Book Box | Meet Priya Narendra: The writer who loves badly behaved women - Hindustan Times
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Book Box | Meet Priya Narendra: The writer who loves badly behaved women

Apr 06, 2024 07:58 PM IST

From reading stories of Noor Jehan and Elizabeth I to writing a rom com, this writer talks about her latest book on Indian women bosses

Dear Reader,

Priya Narendra(picture courtesy Priya Narendra) PREMIUM
Priya Narendra(picture courtesy Priya Narendra)

She was the girl with the American accent. That made her stand out in the backwaters of Calcutta, where we were batch mates at IIM Calcutta. Later, when we became friends, I learned she acquired her accent in Singapore, where her father was on a deputation from the government of India. We bonded over a shared love of books.

The books ensured we stayed friends forever, going on joint trips to the Jaipur Literature Festival and attending book clubs together. I was awed to hear Priya had written Two Chalet School Girls in India, a book in my favourite boarding school series – the Chalet School by Elinor M Brent-Dyer. The boarding school story was followed by You Never Know When You’ll Get Lucky, a fun rom-com set in the world of advertising, a world Priya knows well, having worked her first job at Lintas Advertising.

She Storms the Norms, co-authored with former colleague Anisha Motwani, is Priya’s latest book. It tells stories of women achievers that include Ameera Shah, Promoter and Managing Director, Metropolis Healthcare and Suparna Mitra, CEO, Titan Company's Watches and Wearables division.

There are lots of these collections of women achievers around, and I pick up everyone, it’s a subject you can never read too much on. This one stands out for the excellent quality of the writing, for the way it zooms into the conflicts and challenges in the life of a working woman and for the very useful advice each of the interviewees offers. Over email and WhatsApp, I asked Priya how the authors got their interviewees to be so candid. And of course, we also talk about books and getting into trouble for reading a book! Here are edited excerpts of our conversation.

We've talked earlier about your childhood reading and your summer holidays. Can you share some of your reading stories from those years?

Every summer, we went to Bangalore and Mangalore to visit family. My grandfather was a voracious reader and had stockpiled classics, from Reader’s Digest magazines to a series of hardcover books like the World’s Greatest Short Stories and World’s Greatest Novels. One of the first books I remember reading was Oliver Twist, and rereading that became a summer ritual.

Have you ever been in trouble for reading a book?

When my parents had moved abroad for a year, I stayed with relatives, and read anything from the home library that I could get my hands on, including James Hadley Chase, at the ripe age of 9. But I got into deep trouble when my aunt caught me with a copy of a book titled Every Night, Josephine! by Jacqueline Susann – author of Valley of the Dolls. I got raked over the coals for reading this ‘inappropriate’ book, based on the title and author’s reputation. Funnily enough, it was a memoir of the author’s life with her poodle!

How did moving to Singapore change your reading?

One of my biggest complaints about school in India was that we were allowed to issue just one book a week from the library. For a speed reader, it was torture waiting for the next week. In Bangkok, where we first moved, and then Singapore, the school library allowed four books at a time, and you could return them any time and exchange them. I made friends with the librarian at the primary and secondary school libraries, so I could borrow 8 books at a time. The libraries didn’t restrict what you could read by age/grade either, so one got access to a wider array of books. At the time, in India, we largely read British authors or Russian ones. Here I got to read a whole range of American authors, from those writing for children to those writing for adults — Maud Hart Lovelace, Laura Ingalls Wilder, as much as John Knowles, Stephen Crane, and Willa Cather. The school system also had us reading more complex books than in India, for example, Milton’s Paradise Lost or Catcher in the Rye.

In addition, the Indian embassies had extensive libraries so I discovered Nayantara Sahgal, who is one of my heroines to date, and all those folk tales of different states.

After doing an MBA at IIM Calcutta, you went on to another MBA at Insead in France. How did that move impact on your reading?

In Fontainebleau, where we lived, we discovered a tiny bookstore + video parlour that stocked a treasure trove of out-of-print detective fiction from the 1920s and 30s – also referred to as the Golden Age of detective fiction. I spent not only time but a good chunk of money buying close to a hundred of those and shipping them back here, which I’m hoping will turn out to be a rewarding inheritance for my kids.

