No Putting Her Down: An Interview with Anuja Chauhan
Even though her next book is set in an exclusive club, Anuja Chauhan’s writing is for everybody
Best known for quick-witted romantic novels, Anuja Chauhan seems to do the impossible—create wildly popular books that all have great literary appeal, too. This month she returns with Club You to Death, a gripping whodunnit set in Delhi. Her work has been adapted for film and television, and before becoming a full-time writer, Chauhan was a successful advertising professional. In a conversation with Reader’s Digest, the Banglaore-based writer talks about her paisa-vasool (value for money) work and charmed life.
We know that your book, Club You to Death, is a murder mystery set in Delhi. We also know it involves a gym trainer victim in a posh club. What more can you tell us?
It’s a very Delhi book, but it’s also a very universal story. So many of us have belonged to a club growing up. You go there to swim, eat French fries with tomato sauce, play Tambola and borrow books. There are Thursday ‘Nights at the Bar’ and May Queen balls and Diwali galas. Of course, this is Delhi’s most exclusive club—the Delhi Turf Club, in the heart of the Lutyens zone, no less. A club whose sticker people flaunt on the windshields of their cars with great pride. It’s a book about privilege, I think. About haves and have-nots, class and caste, social hierarchies and people trying to cross over these hierarchies. It has lots of cougar aunties and pompous uncles, wizened old gardeners and beautiful, young, idealistic people, and a genial old ACP on the brink of retirement who believes that if you beat up people, you loosen their tongues, but if you listen to them, you open their hearts.
How and why the shift to a whodunnit? Do you enjoy reading crime fiction, too?
There’s always the fear of one’s work becoming too formulaic. I’m not a fan of the grisly or graphic, sexually explicit type of thrillers. But I love cosy crime—the kind Agatha Christie, Niago Marsh, Dorothy Sayers and a few others write so well. A lovely, peaceful, but complex world, beautiful and serene on the surface, with evil lurking beneath. These are, of course, all queens of the genre, and Christie is empress-who-shall-reign-forever, but I wanted to take a shot at being a lowly lady-in-waiting in this space. I was excited to find out if I could pull a killer out of a hat successfully. It’s not like I’ve given up on romance completely. Club has a couple at the centre of the story, but it was lovely to explore relationships that don’t follow the usual girl-meets-boy graph of my previous books.
How was it working through a pandemic and lockdown? Did isolation help you work?
Well, my husband and I became empty-nesters in late 2019, with two of our kids in college (Delhi and London) and one working in Mumbai. We had just about dried our tears and started enjoying the new-found peace and quiet, when BAM! Everybody landed back in the nest. So it was suddenly a very full house. Then we decided to foster six mongrel puppies. No matter where you went in the house, somebody was playing the piano, or clanking weights while working out or doing some elaborate beauty regimen in the bathroom or cooking something ambitious and making a mess of it, or flirting with some masked boy/girl on the verandah. So, I holed up in the basement, tuned them all out and wrote at breakneck speed. The good part was that every time I had a good chunk written, I could show it to the family and badger them for feedback. It felt strange to write about a normal, pre-corona world in the book, but it felt very comforting, too. Almost therapeutic.
People are quick to take offence these days and writers might be forced to self-censor or backtrack. Have you ever felt constrained or concerned in your work?
As a reader and viewer, I’m appalled by this trend. I don’t want to watch censored content. I’m not a child and it’s wrong for government bodies or a jobless, self-appointed moral police to infantalize me. As a writer of ads, columns and movie screenplays, I have to confess that some amount of policing has crept into my work. But not in my novels. In my novels, I write whatever I want to.
How has your advertising background shaped your work?
Advertising is my school, college and M.A.–Phd. Everything I know about writing I learnt from there. How to listen to people—really listen—get an understanding of their deepest needs and desires and then tell them that you can give them what they want! It taught me that the biggest crime is to be boring, bleh, wallpaper-ish. As the three ‘R’s of advertising are rapidity, resilience and repertoire, it also taught me to keep rolling with the punches, and to be good about feedback (you get your writer’s heart broken regularly in advertising), to grow a nice thick hide that can take criticism on the chin, and even learn and improve because of it.
What are the challenges of being a full-time writer? How much of a burden is commercial success when looking ahead to your next work?
Commercial success is important for the money it brings in, and also for the fact that it indicates that more and more people are reading your work. Growing my audience is vital to me—I write to be read—but even more important is staying fresh and excited about the writing process itself. So, I write what excites me, and so far, I’ve found that what excites me usually excites my readers too.
If this book does well, then definitely another ACP Bhavani Singh book. And I have a movie releasing soon—Sardar & Grandson, directed by Kaashvie Nair and produced by Emmay Entertainment. Also, a new Hotstar series based on my novel, Those Pricey Thakur Girls. And I’ve just agreed to write another commissioned screenplay.