Indian authors writing in English may be divided into two categories: Those who write for the world and those who write for India. Authors like Vikram Seth, Amitav Ghosh, Rohinton Mistry, Arundhati Roy; with an international presence and admirers, belong to the first category. The other category writes beautifully and connects very well with the Indian readers. Chetan Bhagat, Swati Kaushal and Ashwin Sanghi belong to this group. Most of them write colloquial English, an English infused with Hindi, in what Salman Rushdie called Chutnified English, changing an Indian word into an English one. I am a genuine admirer of both these categories of writers.
The mid-2000s saw the emergence of a sub-genre of the second category; the Indian chick lit. Stories of woman’s adventures in work and romance emerged in resonance with the appearance of women-centred books like ‘Devil wears Prada’ and ‘Bridget Jone’s Diary’ in the west and coinciding with the post-liberalisation publishing boom in India in the mid-2000s. A decade later, Anuja Chauhan, the queen among Indian chick lit authors was supposed to have received a six-figure dollar advance for her fourth novel and the promise of a 100,000 copies print.
Anuja Chouhan, with her background in the advertisement profession where she created classics like ‘yeh dil mangey more’ for Pepsi, and ‘Tedha hai par mera hai’ for Kurkure, excels in chutnification; ‘Debjani wearing payals cham chams out of the room’. She mimics the speech of everyday India remarkably well, even while using English.
The first of the Hailey Road chronicles, ‘Those Pricey Thakur Girls’, is about the Thakur family living at 16 Hailey Road near the posh Connaught Place in New Delhi. Justice Laxmi Narayan Thakur (BJ for Bauji) and his wife Mamta fuss over their five daughters named, strangely, in alphabetical order. Anjini, whose first word was ‘mey subsey pretty’ and habitual flirt; Binodini, with eternal money problems and obsessed with her share of the family property; Chandrakanta, who eloped with an Estonian on the eve of her wedding; the feisty Eshwari, with a formidable reputation for being a rebel at Modern School, Barakhamba Road and is just a little too fond of her classmate Sateesh Sridhar.
Judge’s favourite is the quietly fiery fourth daughter, Debjani, who reads English news on Desh Darpan (a proxy for Doordarshan). Debjani’s character is endearing. Champion of all the stray animals on Hailey Road, she struggles to build a career that appeals to her and come into her own. She is partial to bravery and kindness, with an affinity for those fallen on hard luck.
Dylan Singh Shekhawat, BJ’s friend’s son and a crusading journalist are all eyes for Debjani, who is intrigued by the scandals of Dylan’s personal life and his brilliant credentials as a journalist. He is crushingly dismissive and sarcastic of the state propaganda she reads as news but always seeks her out with a mix of flirting and dreamy dark eyes. The romance between Debjani and Dylan is a reenactment of Pride And Prejudice. Indira Gandhi’s emergency is a shadowy presence. The Anti-Sikh pogrom had been led by a Congressman whom Dylan, a journalist, is bent upon exposing.
The House That BJ Built is the sequel taking place after a 20-year hiatus. The protagonist is Bonita Singh, Binodini’s orphaned daughter. Bonu is now a spirited youngster who runs her own business called Vicky’s Secret. She does it on the sly in the old bungalow where she lives with her grandfather. Bonu’s business model is to make cheap copies of designer clothes and sell them in Delhi and Dubai. We are never allowed to forget her aggressive swagger or her attractive curves. Bonu is mad about Samar, her childhood sweetheart.
The story revolves around everybody fighting for a share of the property put up for sale after BJ’s death. BJ’s second daughter Binodini had been determined to not sell her share in ancestral house on Hailey Road because her father did not consent to sell when she was needy. Her daughter Bonu for Bonita is determined to honour her mother’s wishes. But the rest of the sisters need the money for their reasons. BJ, on his deathbed, had sworn Samar Vir Singh, Anjini’s stepson to get the house sold, divide the money equally and end all the bickering within the family.
Bonita Singh Rajawat dominates the story with her vivacious, bubbly, aggressive personality while the four sisters, Anjini, Chandralekha, Debjani and Eshwari, faced with their issues, present a united front amidst the ugly property dispute that is raging in the aftermath of their father’s death. The House That BJ Built is worth today more than 300 crores and everybody including the sisters, tenants, human rights activists, the scheming Chachaji and others would like to have the biggest pie.
Added to this family drama is a bit of Bollywood masala with Samar, a Bollywood director of two box-office-rocking films making a film on the Thakur family which is interspersed with his romantic entanglements with a live-in girlfriend and of course, the beautiful Bonu.
BJ’s bungalow has one thing in common with every other bungalow in Delhi’s posh enclaves; it has a court case. This one is brought in by Chachaji, BJ’s younger brother Ashok Narain Thakur. And so begins the kissa of romance and real estate. Chauhan might wince at another Jane Austen comparison, who showed way back in the 19th century that property is the perfect counterpoint to love-equally tricky, always riveting and quite essential.
The wonderfully eccentric Hailey Road crowd is back in this book. Apart from the five sisters, there is Ashok Chacha, Bhudevi Chachiji and her son Gulgul who lives next door. A Bhutanese family is occupying the annexe of the house. There is also the dark presence of BJ’s dead parents Pushkar Thakur and his wife.
Chauhan creates a template for romantic imagination dispersed with dramatic events. The chaotic denouement in the first book when Debjani finds that Dylan wrote a scathing criticism about her DD debut and then their reconciliation is full of tension. Then there is the rescue of Chacha from a knife-wielding Chachi possessed by the ghost of her mother-in-law. Bonita is rescued by Gulgul from a knife attack by her worker’s husband.
Chauhan’s prose has colloquial exuberance and tongue in the cheek humour. The brazen style of storytelling, the settings, and the amusing concoction of Hindi laced English make her stories richly Indian. Her first two novels, The Zoya Factor and Battle for Bittora helped her perfect her trademark style.
The vivid descriptions of the settings make you think as if the scene is being enacted in front of you. The scene when Judge Thakur plays kot-piece with his friends on the lawn with the table fan on, makes you recall the setting and the whiff of the smell of the summer grass. It takes you back to the countless summer holidays spent the same way.