Her name means ‘younger sister’, and so Anuja Chauhan, the 48-year-old mother of three and author of five bestsellers, has always been somewhat attracted to ‘seniority’ in life. The youngest of four sisters, she was blessed with eternally youthful looks, and till about a year ago, was accustomed to being told she looked like a sister to her two daughters (now 22 and 20) and son (17). “But I want to look like their mother,” she mock sulks.
And so, in an act of personal defiance, Anuja allowed her hair to go grey in the past year. “Let me look my age; I have earned my white hair,” she says, narrating comical instances of Uber drivers and restaurant waiters calling her ‘ma’am’ and being extra respectful. “I get so much more bhaav now.”
But underneath the humour lies a more serious motive. “We should stop equating youth with beauty and power. I have a problem with that,” she says.
The Delhi-based writer would know a bit about social perceptions and power. Born in Meerut to an Army officer, she spent her childhood between Meerut and Delhi, finally graduating with an economics degree from Miranda House, Delhi University. She did her Master’s in mass communication from the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology.
Her parents and two sisters migrated to Australia after her father’s retirement. “I had permanent citizenship too, but I much preferred India so I gave it up and came back,” says Anuja, who was still a college student when she fell in love with Niret Alva, the son of senior Congress leader Margaret Alva. After a four-year relationship, they tied the knot in 1994 and settled in Delhi. The couple moved to Bengaluru three years ago.
With her natural wit and propensity for putting her finger on the pulse of the people, Anuja came up with hugely popular ad catchphrases such as ‘Yeh dil maange more’ for Pepsi, ‘Darr ke aage jeet hai’, and ‘Tedha hai par mera hai’ for Kurkure, besides many others from the mid-90s onwards. In 2010, after a 17-year creatively charged and successful stint at J. Walter Thompson, she quit her job and dedicated herself to writing.
Her first book, about a young ad executive who proves to be a lucky mascot for the Indian national cricket team, was a runaway success, and set the tone for four more ‘rom-com’ novels over the next eight years.
Film rights for three of these have already been bought – The Zoya Factor (2008) will start shooting in April this year, Battle for Bittora (2010) has been bought by Anil Kapoor Film Company, and Baaz (2017) by Yash Raj Films. The TV rights for Those Pricey Thakur Girls (2013) were purchased by Zee Entertainment Network, who converted it into a Hindi daily soap, titled Dilli Wali Thakur Girls.
And yet Anuja insists she would never have written the way she has if she had a movie script in mind. “After The Zoya Factor’s sale of movie rights, I was expected to keep writing ‘young, bubby’ stories but I refused to pay attention to what was trending in Bollywood. On the contrary, I wrote Battle for Bittora before Anna Hazare made politics ‘trendy’. I was told that a romance with a political storyline wouldn’t work – yet I wanted to write it,” she asserts.
There is a certain innocence in Anuja’s novels, even when there are dark undertones of social injustices such as in Those Pricey Thakur Girls. Anuja admits she believes in the inherent goodness of people, and prefers to give a message of hope rather than despair. Her readers are obviously addicted – all her books are rated in Amazon’s top 100 books in Indian fiction even years after publication – and Anuja has no intention of letting them down. A sixth book is in the fray.
Her personal life is a rich source of fodder for her writing. “I am an open parent and have been very transparent about my life with my kids. I figured it would encourage them to share their lives with me too – that was my mothering strategy,” she explains.
She also has her own take on 21st century marriages: “Everyone seems to have issues. Marriages have become transactional, but unless we spend time and money on our relationship, it just becomes a wasteland.”
Growing old together with an equally successful partner has also brought with it lessons in love for Anuja. “People become religious or take on hobbies as they grow older but it’s important to do things that keep you together,” she says, adding that couples should be careful not to judge each other nor allow every little fight to escalate.
In mid-2016, Anuja’s mother passed away at the age of 81. “She had so much grace and strength. She would say, hai hai, don’t let your hair go grey – pehle mujhe marne toh de (let me die first),” recalls Anuja, who was deeply affected by her mother’s loss. “So after she died I was like, okay, I can do this now.”
Lightly said, her words ring with self-confidence. And peace.