revert to the age at which we met certain people when we are with them. But 8th and last?! Why is he making that decision for her? And she simply acquiesces? This isn’t the Eshu I loved from Pricey. And I really would have thought that Satish, with his jail experience and past addiction, would have learnt a thing or two (he has, but it is evident only in his business dealings, not in his interactions with Eshu) about speaking to an adult woman he hasn’t actually married yet?
And his jail experience. Hello Eshu, HE WAS IN JAIL! When he was barely an adult! Talk to him about it! Jail is all kinds of hell, and he’s hiding the scars from you, out of not wanting to rock your entitled little cocoon, but surely you’ve watched enough movies to know it isn’t a hotel with room service thrice daily? (OK Sorry, I’ll go write my poor scarred Satish story elsewhere.)
Amba: I would LEAP on this scarred Steesh story!!!! Also while we’re at it can we have the actual Eshwari-in-NYC story? I mean I thought seven (penises) sounded kind of conservative but okay. Besides that, how has her mind changed and been affected by being an NRI, by being single, by working in finance? How did the lay-off actually impact her enough to run away back to India? What is it going to be like to be a married woman in Delhi, and does she really want to live with Steesh next door to her childhood house after having been in NYC? (When is she going to have the ‘btw I’m bi, kinky and poly’ discussion with him?) Fanfic, whither thou?
Anannya: I’m thinking of Eshu and Steesh’s conversation about Steesh’s past when they are stuck in the resort. Steesh says something like “I went to jail because I asked myself what Eshu would say, and ever since then, I’ve made sure that my life choices are exactly the opposite of what you would recommend,” and Eshu tells him, “Maybe I wouldn’t actually tell you to do the right thing. Maybe I would have told you to do whatever it takes to get ahead.” (Badly remembered, but approximately this).
And between this and her apologising to Bonu for mocking Vickyji’s (Bonu’s father’s) appearance – this isn’t the same Cool Girl Eshu that Steesh remembers. She is more cynical, and occasionally calling that cynicism realism/pragmatism; more willing to accept that she might have been wrong; much more brittle. That sprezzatura of her teenaged Cool Girl self takes much more effort now, and I would have liked to know the stories behind how Eshu grew up? Changed? And I think a 47-year-old Eshu saying these things would have been even more interesting.
We’d Like Some Marxist Feminism in Our Chick Lit
Amba: Let’s get a bit proletariat about Bonu’s hard-on for being a businesswoman, because that escapism of her running away to Bhutan was the part that proved what a selfish, childish brat she was, living in the lap of privilege. She has the money, apparently, to go stay long-term in a hotel in Bhutan. But she doesn’t have the money to rent a warehouse in Okhla, or even a semi-legal workshop in Shahpur Jat like the rest of the designers do, to keep her employees paid. What salary is Parveen feeding her kids on, may I ask, when Bonu decided to be a martyr and up and away to the mountains?
Anannya: The resort in Bhutan is owned by the Trings’ relatives, so she is probably there on a thumping huge discount, because her smiling sidekicks are so happy to see Bonu didi.
Shyamolie: She also clearly mentions that there’s a lot of cheap labour in Bhutan she could put to use, so basically Bhutan’s not just an aesthetic heaven for Bonu, but also viewed in terms of more benevolent exploitation! Hurray.
Anannya: Parveen’s daughter embroidering things because she accompanied her mother to her job, and Bonu throwing a hissy fit because, “Did they want Bonu to be thrown in jail?” and “She wasn’t running a bloody crèche.” All excused as Bonu didi ko love ho gaya, hysterical woman in love y’all.
As my friend Saum pointed out, that bit where the upper caste upper class women are drooling over brawny bodies of rickshaw pullers – they aren’t lean and muscley, they are overworked and underfed.
Shyamolie: Yes! The poor/working class body only comes to the fore as an actual living, breathing human thing when it’s open to sexualisation – Asharfi, the fetish for carpenters and rickshaw pullers (must be brushed, washed, cleaned of course, as it specifically says) – otherwise they’re toads and gnomes and whatnots.
Amba: That whole male gaze reversed as feminist schtick only works with the assumption that it’s humorous when savarna cisgender hetero women prove that they are Thakur descendants by being as lecherous as their male progenitors. The entire thrust of Bonu being admirably ballsy is based on her playing a feudal lord – autocratically controlling of her employees’ bodies, capriciously patronising to them in an ‘I know what’s best for you’ way, and pugnaciously determined that rules and ethics do not apply to her except when others violate her desires.
