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May 25, 2015

Exclusive #FirstLook: Anuja Chauhan’s The House That BJ Built

Excerpt from The House That BJ Built by Anuja Chauhan, Westland Publications. Q&A by Huzan Tata. Photograph by Manpreet Singh

As her book hits stands today, Verve gives you a first and exclusive glimpse into this new read. Also, don’t miss our conversation with the author, Anuja Chauhan

An exclusive excerpt from The House That BJ Built:

Eight hours later, Samar wakes up in the bedroom Dabbu and Eshu used to share decades ago, to find the rough leafy branches of the harshringar tree squashed up against the glass panes, trying to get a peep at how big Anjini’s boy has grown. He gets out of bed and opens the window.

It is a miserable, chilly morning. Green guavas lie scattered, almost hidden in the overgrown grass, speckled white with parrot droppings. Little brown anthill bumps meander through the grass interrupted by the fleshy gleam of toadstools. There are squelchy puddles all along the driveway, some late cannas lie with their orange faces flat in the dirt, a colony of large black ants marches busily towards the rotting guavas, and a few bedraggled crows caw in the champas overhead.

This place is going to the dogs, Samar thinks in disgust and jumps out of the window to find the lawn mower.

He is making good headway, going around the lawn in concentric circles, bits of grass flying past his face, a line of crows pecking the ground in his wake, when Bonu appears at the upstairs window, dressed in pyjamas, sipping a cup of tea.

Her vivid black brows snap together when she sees what he is up to. Samar, striding along steadily below, feels her eyes boring holes into his grey cabled sweater, so baleful is her glare.

He stops and turns to stare up at her.

‘What?’ he calls, his tone slightly bored.

She sniffs and looks away.

‘Say it!’ he shouts.

She sets down her teacup, winds her hair into a messy top knot, skewering it into place with a pencil, and vanishes from the window. Two minutes later, she chhamchhams through the verandah and walks out to the lawn to scoop up the soggy newspaper.

As she goes past him, she says, ‘It’s amusing how you think you can randomly show up, cut some grass and make up for more than three years of gross neglect.’

He resists the urge to advance upon her with the lawnmower and see her jump out of his path. How she would squawk, he thinks wistfully.

Instead, he rests his elbows on top of the mower.

‘Are you mad because I neglected BJ, or the house, or you?’

She rests her hands on her hips.

‘BJ, obviously!’

Samar doesn’t see what’s so obvious about this. The brat’s nursed a not-very-well-hidden crush on him for years (she seems to have gotten over it in recent times, thankfully), and she’s always loved the house like it was a person, not a thing.

‘He’s been pining for you,’ she continues. Samar, who already has an unquiet conscience about this, finds himself snapping, ‘Well, I’m here, aren’t I? And he’s happy to see me.’

‘But he’ll be miserable when you go. So the net effect of your visit will, eventually, be negative. That’s why I don’t like it when the family visits.’

He stares at her, perplexed. ‘Then why are you complainingabout my not visiting?’

She shrugs. ‘Anyway, you’re only here because you and your bestie abused the Sparkler jury and all the winners in a bar and they kicked you out of Bollywood and you need a quiet place to lick your wounds.’

His lips tighten. ‘That’s pretty much it, yes,’ he says lightly, feeling rather proud of himself for not rising to her bait. Bonu looks slightly cheated at this low-powered response. ‘How long will you stay?’ she asks.

‘I don’t see how that is any of your business, but whatever. I’ll stay a few days. I want to catch up with BJ.’

‘Haven’t you caught up enough?’ she says. ‘You kept him up way past his bedtime last night.’

Samar stares at her, amused, almost sympathetic. ‘You’re just jealous ’coz BJ welcomed me like a prodigal son and ordered the servants to kill the fatted guava. Poor Bonu Singh.

Is he the only man in your life, then?’

Since she responds to this with a smug toss of the head (which causes her hair to tumble out of its top knot and mantle her shoulders, by the way), he assumes the answer to his question is no.

‘I don’t care about men,’ she says loftily. ‘I’m wayyy too busy with my business.’

‘Ah yes, how is that crystal meth cooking lab you’ve got going upstairs?’ he asks politely. She flushes. This is a mean dig about something that happened a few years ago, when Bonu’s unit was still new and finding its feet. She had attempted to dye some material inhouse and it hadn’t gone well, and the chemicals had stained and stunk up the driveway for days.

