My Tryst with Popular Fiction

Edited by: Tiyasha Saha

When someone mentions Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking glass, (I am lying, no one calls it that, they all call it ‘Alice in Wonderland’ but that’s not the name it was given and that’s not the entire story, because it does not account for the Looking Glass world. I swear there is a point to this, and I will get to it soon) I no longer think of a rabbit in a waistcoat or food that makes you grow and shrink or a pack of cards coming alive. No, I think of Victorian societal structures, the straitjacketed governesses of the nineteenth century, the socialization and education of children, the ravages of early capitalism. I think of the books as representing economical, technological, political and demographic changes, characterized by a devout and fragmented society with competing goals, and classes.

When someone mentions Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World, In Four Parts by Lemuel Gulliver, First a Surgeon, and then a Captain of Several Ships (again, no one says all that, everyone only mentions Gulliver’s Travels), I no longer think of the adorable tiny people or the scary giants or the floating island. No, I think of biting political satire, colonial expansion, the take-over of the English throne by the Hanoverian kings, Irish rebellions, the contrasting philosophies of the Ancients and the Moderns, the Low Church and the High Church, The Royal Society, fervent missionaries, and Robert Walpole.

In true allegiance to my identity as a literature student, I have managed to ramble on without coming to the point, believing that I was building an argument. Let’s hope that I have, because otherwise all my words up until now will be pointless and that is a reality I can’t live with. So, the argument that has been built can be explained as a phenomenon of mental corruption that occurs in the course of literary analysis. I don’t read sentences anymore, definitely not the ones that are scribbled on paper or can be read by ‘normal’ humans. Instead, I read subtext and context and nuances and the ‘suggestions’ in the text. That’s right, I don’t call them books anymore, I call them texts (I call everything text – movies, songs, grocery lists). When I entered college, I wasn’t expecting to be torn apart and put back together very crookedly. But that is certainly what happened. Critically engaging with literature has been an exercise in indoctrination. When I signed up to be an English major, I was sure I wasn’t signing up for grueling hours of professors mercilessly deconstructing the innocence attached to my favorites (I did not attend any Austen lectures because I wanted no contamination in my pure love for Mr. Darcy, thank you very much).

Coming to think of it, literary analysis has ruined reading for pleasure – literature courses are the deathbed of romanticization even when it comes to the Romantics. But love for reading had landed me there in the first place and I was determined that this dangerous love would bring me back to life. To that effect, I read (re-read, obviously) Those Pricey Thakur Girls even as I was ripping apart the Alice books. I have always been and always will be contentious of the high literature v/s popular literature debate. It isn’t a binary; there isn’t a line that separates those two. Shakespeare wrote for the masses so he could make money, not for scholars. Yet, today his works are revered and relegated to literature classrooms to be analyzed and critiqued. No matter the denial, he was a popular writer, creating popular literature, unaware of the canonical place he would gain in the oeuvre of literature. So, as far as I am concerned, the entire debate is elitist propaganda.

And now, because I have digressed quite a lot, I would like to come back to talking about my favorite read in an attempt to counter intellectualism. Anuja Chauhan’s books do not shy away from being what they are – fun, fast-paced, extremely relatable reads with a generous splattering of Hinglish that lends authenticity to the characters (The sheer awkwardness of listening to Indian English speakers say things like - “ it happens, it might surprise you to learn, but I have never actually had the opportunity to go there” – will forever remain unparalleled, so I guess, thank you, Mr. Andrew Davies). The sharp prose and undeniably engaging plot of Anuja Chauhan’s books are characteristic features that make me breeze through them in barely two days. Obviously, the only reason I haven’t yet read Club You to Death (that sits on my shelves and stares at me all day) is that I am trying to fulfill my professors’ great expectations by reading Great Expectations (and because I cannot resist, I would take a moment here to mention that Dickens too was a popular writer, supposedly paid by the word which wouldn’t have been an issue owing to his typical Victorian verbosity).

I first read Chauhan’s books when the school librarian practically pushed a copy of Pricey Girls in my hands. Staying true to my habit of seeing a series to its end, I was immediately onto The House that BJ Built. Two books were enough to make me realize that I was going to read all of her writings. To be sure, I hadn’t yet been corrupted by the college but now that I have been, it has failed to take away the pleasure. Her books have an undeniable charm and appeal. For one thing, so many of them are set in Delhi and it does feel wonderful to be able to understand the cultural subtext. Her characters are kindred spirits and not just because of the language, but because they are steeped in reality. I have no doubts in the capacity of our media to make a Goddess out of Zoya, if she existed in real life. The mother of the Thakur girls is the embodiment of many, many Indian mothers. The politics of Bittora is not the least bit removed from the real world. Perhaps Tehemina is an unbelievably daring character for the 70s, but I can take her with a pinch of salt and aspire to be half as confident.

Undeniably, the books have popular appeal, and undeniably they are not literary. But that should not be used as a basis to label them unimportant. Art comes in all shapes and sizes and there are admirers of every form. Reading Club You to Death (as and when I get to it), does not keep me from fulfilling my professors’ great expectations. Neither does Great Expectations take away the enjoyment I derive from reading Anuja Chauhan’s extremely contemporary, topical and fast-paced books. I can be hooked to both – a hefty, Victorian Bildungsroman and a thrilling whodunit (full disclosure – Chauhan revealed her love for Christie in a recent interview, who, as the world seems to agree, is the queen of Golden Age detective fiction. And yet I can’t enjoy her work.) I dragged myself through Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd because it was a compulsory reading, but I have never managed to read any of her other books right to the end. They bore me to death and it often feels like reading Secret Seven without all the adorable characters. I think, and I would finally like to announce to the world that Christie is grossly overrated. There. I said it. I can breathe again).

Irrespective of the supposed non-literariness of Anuja Chauhan’s books, I, as a snobbish English major, refuse to be silenced into hiding my love for something I enjoy. Yes, I am a huge Shakespeare nerd. Yes, I have read multiple retellings of classics just to critique them. Yes, I believe Jane Austen will be the best romance writer ever. Yes, I read and quote the Romantics on a daily basis. Yes, I have, indeed, written quite a few words on the subtextual Victorianism in the Alice books. But, I need a dose of witty repartee and vivid stories as much as the next person. And if I can get that without the complications of forced literariness, I am only appreciative of the author’s unabashed manner of owning up to her words. Chauhan does not pretend that the books are anything more than what they are on the surface, and I not only admire but also respect the candidness of her work. In India’s popular fiction market, that is all too keen to essentialize women’s writing. We need more authors who are willing to stay true to their style despite the incessant labels imposed upon them by critics.