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July 20, 2008

Selling Cricket

Text by Sitanshi Talati-Parikh. Photograph by Ankur Chaturvedi. Make-up and hair by Meghna Butani

Self-effacing and witty, Anuja Chauhan is one promising debut novelist. Hailing from the world of advertising, she plays with words and twists them around without a modicum of doubt. Her effortless and light-hearted writing style in The Zoya Factor evidently springs from her personality. Verve talks to the happily married mother of three who likes to potter around her house and her plants, paint her own walls and furniture, knit socks, read voraciously and play the piano by ear

Why is it such a common phenomenon to move from advertising to writing a book?
The thing about ads is, if you get 90 seconds to tell your story you are one lucky sod working on one very BIG brand. And even then they chop it down to 30 seconds by the second week of airing. And then probably to 20 to air it on the obscenely expensive IPL broadcasts…. I found that increasingly frustrating and hankered to write something longer. Really spread myself out, you know? That’s how I got started on The Zoya Factor. But it’s funny, I couldn’t lose the keep-it-short-and-to-the-point discipline. My first draft was only 67 pages long and had absolutely no descriptive bits. I had to go back and make it longer, which was something I’d never had to do in all my years of writing advertising copy.

What’s the low-down on the book?
This book is really about staying who you are, no matter how insanely successful or sought after you may become. It’s about not believing your own hype.

Why cricket – cashing in on the nation’s craze or is it a personal passion?
Having worked on Pepsi ads for over 13 years, I’ve been pretty deeply immersed in the insanity that surrounds cricket. Not the game so much, but the players, the hype around them, the lucrative deals they sign, the way everybody fights tooth and nail for someone who was a complete unknown a few months ago. It’s a very insecure world and also terribly fascinating. And of course, I’ve done enough advertising to figure out that cricket is popular and would sell.

What led you to this particular book?
Well, I wanted to write. While looking around for a subject, I remembered an incident one of my favourite clients, Vibha Rishi of PepsiCo had once narrated to me. About how the Jeventus Team started thinking she brought them good luck. I was looking for an ‘in’ into cricket, for a protagonist who was fully girl-next-door and this seemed like a good one. I thought, supposing she’s born in ’83, at the very moment we won…. Think of the pressure on her, think how she could totally lose her grounding, think of how she’d become an instant star, think of how the captain may totally resent her getting all the credit for his team’s hard work…. It pretty much wrote itself!

How long was the creative process?
It took me about a year, in all, with breaks in between. I would let it rest, go write a few ads, and then pick it up again after mulling over the plot a bit. I didn’t have a plot in mind initially. It began on a mere premise. I actually rewrote the ending thrice.

What didn’t make it to the final copy?
My editor made me chop out just a few, what she called, ‘mommy’ bits, which were about this spunky little kid who kept writing letters to his dad. She cut his letters. We toned down the language a bit – but not too much – it would’ve sounded seriously fake if everyone went about saying, ‘Oh Fish! They’ve dropped a lollypop catch.’

Advertising must be full of amusing anecdotes….
Advertising is full of insane incidents. A particularly hairy one happened to me during the 2003 World Cup. We were shooting a Pepsi spot with Sachin Tendulkar, Shane Warne and a West Indies skipper. The set was ready, everyone was there and two of us went to the airport to pick up Shane Warne. We could see him waving at us through the glass, but the customs guys didn’t appear to be letting him through. Basically, Shane Warne came to Mumbai without a visa in his passport! So then a lot of calls were made and we managed to get him out after sucking up to all kinds of big shots for hours… and the customs guys were in no mood to be nice to Aussies, because this was right around the time the Aussie customs guys had been so mean to Harbhajan Singh, opening his bags and checking all his shoes for mad cow disease….

What kind of books are on your bookshelf, particularly authors that inspire you?
Inspiring authors are Susan Howatch, Tolkien, Erich Segal and JK Rowling. I love Vikram Seth’s Golden Gate and A Suitable Boy and Salman Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories. I’m a sucker for Georgette Heyer romances.  Nowadays, I’m reading what my kids read, a lot of Meg Cabot, Laura Ingalls Wilder, CS Lewis and Agatha Christie.

What’s next?
I’m a firm believer in ‘write what-you-know’, so that’s why I’m thinking, maybe politics is a great backdrop. Not that I know much about it personally, but I’ve lived in one of those big white Lutyens houses with my ma-in-law, Margaret Alva, for over four years, and seen lots of behind-the-scenes action up close. And it is the most interesting topic in India after cricket leaving aside Bollywood!

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