Kho Kho, Thums Up and ‘Prem’: 3 Authors Who Evoke 1990s’ Nostalgia in Their New Novels

Three Indian authors whose new novels are set in the 1990s share their favourite memories and pop culture references from this period.

By Neha Kirpal

India of the 1990s has been the recurring backdrop of a crop of new novels. We ask three authors about their special memories associated with the decade.

Devapriya Roy

Author of Friends from College (Tranquebar)
Devapriya Roy

eShe: In your novel Friends from College, college friends reunite after two decades, savouring the familiar streets, decaying mansions and timeless coffee houses of Calcutta of the 1990s. How much of the plot draws personally from your own life?

Devapriya Roy: Well, the principal characters are half-a-decade older to me. I call them the true ‘children of liberalisation’ – people who grew up in socialist India but became the first generation to get large post-liberalisation salaries. However, I myself grew up in Calcutta in the 1990s and am drawn to that time and place again and again.

Much like the characters, I studied in Presidency College, haunted the bylanes of north Calcutta on long sweaty walks, bought books from College Street and spent long hours in Coffee House with a young man who later became my husband.

In our college, politics and “prem” (love) were in the air; you were expected to partake of it. There was a whole tradition of love stories, many people met their future partners in college.

But of course, all of this was changing quickly, the socialist patterns of the past were gradually getting overwritten by more contemporary trends – it was a fascinating time. The characters too are drawn from people I am deeply familiar with, places I have known intimately, even if in fiction everything changes and things take on a life of their own.

Which of the passages create a distinct picture of Calcutta in the 1990s?

I think where we talk of Ronny and Lata’s past and their love story as it unfolded in the atmospheric world on College Street. It’s about Presidency College, about the city – it was still Calcutta and not Kolkata – and the familiar sounds of Lata’s north Calcutta neighbourhood. The contrast is with the city now which has, naturally, changed a great deal.

Which are your favourite pop-culture icons or songs from the time?

The book is full of these cultural references. Iconic restaurants and food – mutton patty in Flurys for Rs 14. (Flurys has since changed hands and become rather fancy.) My favourite though is a reference to an iconic Bengali number to recreate how couples romanced in the 1990s.

The translated song is: If you say yes, I will take the BCS right away / If you say no, I shall spout Joy Goswami night and day.

(BCS is short for West Bengal Civil Services entrance examination, which would give the guy a stable job so he could marry his lady love!)

Srishti Chaudhary

Author of Lallan Sweets (Penguin Ebury)
Srishti Chaudhary

eShe: In Lallan Sweets, you have brought about a distinct imagery of various elements of 1990s’ India: hopscotch, sugarcane juice, aloo patty, orange ice cream, golgappas and pithu. Tell us about how some of these memories resonate with your own life having grown up in the 1990s.

Srishti Chaudhary: These are completely taken from my own life! I had an excellent childhood, full of long hours of playing in the park – kho kho, pithu, gallery, stapu. There were just two things in the lives of kids growing up in the 90s – school and playtime. Long nights spent out in the summer breeze, dividing teams, 20 to 25 kids all playing together.

Writing this book was so fun and nostalgic and beautiful for me as it felt like going back to my childhood friend that I had forgotten about.

Creating this setting and context was super-easy for me, and I’ve been getting messages from people saying it took them back to their childhood and reminded them of their friends’ gang. It makes me feel really good that my words could remind people of something beautiful that they once lived through.

The book also has descriptions of endearing small-town charm in the mid- 1990s: quiet summer breeze, dhabas, kulfi-wallahs, kho-kho championships, charpoys in the verandah. Did you personally grow up in a small town like Siyaka? Alternatively, what was the inspiration behind this location?

Actually, not at all! The very reason why I created my own small town, Siyaka, was because I never lived in a small town. I felt I wouldn’t accurately represent a specific small town, that there might be always that one person who would say, no this is not how it was in this town.

But when you’re a child, your world is very, very small. That small world becomes your own version of a small town. For me, it was my friends, my park, the Lala ki Dukaan in front of my apartment building, my school and that’s it. The rest of the city or world didn’t really matter. That was how the small-town idea came up.

Your book also consists of snatches of 1990s pop culture in terms of Baba Sehgal and Daler Mehndi songs as well as Shah Rukh Khan movies. Which are some of your favourite pop-culture icons or characters from the 1990s?

Of course, I completely loved Shah Rukh Khan. I also loved Hum Paanch, Shaktimaan, Small Wonder, all the cool shows of this time. There was this band called VIVA that was all the rage.

But the older we grew, the cooler it was to say, “Oh, I only listen to English songs!” So, that is something else that I tried to capture – all this coolness that got associated with English back then. We as a family also loved Titanic. My parents even named my sister Rose!

Rehana Munir

Author of Paper Moon (HarperCollins India)
Rehana Munir

eShe: You call yourself a local expert on 1990s nostalgia. Tell us why.

Rehana Munir: If you were coming of age in urban India of the 1990s, the experience held a special quality. The economy was opening up, and so were the possibilities for adolescents. From the thrill of American junk food and German pencils, to the charms of Channel V and MTV, novelty was in endless supply.

I was weaned on Hindi cinema, and so the usually ludicrous popular films of the ’80s and ’90s are fixed in my memory. Just the other night, I was discussing the finer points of the song Krishna O Krishna from the film Meera Ka Mohan, with lyrics like, “Oh Krishna, you are the greatest musician of this world,” with a similarly afflicted nostalgist. We’re a proud tribe.

Besides, the period, for all its flaws, is now a happy reminder of the secular and liberal values that we need to keep fighting for.

How much of the book’s 1990s imagery (Bombay’s streets, cafes, pavement bookstalls, the Sea Rock hotel) borrows from your own life and experiences from the era?

The imagery all comes from my personal experience of the city, seen through a very flattering nostalgia filter. I’m a Bambaiyya through and through, and though I’m constantly complaining about its many unliveable qualities, especially for those on the margins of the city, there can be no other home for me. Writing Paper Moon was an exercise in time travel in its most comforting form.

As for the characters and events described in the book, they are either borrowed from real life and tweaked, or entirely invented. There is so much craft involved even when one sets out with a premise inspired from reality.

The book is interspersed with several pop culture references from the time (Y2K, Thums Up, MTV, Channel V, Enrique Iglesias and George Michael songs, Dil Chahta Hai). Which are your personal favourite icons of 1990s nostalgia, and closest to your heart?

Thums Up still bubbles up my Old Monk, so I have a soft (drink) spot for it. As for pop-culture icons from the era, Sachin Tendulkar stands apart from the rest. At the time, I found Dil Chahta Hai as refreshing as all my peers did, but I was really into music videos. Watching the birth of Indipop – mixed with international hits – was truly exciting.

We got our cool kicks from November Rain, with the doomed wedding-themed video, and our cheap thrills from a shirtless Milind Soman appearing at the end of Alisha Chinai’s Made in India. A very satisfying lowbrow entertainment diet for a middle-class teenager.

First published in eShe’s September 2020 issue

Syndicated to Money Control

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