Page-turners: Top six books picked by Anuja Chauhan

The Little Hump-Backed Horse
It’s an illustrated Russian fairy tale by Pyotr Yershov. This book got me hooked to reading. It was funny, unpredictable and romantic — an adventure story, written in verse! I didn’t learn till I was quite grown up that the iambic tetrameter it used inspired Pushkin’s Eugine Onegin, which in turn inspired Vikram Seth’s The Golden Gate.

The Chronicles of Narnia by CS Lewis
A parallel universe! With talking animals! And sword-fights and ships! Ruled by a Lion King! Narnia taught me about Good and Evil better than any holy book. Besides, it was just so much fun. I didn’t know then that Aslan, The Lion King, is based on Jesus Christ.

Atlas Shrugged by Ayan Rand
Yes, back when I was 15, I was pretty taken up with Miss Rand. Now I’m just appalled by the smug arrogance and tight stereotypes in her books.

The Princess Diaries, by Meg Cabot and A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth
These two got me to think that maybe I too could be an author. For very different reasons, of course. Meg Cabot makes you really feel romance and her stream of consciousness voice is just so breathlessly unputdownable. Vikram Seth for the affection, depth of knowledge and lightness of touch with which he wrote about India in this book. And the dialogue that sparkles — it’s brilliant.

Both are in a league of their own, masters of their particular crafts, and I could never ever come close, but I read these two and I was like, ‘Hmmm, maybe I could write — maybe I could write a whole book!’

The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf
I read this when I was 19, and struggling with low self-esteem and eating disorders. It changed my life — it was the most liberating read, ever. Highly recommended.

‘My first crushes were on dashing young officers’

What was going on in your mind when you reached the end of writing this novel?
Relief, of course, and satisfaction, because I felt I’d done a good job, but also, a genuine sense of sorrow — I’d spent so many hours with Shaanu and his friends that I really didn’t want to let them go.

Was it a challenge or easier to pen a novel considering you have a connect with the Armed Forces?
Well, I always pick backgrounds I’m sort of familiar with — advertising in The Zoya Factor, politics in Battle for Bittora and a joint family full of girls in Those Pricey Thakur Girls and The House that BJ built. Some writers get offended when people ask if their books are autobiographical, like it means they lack imagination or something, but as far as I’m concerned, every book I write borrows from my own life. I’m lazy, that way! And like you rightly point out, I have a full fauji connect. I spent my childhood in cantonments around the country, and my very first crushes were on dashing young officers, all of whom were crushing on my gorgeous older sisters. Seven men from my family saw action in the 1971 war; one was awarded a Vir Chakra and one a Mahavir Chakra, so of course, the subject resonated hugely.

Your characters though fictional, come across as real, believable. Is this an evolving craft, or does it surface as each book takes shape?
Thank you! I usually have some notion of the characters, and that is inspired by people I know and admire, or despise, or am amused by — a sort of core to the character, their USP. But the rest of it evolves as you write. Like when I began writing Baaz (Harper Collins India), I knew Shaanu would be the shortest guy in his Flying College batch, very cocky, and a total adrenalin junkie. This, because my son had a best friend in kindergarten who was like that, and I loved that kid to bits. So I took that core and ran with it.

Then, as I start to write, I slowly have to figure out why my character is like this, what makes him such a daredevil and so cocky? Is it a function of his family background, the way his parents met, the stories his mum told him? All that starts to emerge as you write. It’s like an excavation — and is great fun actually; you wake up every morning and you’re so excited to hit the keyboard, and find out what happens next. 


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