Pavithra: Am I imagining it or was there a borderline problematic thing like this with a tailor in Pricey?
Anannya: Amreek tailor? Vaguely, pseudo-castrated man who could take all their measurements and clothe them perfectly, while remaining completely chaste.
BJ keeps shooing away Chachiji by calling her a beggar, repeatedly.
Also, I just remembered that Steesh tells Samar that one way of getting Mushtaq to change his mind is to get Anjini to talk to him, as he used to be one of her admirers, and Samar basically thumps his chest and says hell no to the idea of using his stepmother. So good upper caste upper class women are to be protected from leering men even if property is at stake, but feudal slaves are just dying to prove their loyalty to their mistresses.
Also, Parveen’s husband is a drunkard and a wife-beater, but his wife stays with him because she likes the sex too much?
Amba: The way that violence is minimised and treated as humour here is really repellent. We have Parveen attempting murder (out of frustration at sustained abuse, but it’s not self-defence) and that act is just an excuse for drunk Bonu to play savarna savior to prove to us and the hero that she’s Good At Heart, and meanwhile, haha, Parveen’s back to fucking her victim-assaulter. Then Bonu abets a non-consensual vasectomy, which she never feels actual repentance or remorse for, because she’s a feminist Sanjay Gandhi I guess. And then he attempts to murder her, and it’s just an occasion for Samar to slut-shame her about wearing shorts and it’s business as usual.
Shyamolie: Chawl jokes. Not only is Samar a racist and an ass about Susan, he is also incredibly casual about joking about poverty.
Also, “It continues to be a dreamy, secluded quarter, unaffected in the most part by the changes that have wracked the city of Delhi – the transition from petrol to CNG, the granting of statehood and the creation of NCR … the influx of 30 million rural immigrants, the rise in crime…” you mean rich as fuck Central Delhi quarter; the “Immigrants, Muslims = Crime” narrative is pretty strong in this book.
Of course Masterji is a “gnome-like figure” and “foul smelling” and so on.
Pavithra: Masterji, described with all the affection Shyamolie points to, is Muslim. (Stifles a scream.)
Amba: Yeah it’s full of those little taken-for-granted asides – the “toad-like” bai crouching down (because truly elegant ladies do pocha, what, on pointe shoes?)
Shyamolie: The classism doesn’t stop anywhere, especially because a lot of the novel deals directly with labour – Vicky’s Secret, etc. – even in their casual conversations in the salon. The metaphor Eshu uses for having sex with someone new is to compare it to a driver who has beedis and stinks, or how a new darzi makes rubbish mistakes.
Stop the Bus, We’re Getting Off at Asharfi’s Exploitation
Amba: And now the bit where the class oppressors turn into literal pimps, possibly accomplices to rape. Because what better way to prove that our heroines are feisty, fierce, save-themselves-females than to have them become as exploitative of the oppressed classes as the men who love them? #SavarnaFeminism
Let’s be real, the class issues in Chauhan’s books have always existed, because Chauhan writes domestic employees the way Bollywood does – either they are dog-loyal family retainers who double as comedians, or they are petty villains, too hobbled by their despised class to be of any real threat to Our Heroes. I am pretty sure that if I were to do a reread of her old books (which I have a strong disinclination to ever do) I’d end up more annoyed with the implications of how it is okay to treat your domestic employees than I was the first time round. But this book is just relentless from the beginning to the climatic end of accomplishing pimpage/rape.
I’ll get what I mean by that out of the way, because I realise some people are not going to see it that way, and to me this isn’t a matter of opinion but one of rape culture and its inherent denial of informed consent. In the first book, the skeevy storyline of Hot Dulari was bad enough. Because I don’t trust the narrative enough to know whether or not she was pressured into having an affair with her POWERFUL, RICH, VINDICTIVE IMMEDIATE MALE BOSS. Chachi’s illegal abuse of Dulari – beating her, throwing her out of the house, constant slut-shaming, constant accusations of witchcraft ¬– is of course, played for laughs.
