Two of India’s youngest candidates for election to the Parliament are fighting it out in their home constituency of Bittora in “Pavit Pradesh”. Zain Altaf Khan has a number of posh degrees and a ticket as the token Muslim from rightwing hardliners IJP. Our protagonist, Sarojini Pande, is contesting her seat on behalf of the Pragati Party, the “politically correct Noah’s Ark”, and her grandmother, a corrupt, old veteran politician fighting one last poll battle. From her cosy, low-profile urban yuppie lifestyle, Jinni (“Mohammedan sa name hai,” her grandmother frostily dismisses the nickname) must overcome opposition schemes, a generation gap the size of Pavit Pradesh with her grandmother, the byzantine inner workings of the party and her own attitude to the whole deal, which is two parts scepticism and one part well-intentioned naivété. The gorgeous Zain, of course, happens to be just another hurdle.
With its thinly veiled grounding in real-life Indian politics, popular culture references that will almost certainly age badly and its flippancy about some of India’s electoral diseases, Anuja Chauhan’s Battle for Bittora really shouldn’t be so amusing. In fact, it is not only funny, but also warm-hearted, well-paced and a little sexy. Literary quirks that would be annoying in less capable hands—a relaxed attitude to Hinglish, an over-reliance on italics—become inconsequential quirks in her writing, easier to brush aside than “mosquitoes bhinn bhinnaoeing”, to quote just one of Jinni’s improbable feats of multilingual verbing. What often grates on the ear in you-go-girl novels set in Delhi’s party circuit or Mumbai’s media studios seems perfectly in keeping with the tribulations of a character trying hard to balance her roles as a genuine Pavit Pradeshi and hip world citizen at once.
Battle for Bittora: HarperCollins India, 423 pages, Rs 299.
Chauhan is able to strike the urbane, confessional blogger tone of chick lit effortlessly. Indeed, we make much of Indian publishing trends towards genre-based reading, but Battle for Bittora makes it clear how far ahead of her field she is. Dialogue is effortless in the classic romantic comedy style, sentiment is sharply controlled and characters with deep, real flaws turn out nonetheless to be likeable, and more importantly, relatable.
The world she creates for Jinni and Zain is key to this experience. The book plays out on a large canvas, but Chauhan paints it deftly. She describes the nitty-gritties of electoral drama in rural India with the aplomb of someone who really has her ear to the ground (Chauhan’s mother-in-law, Margaret Alva, is a senior Congress politician and has been a five-time MP). As Jinni is dragged into vote-bank politics, graft accepting and thoroughly unparliamentary practices, her disgust with the system is matched only by her glee at stepping out of an air-conditioned Mumbai office and finding herself immersed in the most reality soaked bits of the Real India. If Jinni’s inner monologue is the sort that manages to encompass anxieties about the itchiness of a khadi blouse and her constituency’s water supply at once, how can her readers judge her? Self-absorbed, doubt-ridden, but ultimately charming: all valuable qualities in an electoral candidate.