Anuja Chauhan, author, The Fast and the Dead - “I turn to humour every time”
On her second whodunnit that’s set around the ritual of Karwa Chauth and the “murders most meticulous” that unfold after that night
Where did the germ for this novel – a murder set around Karwa Chauth – originate? How did ACP Bhavani make it to this story? Was it intentional to make him a part of the plot instead of having a new character deal with the case?
Karwa Chauth is such a polarising topic! Is it about smug married women flexing on single ones who haven’t managed to “snag a man” yet? Is it about a wife’s pure love for her partner? Is it just about aping whatever Bollywood does? Or is it about a woman exercising freedom of choice? Or a woman trying to lose weight while scoring sanskari brownie points? Is it a tool of the patriarchy, or just a harmless ice-breaker with a new mother-in-law? As a girl child in a Rajput family, I was taught that if you didn’t keep your Karwa Chauth with full faith and rigorous fasting, you could literally kill your husband. Some would call this faith, and some superstition. Naturally, as a grown-up always on the lookout for settings that lay bare desi mind sets, obsessions and hypocrisies, I felt the premise had so much promise! An angry wife breaks her fast before the moon rises, and voila, almost immediately, the husband who she is angry with is shot dead!
I’m committed to ACP Bhavani, and rather fond of him as well. And as he’s a married man from the north, it made sense to have him solve this particular case. His wife Shalu doesn’t keep the fast. She used to, but now, to quote her fond husband, she and her two daughters believe only in “hard work, kindness, trees and puppies”.
This is your second murder mystery. Did you feel like you made any “mistakes” in the first or was there something you consciously wanted to avoid in this book? Did you have any learning or unlearning to do?
As a writer, you always spot a million mistakes in every finished book, and hope to do better in the next one. That was the case here as well. I did get some flak for “not enough romance” in Club You to Death and I tried to make up for that. The similarity, I guess, is that, in a romantic novel, there’s a lot of sparring between the love interests, heightened nerves, quickened heartbeats, second guessing, and concealed emotions. There’s a lot of that in a murder mystery as well!
Like Club You to Death, was the killer of this story already decided before you started writing? How do you go about deciding the killer and then working backwards to create the plot?
Yes, certainly. I knew who the killer was from word go. I find writing a whodunnit is a pretty mathematical process – you have a rough work folder and a fair work folder. First, you work out the story and the sequence of events from the point of view of the killer in the rough folder; then, in the fair folder, you write out the whole thing again, but this time from the point of view of the sleuth, or the other suspects and characters.
You’ve said in the past that making a point lightly even about serious issues is always more effective than doing it in a pontificating matter. Would you ever go completely “dark” or serious for a future murder mystery?
I wouldn’t be able to do that. I turn to humour every time. I don’t know how to write seriously about serious things. Definitely not for one lakh words straight, which is roughly the size of the books I write.
Almost each of the main characters has a back story or a plot of their own. Who is your favourite?
I enjoyed writing Jaishri Rao the most. She’s so baffled about being nouveau-poor, and having to drink Indian wines, and hang prints on her walls instead of real art, and yet she’s so upbeat and generous. In spite of her divorce and cheating husband, she isn’t cynical at all and is rooting for her daughter’s romance with a boy from a completely different religious and social background. And then there’s Pooja Kedia, the cowed, devout housewife who’s had enough and who broke her Karwa Chauth fast early with Krispy Kreme donuts, spicy nippattu, steamed momos and chole bhature. Good for Pooja Kedia!
Most of your works have been picked up for the screen. Do you now consciously write in a manner that could almost seem like a movie screenplay? What is your opinion on books being turned into movies?
I’m very clear that I’m a novelist. I love this format because it gives me complete creative control. I get to call all the shots – I decide who lives, who dies, who laughs, who cries. This is the power that I left a pretty good career in advertising to achieve, and I don’t plan on giving it up, ever. The movie deals are an amazing bonus – I’m very grateful and thankful for them, but I think even the Mumbai studios who’ve been so kind to me and my work so far, would stop wanting my novels immediately if I compromised on this hard-won clarity and purity and started trying to churn out half-baked movie plots instead of fully thought-out books.
Books that get turned into movies, are just that – movies. They can then be compared only to other movies, and not to the book that inspired them. Because books are personal. You imagine them in your head as you read. And of course, the movie in your head will always be better than the movie some director and studio came up with.
You’ve come up with a new book almost every two years. What keeps you inspired to write frequently? How does an author continue to stay relevant?
Children are a huge blessing for a writer. They keep you youthful, up-to-date and politically correct. Reading widely, and chatting with people whose circumstances and opinions dramatically differ from your own also help a great deal.
As a best selling author, what advice would you give to anyone who wants to try their hand at popular fiction?
The rules for being popular are the same as they are in high school. Don’t be desperate, don’t try too hard to please, don’t be a follower. Just be your authentic self without giving a damn and popularity will inevitably follow.
Are you already working on ideas for your next? More of ACP Bhavani?
I’ve just seen the first cut of Murder Mubarak (the cinematic adaptation of the first ACP Bhavani book, Club You to Death). It’s looking incredible. It’s out early next year on Netflix. And if it does well, then yes, ACP Bhavani (Pankaj Tripathi plays him brilliantly in the film) will hunt again.
Huzan Tata is an independent journalist. She lives in Mumbai.