In the opening scenes of the book that brings us back into the lives of the enthralling Thakur family of Hailey Road, we learn that horny-as-a-goat Ashoka Chacha has been struck by a mild sort of facial paralysis. This is how Bhudevi Thakur, better known as Chachiji, describes his predicament: ‘I got up one morning and found half his face sagging… Like a phusss balloon from which the air has leaked.’ This is classic Chauhan, the sort of narration that makes you chuckle and settle back in your seat, sipping on adrak chai (which her characters drink much of) and looking forward to the next 300-odd pages.
The book is peopled by wonderfully eccentric characters, some of whom we’ve met before: Anjini the eldest Thakur sister and Eshwari the youngest, Chachiji and her son Gulgul who live next door, the Tringji brothers who live in the annexe of the house, the dead ancestors Pushkar and Pushkarni who are ever-present, even some of the miscellaneous ones like the smarmy Bollywood producer and the lawyer with the mehendi-coloured comb over. In this phenomenal cast, it is the lead couple who seem out of place: Bonu Singh, the heroine who runs a garment unit knocking off cheap versions of designer wear, and Samar Vir Singh, the brilliant Bollywood director, are mock-ups of the romantic couple that Chauhan loves to create. She is feisty and stubborn, he is hot and unattainable, but that is all they are, never quite moving beyond type.
The House That BJ Built is everything that Chauhan does well: it is funny and wicked, breezy and spirited. But it is sometimes (though very, very rarely) reminiscent of Ashoka Chacha’s unfortunate face, a little phusss. Having devoured all of her previous books, this seems like a traitorous thing to say, and makes one feel like a party pooper. Which is natural as her books are the equivalent of being invited to a party chock full of noisy family, nosy neighbours, uninvited relatives and assorted batty people and then, quite unexpectedly, having an outstanding time.
The selling point for each of Chauhan’s books thus far has been her popular and familiar milieus, which Chauhan, given her background (as a former top gun in advertising and married into a political family), is extremely familiar with: advertising and cricket in The Zoya Factor, politics in Battle For Bittora, a family of sisters and the sepia-toned 1980s in Those Pricey Thakur Girls.
This book follows the machinations around the sale of an ancestral property on Delhi’s posh Hailey Road, and a squabbling, scheming family at the centre. By the middle of the book, however, some of the twists and turns of the plot begin to seem a little overdone. We could have done, for example, without the spiritual sister Chandu Maasi’s constant habit of throwing in a spanner each time the tale is about to be resolved. We could also have done away with the Bollywood scenes, for when we lose sight of the Hailey Road family, it starts to falter.
Since her debut in 2008 with The Zoya Factor, no one has come close to the space that Chauhan has built as a popular writer of Indian English. In creating the warm vibe of a family, in setting up elaborately farcical scenes, and in delivering spot-on romance, she is quite unsurpassed. And in her ear for dialogue and the idiosyncrasies of spoken English in India, she is in a league of her own. Here is a gossipy description of the neighbourhood rendered by Chachiji, for example: “And at number 4 toh you know what is happening. Such a close family they used to be, mother-father, two brothers and one sister. But today there is an ad in the newspaper saying ki please, we want to make it very clear ki there is no sister- shister!… The brothers have burnt her birth certificate and told the old parents ki khabardaar! She has no hissa! If you open your mouth we will borrow the next-door-ka-pistol and sambar vada you both.” Another neighbour is described, ‘as chunnt as they come. Does yoga the whole day so she’s as supple as a snake’. The closest parallel to this style of writing is Pakistani journalist and author of the Butterfly series Moni Mohsin, who ratchets it up a few more notches.
The few small quibbles apart, The House That BJ Built is a fun read, brimful of vivacity. Ideal for the summer, or as Bonu Singh might say, for the ‘Samar vacation’.