But in this book, we have Anjini specifically hiring Asharfi – a woman who is repeatedly referenced as “young and healthy” – from Allahabad, to seduce the aforesaid lecherous, disabled male, in order to turn his wife against him, so that Chachiji can reveal the fraudulence of his claim to the property. At best, Anjini is a pimp. At worst, she is an accomplice to rape and sexual abuse at the workplace, because there is no clue whatsoever that Asharfi felt free to refuse such a task. Nowhere do we see Anjini being concerned about the safety and well-being of her employee, nowhere do any of Anjini’s relatives raise the issue of how such a deal was negotiated. The whole thing is portrayed as admirable – that Anjini has ‘taken charge’ and salvaged the property rights, as the head of any responsible feudal Thakur dynasty should do.
Furthermore, Samar FILMS THE RAPE/COERCED SEX ACT without the permission of any of the participants, and this is clearly going to be used as blackmail material.
We’re supposed to like these people enough to be happy for them that they get 80 crores as a result of these actions.
Fuck them all #LalSalaam
Pavithra: (Related aside: Chachi has to hurry out and find filmmaker Samar to film it on his PHONE? I mean, my 92-year-old grandma can take photos on the phone, but Chachi, who is probably less than 70, needs a man to do this. BAH.)
Shyamolie: Yeah, the Asharfi thing – in the end all that is said about her is that “… she came through … now everything’s settled … we can sell and be rich” (Anjini) – this is the summary of the novel, this is *it* – in other Chauhan books this kind of shit would be present, but at least there would be an attempt to critique it. But this is how the novel ends. Asharfi is just a “healthy young” body these sisters use, let’s be honest.
Pavithra: Asharfi! I had dragged myself through the book until that point, and then I had to read it twice over to believe what I was seeing. Asharfi is shown to be a willing accomplice, walking away smugly and smiling even! I mean hello, maybe the Thakur sisters are exploitative scumbags, but surely no one in their right mind would ask the world to believe she was actually amused by what she’d been asked (forced?) to do?! I was first relieved the author didn’t go into the details of the “transaction” between Anjini and Asharfi in order to arrange this drama. Then, later, I was angry that she hadn’t, because I wanted to know exactly how Anjini manipulated her employee, who has been brought to Delhi from Allahabad, and who is presumably completely dependent on Anjini for her safe stay and return.
And umm, is Asharfi a Muslim name? If it is, I’m just so much more pissed off.
Anannya: With regard to Hot Dulari, at least you see some instances of her speaking her mind– she refuses to let them do the grihapravesh without her and goes to Hailey Court to stake her claim. Asharfi here is the ideal feudal slave, happily following her mistress’s instructions to suffer the advances of a leering old man, because their legitimate hissas are so much more important.
I think I finally drew the line with the Asharfi thing. How is this going completely unquestioned, with not even one person pointing out the skeeziness of it? We KNOW Chachaji is a Tharki Thakur and a sleazy, exploitative scumbag – that was well proved by the end of the last book. Was there no way you could have resolved the plot other than by making Anjini turn pimp and have everyone else tacitly approve of it?
I excused the book making Dabbu be a savarna vegetarian racist because I read it as “even former heroines aren’t flawless, and even someone like D can be an inadvertent racist”. But the way the Trings were used in the narrative was just, nope.
So yeah…the Racism. ALL of the Racism
Amba: Since you mention Dabbu’s racism (the news anchor of a nightly show – who is also a PETA-type activist – doesn’t know that dog is not typical Bhutanese cuisine – mmkay) … let’s talk about the racism! Yay! So much racism! Racism for ALL! (I had to tell a friend of mine who was looking forward to the book that it was full of the word ‘chinki’ among other things. My friend is East Asian. She’s not feeling excited about reading it any more.)
Shyamolie: Well, the obvious. But random references, starting with the one where Samar wonders about Biren and Namgay being dangerous and then says oh well, one has a limp, one can’t see, Bonu will take them in a fight. Duh, racial danger neutralised because not able enough. The blatant racism in the novel, combined with the classism, is only worsened when it takes an example of a traditional and visible means of public resistance that is used by oppressed groups – a public rally/dharna/protest – and half turns it into a tongue-in-cheek critique of how politicians use these opportunities, and half uses it to continue with the trajectory of the bad evil shady sleazy Muslim man. The exaggerated ridiculousness of it is obviously meant to be laughed at. If she wanted to create a critique of how politicians and goons use activism for their own means, she didn’t need to pivot it on this, when the novel is already liberally strewn with examples of verbal and physical racism.
Also, even when Dabbu’s stupid ridiculous racist vegetarian drive is called out by the Trings, Bonu thinks, ohhh their kids don’t look underfed. Instantly. The protagonist rubbishes it, even if it’s in her head.
