Characteristics of the era

A city is a character in Srishti Chaudhary’s Once Upon a Curfew and so is Rajesh Khanna. The author holds forth on her book set in the 70s

April 29, 2019 03:00 pm | Updated 03:00 pm IST

Shrishti Chaudhary

Shrishti Chaudhary

Once Upon A Curfew (Penguin, ₹299) begins in Delhi of the mid 1970s, a year before Emergency is declared. It narrates the journey of young Indu whose father works closely with the Prime Minister’s office. Her views of the world undergo a gradual change with the arrival of a radical thinker who helps her set up a library for women. The novel is also set at a time when reigning Bollywood superstar Rajesh Khanna faces stiff competition from Amitabh Bachchan. Srishti pens a story of women stepping out of shadows to seek their own path.

Edited excerpts from an interview:

When bringing Indu to life, how much of her character did you relate with?

Indu is a bit of a complicated character: she’s very determined, which is an admirable quality. At the same time, she’s a total snob and quite entitled; she needs a bit of dressing down. Meeting Rana helps ground her. I do quite relate to her in terms of how wilful she is, but apart from that, not much. She’s also a little confused, and I like to think I’ve got it sorted out!

To what extent did you have Delhi itself take on a character of its own while still telling Indu’s story?

While I was in Edinburgh, I began writing this book as my dissertation at the University of Edinburgh. It’s a beautiful city and very inspiring, and I feel so lucky that I met people who inspired me creatively, making me a better writer. I had the headspace and time to write this out in Edinburgh; this book never would have happened if I hadn’t gone there. So it’s dedicated to a city!

What nuggets of research into the Emergency did you put into writing the book?

Lots of things of course! We studied about the Emergency when we were still at school, and the period really stood out for me even then. I read books, most notably Kuldip Nayar’s Emergency Retold , and of course A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry. I would sit in my library at Edinburgh and watch Rajesh Khanna movies from that period with ‘Yeh Shaam Mastani’ playing in the background as I typed away. But what was the hardest to get was the human experience, and I interviewed some people who lived through that era to really get a sense of how life must have been back then. It’s not the fact I want in my book, it’s the human experience of living with that fact. So I asked women who lived through that time things like, did you have a room to yourself when you grew up? Was it common for men and women to interact freely without judgement? How would you spend your weekends?

Once Upon A Curfew shows you have a love for Rajesh Khanna. In what ways was/is he important to the narrative?

Quite important I have to say! Indu is a great fan of Rajesh Khanna, as much as a classic 90s girl would fangirl over Shah Rukh Khan. She quotes lines from his movies, takes inspiration from the plotlines (which is not always wise) and also keeps comparing Rana to Rajesh Khanna, which is a fun banter point between them.

Did you find it hard to write any specific parts because of the issues of independence, personal troubles, family dynamics in the book?

I enjoy writing the emotive bits, that’s when I momentarily forget everything else, and just can’t get up from my seat until I have all the words out! I feel it’s the filler scenes that are difficult, the not-so-important bits, but they’re still needed to add meat to the story. That being said, sometimes I did run out of words while trying to write about, say, the interpersonal relationships in Indu’s family as there’s always a great deal of baggage in families, that you might not be able to always depict best.

What were some of the newer differences you came across when writing about an Indian family in the 1970s?

Something as simple as there would be only home telephones, and a young girl wouldn’t want anyone else in the family to pick up the phone if a boy calls. Or when Indu gets a letter from her fiancé, and her mother admonishes her, asking her to treat the letter with respect and not throw it across the table. Of course, no one would receive a letter now, but also if you did get one, your mother would not hope that you caress it, or keep it very carefully, because it doesn’t hold that value now. The basics are the same though: Indu and Amita’s relationship is a classic sister relationship.

The book deals with literacy among women. In this specific topic, what do you hope for readers — both men and women — to take away?

That everyone needs, and should get, a space of their own, and more importantly, the freedom to make choices, even if it’s the wrong one. No matter what you think might be the best for someone else, the privilege to make one’s choices should belong with that person.

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