Books

Two Award-Winning Novelists on the Stories Behind Their Thrilling New Whodunnits

Popular authors Anuja Chauhan and Shabnam Minwalla are out with exciting new whodunnits for mystery lovers.

By Neha Kirpal

Two new whodunnits from two successful Indian authors are sure to give young book lovers a good dose of mystery and thrill this month.

One of India’s best-known contemporary writers, Anuja Chauhan has just launched her new novel Club You to Death (HarperCollins, ₹399). For the first time, Anuja adds a twist of suspense to her signature style of laughter and romance in this much anticipated page-turner.

The story takes off from the mysterious death of a hunky personal trainer who is found asphyxiated in a posh Delhi club on the eve of its board elections. It soon becomes clear that one of the club’s members is a cold-blooded killer.

For teens and young adults, another whodunnit beckons from the bookshelves. Saira Zariwala Is Afraid (HarperCollins, ₹299) by Shabnam Minwalla is the story of a teenager who starts receiving strange messages meant for someone else on her phone. As Saira and her friends decide to play detective, the light-hearted adventure soon turns dark and sinister.

We spoke to Anuja Chauhan and Shabnam Minwalla – both of whom are mothers of three children each! – about their new books and the stories behind them.


ANUJA CHAUHAN

Anuja Chauhan worked in advertising for over 17 years and is credited with many popular campaigns including PepsiCo’s Yeh Dil Maange More. She is the author of four bestselling novels, two of which were optioned by major Bollywood studios and one of which has been made into a prime-time daily Hindi serial. She lives outside Bangalore with her husband, their three children and a varying number of pets.

Tell us how you came up with the story for your latest crime thriller Club You to Death.

I love writing romance, my toes curl up and tingle just as much as anybody else’s. But even so, I was starting to feel a little trapped in the classic romance format. But I do love the propulsive thrust a romance gives to a novel, the reader stays with it to see how the couple gets together.

So, you can tackle family serious themes, like superstition (The Zoya Factor), toxic patriotism (Baaz), corruption in politics (Battle for Bittora), and you still don’t lose a restless reader because you have the romance to carry the reader along. A murder provides a similar propulsive thrust – so, I thought a whodunnit could be a format I could attempt.

How is it different from your previous books?

Well, it’s funny and it’s romantic, so in that sense it’s similar to my previous offerings. But the romance here is more of an ex-romance, which is a fresh flavour for me and was therefore great fun to write. And of course, it’s different because my genial, homely looking, almost-sixty ACP, Bhavani Singh (whom I loved creating!), is in there trying to catch a killer.

Why did you decide to set the book in the pulsating heart of Lutyens’ Delhi?

I wanted to write about privilege, entitlement and social hierarchies, and the perils involved when somebody attempts to cross over one to the other. So, a posh exclusive club seemed to be the ideal setting. And which club can be more posh or exclusive than one set in the pulsating heart of Lutyens’ Delhi?

I loved the roster of characters the club setting gave me – I could throw in retired generals and ex-bureaucrats, cougar aunties and their ne’er-do-well offspring, a thoroughly harassed club president, bickering committees, any number of beautiful young dependent members – you get the picture!

Which are some your favourite horror/crime books?

I’m not a grisly horror fan, but I love the early Stephen King novels just for the way he writes them. The Shining is my absolute favourite. I’ve reread it a million times. And of course, there’s no topping Agatha Christie for crime. I have all her books and I love them all. I’m also very fond of GK Chesterson’s Father Brown series.

What are you working on next?

I’m writing a commissioned movie screenplay, and bracing for the release of Sardar & Grandson, a cross-border family film whose screenplay I’ve written, starring Neena Gupta, Arjun Kapoor and John Abraham. And the Hotstar-Disney adaptation of Those Pricey Thakur Girls is being shot as we speak.


SHABNAM MINWALLA

Shabnam Minwalla is a journalist and award-winning author of 10 books targeted at children and teens. Her first book, The Six Spellmakers of Dorabji Street, was critically acclaimed and won the Rivokids Parents’ and Kids’ Choice Awards. She is also the author of The Strange Haunting of Model High School, The Shy Supergirl, What Maya Saw, and Lucky Girl. She lives in Mumbai with her three teenage daughters.

Tell us how you came up with the story for your latest young adult horror book with a whodunnit at its heart Saira Zariwala Is Afraid.

When my eldest daughter turned 12, she was given a phone as a birthday present. She was really thrilled except for one aggravation. She kept getting calls and messages – not for herself, but for someone called Vishesh.

Where are you Vishesh?

We haven’t heard from you for two months Vishesh.

The messages went on and on. She ignored them and began blocking some numbers, And then one day, she got a call from a woman who sounded really upset. The women identified herself as Priya maami, and almost screamed, “Where have you been Vishesh? We have been so worried! How could you disappear like this?”

By this point, we had become really curious about Vishesh. Where could he possibly have gone, so that his own maami was clueless and concerned? These questions were the starting point of Saira Zariwala Is Afraid.

The book starts when Saira turns 15 and gets herself a new phone. She keeps getting calls and messages meant for someone called Akaash. She gets increasingly curious and decides to jump into a lighthearted investigation – which proves to be a big mistake!

How is it different from your previous books?

I love horror books. And I love whodunnits. But I have always been afraid to take on these genres.

Horror, especially, is difficult to get right. And horror for children is even trickier, because you want to be scary without being overly graphic and grisly. Still, when I began Saira, I decided to try my hand at horror.

This is my tenth book for children, and certainly the most difficult one I have written. That is partly because the book is written in first person – and as Saira can see very little of the world that she is investigating, I could only reveal the plot in tiny jumps. But at the same time, I had to keep track of the bigger plot. It was a complicated balancing act.

How did you decide to give the book an urban Indian setting of Mumbai?

All my books are set in Mumbai, partly because it is the world I know best and partly because I feel it is essential for Indian children to read books set in familiar settings. My readers are thrilled because, like them, my characters eat at Theobroma, shop at Kemps Corner and sit in traffic jams at Lalbaug.

As a child, I grew up on a diet of Enid Blyton books and always believed that I would need to go to a cosy English village to find magic and adventure. I want to show that this certainly is not true and that you can find magic and adventure in the hurly burly of urban India.

Which are some your favourite horror/crime books?

So many, many, many. Woman in White by Wilkie Collins. Every single book by Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Sue Grafton, Micheal Connelly, Ian Rankin, Andrea Camilleri, Barbara Nadel…The Shining by Stephen King. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier. The short stories of Edgar Allen Poe. I could go on and on.

What are you working on next?

I have another book coming out in April. It is a murder mystery set during the lockdown and is loosely based on Rear Window [a 1954 American mystery thriller film directed by Alfred Hitchcock based on a 1942 short story by Cornell Woolrich]. For years and years, I wanted to attempt a contemporary version of Rear Window. The lockdown – and the business of sealed buildings – gave me a chance to do just that.

I am also in the middle of a romance novel, with two parallel narratives – one set in the Bombay of the 1930s, and the other set in contemporary Mumbai – both rather impractical love stories. I am really enjoying researching the Bombay of the 1930s, and am reading many newspapers from that time.

Read more interviews of women authors and reviews of books by women in our Books section

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