‘It’s a state-of-the-art garment fabrication unit,’ she informs him. ‘And it’s doing very well now.’ This is not a lie. The business is doing well. Of course she’s not doing one-tenth as well as he is, BJ’s darling grandson with the Sparkler Award for debut director and Page 3 appearances and the 10 Most Important Thinkers of the Year listing in Outlook magazine. But then, she reminds herself, he is six years older than she is. She’ll be exporting all over the world by the time she’s thirty-two.

‘That’s nice,’ he replies peaceably. ‘Can I come and have a look?’

Shit. Shit. Shit. No way can she let him come upstairs.

‘I don’t want my tailors bedazzled by Bollywood stardust,’ she says coolly.

‘That’s a good point.’ Very white teeth flash in an aggravating smile. ‘I’ll come up when they’ve gone for the day then.’

Bonu’s heart bounds up into her mouth. She swallows manfully. ‘Why are you being so nosy, suddenly?’

Samar’s eyebrows rise. ‘I’m being friendly,’ he says mildly. ‘Besides, Ma called me and said I should open up our hissa and clean it out a bit—no one’s been up there for over a year.’

Bonu coughs loudly. ‘Ermmm…yeah!’ she says. ‘Maybe in a couple of days, okay? I’ve got stuff spread out all over the floor in my half that I don’t want to move. Embroidery panels and all,you know.’

‘Cool,’ Samar nods, getting ready to start pushing the lawn mower again. ‘I’m fine with that. Take your time. Like I said, I’m here for a few days.’

‘Just stay out of my hair,’ she mutters ungraciously.

‘But you have such pretty hair.’

Bonu Singh’s head jerks up in surprise. ‘Thank you,’ she says blankly, then quickly looks away. Samar looks away too, his lean cheeks flushed.

Awkward silence.

‘I, uh, just shot a shampoo commercial,’ he says eventually. ‘It was a lousy script, but the money was really good—anyway, that’s why I’m, sort of, noticing hair nowadays.’

‘Right.’

‘And I will,’ he assures her, fiddling with the handle of the lawn mower. ‘Stay out of it, I mean. Your hair, that is. Er, figuratively speaking. Also, physically speaking.’

‘Good,’ she says, red of cheek, and hurries away.

***

In conversation with Anuja Chauhan… 

The House That BJ Built is a sequel to Those Pricey Thakur Girls. How easy or difficult is it to write a sequel?
I think there are arguments for both sides. There are characters that people have loved and liked, so hopefully they’ll come back to you because they want more. On the other hand, it’s a bit like being the son of a superstar. If you fail, then everyone jumps down your throat. It’s definitely tougher to write a sequel. I didn’t realise till I actually sat down to do so. There are so many people you are in love with, you want to give closure to everyone, and it’s hard.

Who is your favourite character from THTBB – the one you enjoyed creating the most?
Bonu Singh, the heroine. She’s my favourite. Because she’s more fun than the girls I’ve written before, I feel. She’s very insecure and very voluptuous and she has her own strange moral code. Lots of people may not buy into that or think that’s politically correct.

Some reviews and articles have called you an ‘Indian Jane Austen’ and ‘India’s best Rom-Com writer’. How do such comments impact your work?
That kind of stuff you usually tune out. Whatever pressures we have are always self-imposed and come from your closer circle, not because someone said something. Eventually, you try to keep the process creative and you have your own set of things that put pressure on you. I realise that today they’re calling someone the ‘best rom-com writer’, tomorrow it’ll be someone else. As you have more books you have more things to measure against, rather than what people are saying. I don’t consciously think of all these labels.

Do your stories reflect the India you see around you or the India/ Indians of your imagination?
It’s a bit of both. There’s a heightened reality, a little embroidery and a little cheating you do. I tend to milk things for humour a little more. If I see something in real life and put it into a book, it would get a little more absurd and a little funnier than it was when it happened.

What’s next?
I’m done with the Thakurs of Hailey Road. For the moment I’m currently very much in love with the 50s. So I may do a book about Dylan’s parents. I mean, in Pricey… they elope on a motorcycle. He’s in the army and she’s this little Catholic girl. Maybe I will not do anything with it. I may do a prequel but definitely not something going forward.

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