Indian authors writing in English come in two categories: Those who write for the world and those who write for India. Authors like Vikram Seth, Amitav Ghosh, Rohinton Mistry, Arundhati Roy, Jhumpa Lahiri, having won international acclaim and awards, belong to the first category. The other type 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 what Salman Rushdie called Chutnified English, an English infused with Hindi, and with anglicised Indian words. I genuinely admire both these categories of writers.
A sub-genre of the second category; the Indian chick lit emerged in early 21st century. The post-feminist Stories of women’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. They coincided 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, created classics like ‘yeh dil mangey more’ for Pepsi and ‘Tedha hai par mera hai’ for Kurkure. She 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 Hailey Road chronicles are 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 have five daughters named, strangely, in alphabetical order. Anjini’s first word was ‘mey subsey pretty’, and she is a habitual flirt. Binodini, with eternal money problems, is obsessed with her share of the family property. Chandrakanta eloped with an Estonian just before her marriage. Debjani, the quietly fiery fourth daughter and BJ’s favourite. Finally, the feisty Eshwari has a formidable reputation for being a rebel at Modern School, Barakhamba Road, and is too fond of her classmate Sateesh Sridhar.
Debjani 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 Dylan’s emancipated life style and his fame 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. Dylan, a journalist, is bent upon exposing the Anti-Sikh pogrom led by a Congressman.
The events of the “House That BJ Built” appears after a 20-year hiatus. The protagonist is Bonita Singh, the orphan daughter of Binodini. The wonderfully eccentric Hailey Road crowd is back in this book. Apart from BJ and Bonu, Ashok Chacha, Bhudevi Chachiji and her son Gulgul live 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.
Bonu is now a spirited youngster who runs her own business “Vicky’s Secret” named after her father. She hides the activity 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 come-hither attitude or her feminine attractions. Bonu is mad about Samar, her childhood sweetheart.
The story revolves around everybody fighting for a share of the property for sale after BJ’s death. BJ’s second daughter Binodini was determined not to sell her stake in her ancestral house on Hailey Road because her father did not consent to sell when she was needy. On the other hand, her daughter Bonu bent upon honouring her mother’s wishes. But the rest of the sisters need the money for their own reasons. BJ, before dying, had sworn Samar Vir Singh, Anjini’s stepson, to dispose of the house and give the money to his five daughters equally and bring peace in the family.
Bonita Singh Rajawat dominates the story with her vibrant, bubbly, aggressive personality. At the same time, the four sisters, faced with their own personal problems, unite to deal with their uncle’s clandestine claim on the property. The value of the BJ Built has risen to more than 300 crores, and everyone who have had anything to do with the house is now a claimant to its value.
A sub-plot of the family drama is the adventures of Samar, who is now an established Bollywood director of two box-office-rocking films. He leads a colourful life, what with a live-in girlfriend in Mumbai and child-hood girl friend Bonu in Delhi. He is planning to make a film based on the story of his maternal great-grandfather Pushkar Thakore. BJ’s bungalow has one thing in common with every house in Delhi’s posh enclaves. It has a court case brought in by Chachaji, BJ’s younger brother Ashok Narain Thakur.
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 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. Finally, Gulgul rescues Bonita from a knife attack by her worker’s husband.
Chauhan’s prose has colloquial exuberance and tongue in cheek humour. The brazen style of storytelling, the settings, and the delightful 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 imagine that the scene is happening in front of you. For example, the scene when Judge Thakur plays card game on the lawn with his friends as the table fan throws cool air around is wonderfully evocative. It makes you recall the setting and the whiff of the smell of the summer grass and takes you back to the many many summer holidays spent in the same manner.
The BJ’s world came to life in “Dil Bekaraar”, released on Disney Hotstar. It is based on “Those Pricey Thakore Girls” and stars Akshay Oberoi (Dylan Singh Shekhawat), Sahher Bambba (Debjani), Anjali Anand (Binodini), Raj Babbar (BJ), Padmini Kolhapure (Bhudevi), Poonam Dhillon (Mamta) and Sukhmani Sadana (Anjini), and is directed by Habib Faisal. Bambba somehow does not do justice to the character of a spirited Debjani.
Padmini Kolhapure plays the role of Bhudevi, eternally suffering from her marriage to the judge’s lustful and licentious brother AN Thakur (Pankaj Kalra). The Hotstar version is generally agreed by critics to be truer to the book compared to the DoorDarshan version, “Dilli Wali Thakur Girls” which appeared in 2015.