Amba: YES! That rally was problematic AS FUCK because the violence against North-Eastern peoples in Delhi has grown more visible in the last few years and it has taken massive amounts of heartbreaking organisation, outreach and activism FROM THOSE COMMUNITIES THEMSELVES to draw attention to the systemic bigotry against them. The rallies that have been happening have been led and organised by folks from Manipur, Mizoram, Assam etc. themselves. And a large chunk of the kind of racism they face is as tenants, from landlords who overcharge, cheat, harass and abuse. So basically Chauhan has done the equivalent of a dude author writing the plotline of a girl making a false accusation of rape against the hero.
Anannya: Nghh … I skimmed huge portions of the racist parade and the “appropriation of narratives of the oppressed for venal purposes”– let’s milk this situation for humour – because it just wasn’t funny. It was cringe inducing. Even as she mocks the way in which greedy politicians are willing to milk the latest cause du jour of the oppressed for their own ends, the narrative is using the Trings for laughs – weaklings, reproduce like rabbits, “do all chinkies look like each other or not?”, “weed smokers”, easily manipulated. Also, Mushtaq’s venality really mirrors Chandu’s, and the narrative has this weird Ayn Rand vibe where doing good is only an exercise in self-aggrandisation.
Shyamolie: That last bit, Anannya, comes out so strongly in bits – the tone of the novel about the NESTLE rally (I have a feeling the choice of acronym itself is like a “haha lol look at them stupidly overenthu and activist-y types” kind of thing) and the obvious fact that Chauhan makes the entire narrative arc of racial discrimination a light-hearted, eye-rolling one. It not only paints the Trings with a very racist brush, but all the humour and how their characters are written completely erase the seriousness of discrimination that this novel had the space and potential to discuss.
Anannya: I sent it to a friend in Bhutan who loved Pricey and has met Chauhan (I think), with the caveat that she probably wouldn’t like this one too much. There was already the ‘Eshu fetishises cute chinkies’ bit in Pricey, which was worth side-eyeing, but this book is just a massive pile-on of “haha, aren’t these clichés funny and look at how we can see through people appropriating these narratives but it’s okay to do it for our plot because our characters are the protagonists”. (I typed out heroes/good guys but just couldn’t.)
Also, Bhutan is an independent country. Why the hell is it being represented by organisations for the “Northeast”, dubious enough term as that is? Can we get a little more sweeping with the racist blather, even as we are pretending to maintain this oh-so-ironic distance?
First it was Nimrat Kaur’s character running off to seek happiness in Bhutan at the end of The Lunchbox, now Bonu escapes there because her friendly smiling sidekicks are always waiting gratefully in the sidelines to help her. Insert clichés about the smiling Asian dispensers of peace and happiness?
Pavithra: Tring is, thankfully, a real Bhutanese name, but less than halfway through the book I was certain she had picked it over 1000 other possibilities for its near-comic ring to unfamiliar Indian ears. We are anyway caricaturing chinky immigrants so let’s top it all off with a funny-sounding name, haha.
Also, the “demands” the Trings make! Money! Fame! We have family honor to defend based on exceedingly silly-sounding village feud! It was such a #cannotableto
I hated that they featured in an item song, and of course the book’s hero was “sensitive” enough not to caricature them (Bonu fears dark glasses and garish costumes or something?!) – yeah right I’ll believe Chauhan about Samar not making them look like fools.
Note to alleged animal-rights activist Dabbu: it is a damn good idea to eat pigeons. It is not for nothing they are called rats of the sky; they keep out birdlife that actually contribute to the local ecosystem. Not only should you shut up about other people’s food choices, you should adopt them if you really care about creatures that are in danger.
Amba: Let’s note for the record that mainlander savior Bonu went all the way to Bombay to make sure they were treated fairly, but didn’t see anything wrong with passing Bhutanese people off as sufi qawwals.
Anannya: Apparently they radiate “innocence and native wisdom” in the item song. #SmileyMountainLamas, anyone?
Maybe It’s Misogyny, Maybe It’s Just Bad Writing…
Anannya: Let’s talk internalised misogyny. Why is the narrative constantly leering at Bonu’s curves? What is with the charming “chamchamming rapist” description? How exactly does a rapist walk, pray?
