Monday, June 29, 2015

Where we ramble about Anuja Chauhan's books

Much as I have loved Anuja Chauhan's books ever since I first read The Zoya Factor seven years ago, I have always hated them a little bit too.

There, I said it. At least two readers of this blog can now gasp in outrage. The rest of you probably couldn't care less.

This post has been festering for a while now, to be honest. I started and deleted versions of it every time a new book of hers released, and after the last one, the festering began again. And then of course, procrastination happened. But then this morning, I read this summary/discussion/critique/what-d'you-call-it, which prompted this post.

Here's the thing - my favourite thing about all of her books have always been just how Delhi they are. The conversations - full of Hinglish, the descriptions, the throwaway lines that make you giggle endlessly, like this one from Battle for Bittora (possibly my least favourite of all her books):
I knew my face was wearing the smug expression you see on the face of a Sarojini Nagar market  t-shirt seller when you don't buy a tee, claiming its too expensive and then come back, red-faced and perspiring, after two hours of rootling through a gazillion stalls and say sheepishly, 'woh t-shirt phir se dikhana, bhaiya.' 
When you've gone to a Delhi college, and spent hours rolling your eyes at friends who insist on shopping in Sarojini Nagar, that line is everything. And it's lines like that make me go back to her books, and make me have the parents buy them as soon as they release and send through whatever relatives are visiting whatever city I'm in.

But because her books are so rooted in Delhi, and in a certain part of Delhi, a lot of what the Ladies Finger post says is true. There's classism, and racism, and social boundaries are very clearly drawn, never to be crossed, except when absolutely necessary, and in the most ridiculous ways.

From what I can tell from the acknowledgements in each book, all of Anuja Chauhan's books have been from worlds she knows. The Zoya Factor was from her time in advertising, Battle for Bittora was from her mother-in-law's life in politics, and Those Pricey Thakur Girls, I suppose, was from growing up in Delhi in the 80s. She writes about worlds she knows. She writes about the Delhi she knows. And the Delhi she knows is a little like the Delhi I know, and a lot like the Delhi in her books - classist, racist, and very, very conscious of status.

I'm not good at parsing books and movies for every piece of social injustice, though. Also I'm frivolous. So I ignore those pieces of her books. Also, I mean, it's chick lit. Why read chick lit - even by an author whose best pages definitely come from interactions with friends and family rather the lead romantic couple in her books - if you're going to complain about the "find a guy and all will be well" theme in them?

But. There is something about Anuja Chauhan's books that annoy me tremendously. And it is the fact that she writes her lead female characters as utter twits and ninnies. Zoya wasn't a complete idiot, but was remarkably naive and susceptible to the Great Misunderstanding that is a compulsory part of every romance novel. Jinni, while showing the occasional flashes of brilliance like when she was offered money to drop out of the race, was completely clueless most of the time and definitely written as someone who would always need Zain's wise counsel to see the right way forward. And then there was Debjani Thakur, who made me want to tear my hair out. Yes, you're a molly coddled pricey Thakur girl from Hailey Road, but for Pete's sake, apply yourself a little, wouldja? And read the news a bit if you're trying to be a newsreader?

And that's why I liked The House that BJ Built. Because Bonu Singh may be doing things out of misplaced loyalty to not-so-nice parents, etc., but she wasn't a complete twit, y'know? Okay, yes, a lot of how ballsy she is may have been more told to us rather than actually shown, but she's probably the only Chauhan lead girl who wasn't written like a complete pushover who's easily manipulated. I mean, alright, Ashok Chacha tried and all, but she said no in the end, didn't she? There were logical explanations for every action she took, even if some of those explanations were rooted in Great Misunderstandings.

There's a lot to roll your eyes at in this book. The time gap, for example, did not add up. And the Trings were not living in the Annexe thirty years ago, because Chacha and Chachi moved in there while Hailey Court was being built. The Asharfi storyline made me want to rub my eyes, reread certain pages because I wasn't sure if what I thought had just happened had actually happened, and then made me want to punch someone. Also what is with Bonu not having any friends other than the Trings? Zoya had Monita, Jinni had Rumi, but all the Thakur girls, come to think of it, seem to be largely friendless.

But if you're picking your battles, and ranking her books simply by the intelligence levels demonstrated by the lead female character, this book does well. Now please excuse me while I go text a friend and ask her to return my copy of The Zoya Factor so I can reread it and decide if Nikhil Khoda still trumps a more intelligent female lead, and therefore if that book still trumps The House that BJ Built. Although first-book nostalgia tends to play a strong factor for me - it's why Arabella is still one of my favourite Heyers. Okbye.

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