Hold on to Your Beliefs, or the World Will Convince You You're the Crazy One: Anuja Chauhan

Anuja Chauhan spoke to The Wire about her detective fiction, censorship in today's India and more.

Kozhikode: After the success and awards she got for her romance novels, advertising-professional-turned-writer Anuja Chauhan has now turned to detective fiction. Her crime-solving protagonist ACP Bhavani first made an appearance in Club You to Death, and has returned in Chauhan’s most recent book, The Fast and the Dead.

This is a genre she has named ‘romcrom’ – romance, crime and comedy.

The ‘fast’ in the title refers to Karwa Chauth. The novel is based in Bangalore’s Shivajinagar, in one galli where everyone knows each other – or think they do, until a murder takes place on the day of the fast. The murdered man’s wife had broken her ‘KC’ fast earlier that day, leading to talk from some that she caused his death, while others scoff at that theory and the superstition it involves.

“I like the darkness in that juxtaposition – of the man being murdered on the day of the fast,” Chauhan said at the Kerala Literature Festival on Saturday (January 13). Chauhan says she thinks that Karwa Chauth is a “blind superstition” that has spread across the country because of its portrayals in Bollywood, and the differing viewpoints on the subject come across from the characters of her book. “I like putting irreverent dialogues in my characters’ mouths,” she laughed.

While the book is very much a detective story set in a micro-locality, changes that India has seen over the last decade and more have seeped in. A young, successful Muslim actor is a suspect, and TV news channels immediately bay for his blood and run hashtags that call him a murderer. “A few years ago, this wouldn’t have happened,” Chauhan explained. “His Muslim identity would not have been so primary.” But given the realities of today, she felt she had to “be authentic”.

Chauhan spoke to The Wire about her book, censorship in today’s India and more. Edited excerpts from the interview follow.

This is now your second murder mystery. What led to the change in genre? Is the writing process very different?

It’s more mathematical. Because in a romance you can pretty much start off and see where you go, but here the plotting needs to be more careful.

You need to know who did it.

You need to know who did it, and you need to leave enough clues, but you need to hide them also. And the timeline… there’s that. So it’s more plotted, there’s more scaffolding that doesn’t show once the skin is on, but it’s there.

In my reading of all your novels, across genres, there is an underlying subtle, humorous social commentary. It’s very much based in our present, both very locally and nationally. What drew you to that style?

That’s one of the main reasons I write. I love observing this stuff, and recording it, and laughing about it. I’m sometimes angry, but I’m mostly affectionate, I think.

Do our current socio-political realities, where there are very present forms of censorship, like recently things being taken off Netflix for instance, affect writers like you who have a social commentary in their writing, even if it’s not the main feature?

It’s just sad, I think. It’s depressing. You can’t get on to X – you see two posts about Gaza, or two posts about a movie like this Annapoorani, and the kind of hate people put. If you scroll through the comments, and you see that everyone clearly seems to think that this is the correct thing to do, and they’re so uninformed. When did we say that Kshatriyas don’t eat meat, for heaven’s sake. And what about Bajrangi Bhaijaan, it came out in 2016. So if you start going down that rabbit hole you really lose it, I think.

So I think this is the time to go not ostrich-y, but somewhere hold on to your beliefs. Because otherwise the world will convince you that you’re the crazy one. It’s nuts. It just feels sad, that there’s an incomplete temple and it’s being consecrated. I think it’s important to disconnect. I’ve reached a point where I’ve stopped trying to convince people, I’m exhausted. So I’ll save my energy and I’ll write about it gently, in my own way, and do what I can about it.

How much has this affected the literature and popular culture landscape in India?

It has, of course it has. People are pandering to the reigning mentality in all sorts of ways, some subtle ways and some not-so-subtle ways, and other people are being emboldened. In the dark places of your mind, if you want to slap your girlfriend, now you’ll think it’s fine, you can do it. We’re loosening the leash on monsters of all sorts, to crazy applause.

You also write regular columns in addition to your novels.

Yes, I write for a good Malayali publication, The Week magazine. I’ve been writing it for almost 15 years now.

Do you ever plan on doing a longer non-fiction work?

No, I like to inform my fiction with whatever is happening rather than that.

Some of your works have already been turned in movies and series, others are in the pipeline. ACP Bhavani is coming to Netflix soon. Do you work with them in that process?

No, not really. I’ve realised from my work in advertising that I’m going to have no control. So there’s no point. So I’m like here take it, give me the moolah, and do what you can. And I’ll leave it at that. Because I’ll just be a nuisance, and a nuisance without power. So there’s not point. And these are all directors I trust. Homi Adajania is directing Murder Mubarak, and he’s a really good director. So I’m like okay, you do what you like. And I love the casting – I think Pankaj Tripathi [as ACP Bhavani] is great casting.

What’s next?

Right now I’m just sitting on my butt. I’m closing a couple of movie deals, so I’m in that very finance mode for now. I guess I’ll start writing again in March, and then I’ll see what I’ll write. If this movie, Murder Mubarak, does well, then maybe one more ACP will hunt again. Or if it doesn’t do that well, then maybe I’ll put a little more ‘rom’ into my ‘crom’.

Already the second one does have more romance…

Ya, I know. Also because I got a lot of grief on the first book, they said I’ve ruined the romance. So I said okay now the romance is clean now in The Fast and the Dead.