Amba: I’m going to say a lot of this was just down to sloppy writing. It had that feel of a first time fanfic writer who spends a lot of time detailing out the beauty of their character. Even though they’ve chosen it in the limited third person POV, it makes no sense for the narrative to notice voluptuousness in such a sustained way.
Anannya: Why is the “living girlfriend” described as the physical polar opposite of Bonu – sleek black hair, “fashionplate” (I get the sense that she is tall and thin) – and Zeeshan makes a transphobic joke about her having a dick.
Shyamolie: Yeah, what was that transphobic joke?! Also all five of them talking about Susan – Anjini calls her “man-mad”, “boy-crazy” and “cock-eyed” – the internalised sexism is intense.
Anannya: Why is Susan set up as the designing cow who:
a) cheats with overpriced Benarasi in the name of authenticity,
b) is a pity fuck for Samar-who-is-too-nice-to-dump-her-but-not-too-nice-to-have-semi-incestuous-makeouts-while-in-a-relationship, and
c) is only in it for his naam and shohrat and will callously dump him for fat, rich producer? Surely there are better, less clichéd ways in which you can deal with a romantic rival, Ms Chauhan?
Amba: OMG YES THE PROBLEM OF SUSAN!!!! (Paging feminists from the CS Lewis version.) What kind of clichéd, self-hating, lazy writing device it is to play up your heroine by making her romantic rival a bitch? Also FYI – I liked Susan more than I liked Bonu. Good for her, for insisting on authenticity. And I’d like to see financial statements before I believe that her passing on profits to Benarasi weavers is less generous than the profit percentage Bonu invests in her employee’s salaries. And the Thakur pimps fighting for 80 crores don’t get to sneer at Susan’s romantic choices involving financial and status negotiations.
Shyamolie: Samar’s relationship with Susan – at the end of the novel when he’s having his great relief moment after realising his film is “true”, he also attributes his feeling of relief to being free from Susan – Samar is highly unlikeable as such, and this description just makes it worse. Susan’s typecast as a rich, posh foil for Bonu’s flawed goodness, and conveniently, perversely written in a way that’s meant to make the readers agree with Anjini calling her a ‘kutiya’ in the end – radical, pitting women against each other, totally radical, Anuja Chauhan.
Anannya: Also, that weird thing about Susan’s perfume as her prime tool of seduction. As opposed to … Bonu’s natural curves and pretty hair?
Amba: As opposed to Bonu’s silver bangles, which go chamcham even in the dead of winter because she is too hot to need to wear long sleeves in an outdoor garden in January.
Anannya: Why are all of Samar’s potential rivals always-already quasi-castrated? The GP who comes to treat BJ is married, the Trings are weaklings/older, and Zeeshan is all bros before hoes, even though he thinks Bonu is “Epic!”
Pavithra: The misogyny doesn’t spare even people who appear for just about 3 sentences in the book. Samar’s movie heroine Preetali’s mom is a pushy social-climbing sort who wanted her daughter to snare the up-and-coming director, and is upset that she missed the opportunity. Uff, endless.
Muslims Gotta be Weird or Villainous?
Amba: Oh also let’s talk about the treatment of Muslim men, who are either assimilated good-looking virile young Bollywood heroes, or murderous wife-beaters and duplicitous land-grabbing politicians playing the minority card to swindle innocent Thakurs.
Anannya: Pick any Muslim in the book: wife beater and drunkard, chewer of paan and picker of fights, doesn’t speak Inglis properly, venal usurper who claims to be a do-gooder.
Also Zeeshan Khan, superstar and ultimate wingman, with family roots in the chawl. Speaks and acts like a careless regurgitation of every male BFF in the Chauhan books, his narrative purpose being to help ensure HEA and get out of the way. He and Bonu should just have gotten together.
Pavithra: If we are talking about treatment of Muslims in the book: what part of Muslim family with four kids (all girls), wife being pressured for more kids (= son) is NOT OFFENSIVE? There are Hindu families of this description, from every caste you can name. Haven’t there been a dozen studies that show that female foeticide and infanticide, etc. only get worse with rising wealth, especially in cities, with Delhi being the worst? But who cares about data and numbers, when we can paint a Muslim family in the most horrible stereotype available? It feeds into the whole Hindutva “they are breeding like rats” narrative.
And oh yeah, Parvez is Muslim, so also murderous, but when the savarna hero has overcome him (he’s armed and Samar is not, but when has that ever stopped a Thakur), he’s reduced to being merely comic – begging Bonu not to tell the neighbourhood of his nasbandi.
