Early in Those Pricey Thakur Girls, Anuja Chauhan’s thoroughly enjoyable novel set in 1980s Delhi, there’s a scene where the retired Justice LN Thakur and family pile into the khandaani Ambassador to see off their daughter Debjani aka Dabbu for her first day as a newsreader at DeshDarpan (an obvious fictional stand-in for Doordarshan). Chauhan’s latest book, set in present-day Delhi, opens with a charming display of similar familial intimacy, squabbling but deeply affectionate: the retired Brigadier Balbir Dogra and family, four generations “stuffed into a rattling, eight-year-old Maruti Swift”, head off to play Tambola.
The similarities don’t end there. In Thakur Girls, Debjani’s glamorous job (DD newsreaders were then the acme of fashion) had the family dhobi excited to iron her sari and the Bengali Market chaatwala refusing to charge for golguppas because he had seen “Baby” on TV. In Club You To Death, the fetching young lawyer Akash “Kashi” Dogra is flaunted proudly as a customer by his Nizamuddin street barber, plays cards with the drivers parked under his house and chats affably about politics with old security guards who call him Kashi Baba.
The feudal quotient is a smidgeon less – it is 2021, after all – and Chauhan has moved a teeny tiny bit leftward in the transition from Hailey Road to Nizamuddin, making her new protagonist a jhuggi-defending lawyer. But Kashi enjoys much the same cosy relationship with the world as Dabbu did. He’s just woke enough to express some discomfort with it.
The privileged insiders
With his rented shared barsati and JNU-trained activist-architect girlfriend, Kashi Dogra may think he’s stepped away from privilege. And maybe he has travelled some distance from studying at the Doon School and dating a rich industrialist’s daughter. But Chauhan is too smart a writer to let even her likeable hero rest on such self-congratulatory laurels. When Kashi judges someone for having made up a new name and identity, Chauhan is quick to have another character reflect privately “that it is only people with great privilege who can afford to think like this”.
In this obliviousness, ironically, Kashi is following in his father’s footsteps. Brigadier Dogra belongs to that class of people that’s more than comfortably off, with their children attending the best schools (often the same schools they themselves went to), swinging the best jobs (sporting the old school tie does no harm) and generally getting a much better shot at success than 99% of the rest of the population. But they remain convinced they’re not the elite, because – as Brigadier Dogra splutters – “Elite people go to five-stars and seven-stars”.
The Dogras? They go to the club.
Anuja Chauhan’s heroes and heroines have always come from the tiny sub-section of India that’s privileged enough to measure its privilege in memberships rather than money. So it’s perfectly fitting that her new novel is set in an institution emblematic of that class: a club that sounds a lot like the Delhi Gymkhana, dealing with a political milieu that sounds a lot like the present.
Speaking the language
As always, Chauhan knows her characters inside-out, turning out pitch-perfect comic set-pieces where pretty much everyone comes in for some needling, from pompous military heroes to poor little rich girls from The Vasant Valley School. But almost everyone also gets a degree of understanding. It helps that Chauhan is adept at dialogue, rendering each character in a suitably Englished version of their specific Hindi-mixed lingo, endowed with just a little extra colour and cusswords.
“It’s my own fault! I was the one who had bete-ka-bukhaar, and kept hankering for a son in spite of having such lovely daughters!” says a posh Punjabi mother berating her loser of a son. “I wanted to tell him ki listen, behenchod, we have a huge-ass CSR wing and we do a lot!” rants an heiress defending herself against the charge of being rich and oblivious. “Banerjee, apne saand ko baandh [Tie up that bull of yours],” says the friendly male who’s text-warning a woman about her boyfriend’s seductive ex.
Ever the old advertising hand, Chauhan constantly ups the linguistic absurdity quotient in delicious little ways: old Brigadier Dogra insisting on calling his wife Mala-D; a line of sculpted semi-precious stone lingams being called Shiv-Bling, or a potential scandal involving an army hero getting hashtagged as “Fauji nikla Mauji! Hawji Hawji!”
The perfect outsider
In a gleeful departure from her previous work, though, Club You To Death serves up murder as the main course – of course, with a breathy little romance to make the medicine go down. The setting offers plenty of scope for political intrigue, classist snark and just plain gossip, and Chauhan sets to work with relish, plotting the crime onto all its possible social and cultural axes. For starters, the murder is committed on the day of the club elections, one of those sorts of events that occupies mindspace in a proportion inversely related to the power at stake.
The rival candidates, both insiders, seem equally keen on winning. But could either – the retired military hero or the classy female entrepreneur – really want the job enough to kill for it? Or is the murderer just trying to pin the blame on one of them?
Second, there’s the victim, with his own secrets. Was the dead Zumba instructor a self-made Robin Hood, or a devious social climber? Was he playing his rich clients, or were they playing him?
And finally, there’s the wider socio-political context: such unsavoury news doesn’t bode well for a club already in the bad books of Delhi’s new rulers (not least for its connections to the old ones). As new rivalries and old secrets tumble out of the DTC closet, the citadel of Lutyens’ Delhi privilege begins to seem rather doddering and vulnerable. It’s a clever trick – especially when we wonder if it’s just true.
Either way, having crafted this perfect insider atmosphere, Chauhan places the case (and us) in the hands of the perfect outsider. A policeman who’s upper caste and English-speaking but not quite Club Class, ACP Bhavani Singh is somehow observant enough to imagine other people’s compulsions, be they of caste, class, gender or something else. Instead of the Singham-variety cop “who makes the criminals piss their pants”, Bhavani makes “all the crooks leap up grinning, and ask him how his granddaughters are.”
Stolidly incorruptible, staunchly non-violent and persuasively gender-sensitive, the old Delhi Police officer feels even more like a form of wish-fulfilment than Chauhan’s dishy romantic heroes. So, of course, we dearly want to believe he might exist. Much of the pleasure of Club You To Death comes from watching the amicable old policeman piece the case together quietly, his “little grey cells” keen enough not to draw attention to himself.
Under the radar, as Chauhan well knows, is the best way to fly.
Club You To Death, Anuja Chauhan, HarperCollins India.