And Villains Gotta Be Bald?
Anannya: How do you deal with a mystery wrapped inside an enigma wrapped inside a saffron robed bald woman called Chandu? There is no justification for Chandu’s unmitigated bitchery towards the orphaned Bonu, unless it’s because Bonu’s parents tried to diddle her out of her hissa when she eloped with an Estonian. What is going on inside her head, or is making a character bald the way to ensure all authorial insight bounces off it?
Also, there is a fair bit of narratorial handwaving at work here. Anjini, Binni and Vickyji seem to get a pass on being the villains of the piece, regardless of what they do/did or say/said, thanks to being the romantic leads’ parents. Dabbu and Eshu have always been more sympathetic characters. Enter the mysterious Chandu – the cuckoo in this Thakur nest – who is a stingy, morally righteous pill and terribly mean to Bonu. Might I remind you that this same stingy Chandu probably funded all of Dabbu’s wedding lingerie with Lippik’s dollars at the end of Pricey?
Amba: It was really frustrating to me that there was never any connection made between the orphaned Bonu and Chandu, who was cut off by her entire family just for marrying a gora. And I find it ridiculous that Bonu is entirely unaware of her mother’s cheating and scheming, and that Bonu’s role as cat’s paw in trying to derail Dabbu’s marriage (in Pricey) isn’t brought up at every family get-together. So dumping the awful behaviour of the dead Binni into amnesia-land while introducing this caricature of a villainous aunt in Chandu was just inconsistent plotting to me, besides being irritatingly clichéd.
Shyamolie: Also Chandu’s practically turned into a cartoonish figure? If this were a serial, there would be evil villain woman background music for her when she walks in. She’s rendered incomprehensible in almost all ways, down to her chanting.
Anannya: Add to that the throwaway line in the epilogue about Chandu going back to her husband. Moral of the story – get a man, ladkiyaan, it makes all your problems go away.
Shyamolie: Dabbu also insists that Eshu get a man and stop wandering. Sigh.
Amba: I kept waiting for the revelation that Chandu was a secret addict of something or the other, which is why all the secretive desperation for money. Her sisters really don’t give a fuck about her inner life, do they? If I had a sibling who couldn’t pay her kid’s college fees and had joined a cult, I’d want to know if they were depressed, if they were despairing, if they felt trapped in a marriage because they had to save face since their whole family turned their back on them when they committed to it…
Shyamolie: Also come on, that quote about how they don’t know Chandu’s first words because she didn’t talk much????! BABIES DON’T TALK AT ALL TILL THEIR FIRST WORDS.
Copyedits? Wozzat? Fact Checking is for Losers
Amba: So we all know Chauhan moved from HarperCollins to Westland. It’s a shame her agent didn’t actually negotiate a functional editor as part of that deal. An editor with the gumption to send back what we read as a first draft that needed rigorous work. But instead, we get the edit team on pot who are unable to point out that the whole book took place in a make-believe land where:
● Girls wear cotton pajamas and a ganji (!!!!!) in the dead of a January winter in Delhi
● Said girl decides to TAKE A COLD SHOWER in January at night, because her boner for hottie needs suppressing
● Champa flowers grow on trees in winter
● Guavas ripen, fall and are rotting during winter along with late cannas
● Dahlias bloom at the same time as Amaltas
● “His computer, a 52-inch Mac, a gift from his youngest daughter, is open.” FIRE THE EDITOR. A desktop is ‘on’, not ‘open’
Anannya: I think it’s because the book was originally set in summer and then moved around to fit the Akshaya Tritiya deadline without anyone bothering to check these details. (Also, fuchsia ganji and turquoise pashmina shawl?)
And not only is this book set in an imaginative nowhereland that’s just randomly called Delhi, it’s set in some random no-when as well. If it opens twenty years after the events of Pricey, then that is two decades after the 80s, i.e. a decade before the present moment. Did anyone get the sense that this book was set in 2005?
References to Anushka in PK and Aishwarya Rai looking ‘fat’ in Cannes, all those specific dates (1993, 2003, twenty years later). And there is no freaking way Pricey is set any later than ’87, so this book is not twenty years later, more like thirty. The editors really got free fund ke paise.
Or is it just that the author/editor/publisher didn’t want a 47-year-old Eshu getting her HEA, or a hero and heroine in their 30s?
Amba: Considering that in the acknowledgements we find out that Chauhan’s school-going, teenage daughter is the model in the cover photos, I’d say the emphasis on youth at the cost of continuity is pretty creepy. Also as a reminder: Those Pricey Thakur Girls was set “more than two years after” the 1984 Sikh pogrom, and referenced the Anti-Defamation Bill of 1988 (as mentioned in the author’s acknowledgements).
Anannya: Okay, so Bonu is 26, i.e. 20 years ago she was 6 and Samar 12. She was orphaned when she was 10, so Binni died 16 years ago. Binni signed the document in 1993, this we know for a fact. Now do the math. 16 years after 1993 (chalo, 1994 maan liya) is 2009–2010. Oh, btw, regarding the timeline of when Binni died, the case is filed a “few months after Binni died”, and the case is 1989, so. Nope, no way does this work. Someone teach Anuja Chauhan and her editor how to calculate time.
Plus the timeline for Eshu and Steesh is also fucked. Samar declares his love when she is 24, but Eshu is supposed to have left home 3 years into Steesh’s undergrad at IITD, thus driving him to drugs, expulsion and manslaughter. And yet Bonu says that Eshu at 24 has some complicated thing with “the only other hot guy in Hailey Road, Satish Sridhar.” Editing aur continuity gayi tel lene.
Amba: The Trings living in the annexe for 30 years also doesn’t work, since 20 years ago Chachi and Chacha were there while their flat was being built.
Anannya: And the Irom Sharmila/“Is Sharmila Tagore from the Northeast” bit that is supposed to show us how cluelessly racist rich Delhi folks are? (Although really, it’s Chachiji and that’s as low hanging fruit as you get.) Er, Sharmila Tagore is half-Assamese, as any decent Googling could have told you.
Also, in terms of plot holes, *major spoiler alert*, why would a son need to climb the balcony with a rope ladder? Churaane ke aur bhi bahut aasaan tareeke hai.
Pavithra: Not a fact-check gripe, but gotta complain about this somewhere. The acronyms in this book are almost as bad as the current government’s! Redemption Is God’s Immortal Design: RIGID, it seems. And NESTLE : North-Eastern Students Today want Learning and Education, apparently. I have only one response: CATBURY – Corny Acronyms Torture Bladed and Unimpressed Readers, Yo!
Anannya: I want a book about Gulab and his Jim and his triumphant march out of the closet.
Amba: Considering how close Hailey road is to the normal Pride Parade route, and considering the book is set in handwavy time that is clearly around now, there could have been so much room for a queer narrative. On the other hand, since she did the stereotypical sassy gay BFF in Battle for Bittora, I don’t trust Anuja Chauhan with queer characters. Let her stick to the savarna straights, and we can ask fandom to write the fic where Gubbo (who is totes gay) gets his freak on.
Shyamolie: In any other book I’d hope for some queer character, but I don’t really see Chauhan going down that road.
Amba: As an aside, I kept thinking that the grand resolution of the hissa plot would be the hidden document proving that the land belonged to the school for special-needs kids, or it getting donated to them, and the Trings finally getting a decent salary along with size-appropriate living quarters for their families. But no, the HEA really is Bribe The Savages Off The Land with Beads YouTube Hits.
Shyamolie: The HEA in this book is so disastrously written that I didn’t give a shit about Eshu and Steesh/Samar and Bonu getting together, and the first couple were my absolute favourite ’ship from Pricey (tied with Dylan and Daboo, who don’t appear together at all in this, but Dylan’s pretty face works to relieve some of the rubbish writing). The HEA is … the 80 crores. That’s that.
Anannya: With regard to the 80-crores-each HEA that none of these already rich brats needed, can I say how disappointing it is that Dabbu who once told Bonu that “life isn’t about hissas, earn your own money you little ghoul”, is now actively out looking for her share? Yes, I know it is for Indiapost and we are supposed to care for free! Upstanding! INDEPENDENT! Press. Sod that, you gave your vain sister a job as the editor of your lifestyle supplement. D for Disappointed.
Pavithra: Only one thing to say in conclusion: If I hadn’t read Pricey, I wouldn’t have bothered finishing this book. Much less spending emotional energy thinking about and commenting on it 🙁
Amba: Yup. I started reading at midnight because I was so excited I didn’t care it was a work day, and by 5am I found myself plodding through it like a chore. Reading it became a duty, because I had stopped caring about anyone or anything in the book. And that, I think is tragic.