You've been a writer with a day job for years now. What is the best and worst part of this?

The best part of this is you’re not dependent on book royalties to pay your bills, which is a thing few writers can afford, TBH.

The worst part is being stressed for time, or having an idea or the perfect sentence pop into your head at the most inopportune times.

What’s your advice for writers with day jobs?

It’s a hack from one of the women featured in She Storms… – use the superpower of the AND. Keep your day job – it’ll come in handy to pay the bills and as a source of inspiration. And it’s lovely to be able to have two careers at the same time, isn’t it?

Seize your windows of opportunity to keep writing – much of my next book was written on plane journeys or long commutes, for example. It’s a retelling of Gandhari’s story and is due to be published soon.

Something’s gotta give! Please understand that if you’re choosing to do these two things simultaneously, you have to choose to give something else up unless you want to go mad with stress. Limit the number of activities or ‘must do’s in your calendar to free up your time.

How did ‘Two Chalet School Girls in India’ happen?

I had always loved the series and been fascinated by the thought of the two lead characters visiting India, that too during the days of the freedom struggle. And at some point, I thought, who better to write this story than an Indian? A chapter sprang to life in my head. I wrote it down and emailed it along with a brief author bio (which basically said I was a huge fan of the series) to two niche publishing houses in the UK which published these kinds of books. It was in the early days of Google so it was difficult to even find an email address, I remember. And Bettany Press immediately emailed back to say they’d be delighted to publish it.

As a history buff, what are your top three women in history?

I love ‘badly behaved women’ – those are the ones that make history, aren’t they?

Noor Jehan is an absolute favourite, and there are lovely fictional and nonfiction biographies of her – the Twentieth Wife by Indu Sundaresan and Empress by Ruby Lal for example.

Elizabeth I is another fascinating character. A fictionalised biography by Jean Plaidy called Queen of This Realm is a terrific read. I am intrigued by the story of Noor Inayat Khan, a descendant of Tipu Sultan who later became a spy for the Allies during WW2. Sharbani Basu’s Spy Princess gives a gripping account of her life.

Do you see the women in your book as ‘badly behaved’?

Yes. A woman who storms the norms is badly behaved. Because the definition of well-behaved women is those who follow the rules laid down by society. Women like Adhuna Akhtar, Miss Malini and Nimrat Kaur are some such examples.

What was the experience of writing ‘She Storms the Norms’? How did you get your interviewees to be so candid with their recollections?

I had been wanting to write on this topic for a while. We started the process during the pandemic, so all our author interactions had to be via email and Zoom. We did a triangulation of each story – there was a list of questions to which we got written responses, and then we did secondary research into each person, collating their interviews and other pieces about them. This was followed by Zoom calls to delve deeper into those responses, to probe on points we didn’t understand or wanted to be fleshed out further. I suppose my experience as a qualitative researcher also came in handy to draw them out.

Which chapter was the easiest to write and which one was the most challenging?

The first chapter I wrote – Juggernaut publisher Chiki Sarkar’s story – was the most difficult because I was struggling to find my voice as an author, while not losing hers in the process. It took about eight iterations before I was happy with the first draft.

In contrast, the chapter about Ruma Devi (social worker, fashion designer and handicraft artist) came easy. I wrote it much later so I had found my process by that stage. In addition, the input we got from her was a very factual narration, which enabled me to put flesh on the skeleton in my own way, unimpeded by her emotional responses to the story of her life.

And finally, what are your plans for Part 2? What's your wish list for which women you'd like to feature?

I’d love to work on Part 2, as soon as I catch my breath. For my wish list, here’s a start…

Sudha Bharadwaj – the lawyer-activist, Garima Arora – the first Indian woman to get a Michelin star, Mansiya VP – a Bharatanatyam exponent who happens to be Muslim, Karuna Nundy – human rights lawyer, Mahua Moitra – TMC politician, Leena Nair – the CEO of Chanel and Farah Khan - filmmaker.

What about you dear Reader - who are your favourite ‘badly behaved women’ ? Do write in with their story recommendations. And until next week, happy reading!

Sonya Dutta Choudhury is a Mumbai-based journalist and the founder of Sonya’s Book Box, a bespoke book service. Each week, she brings you specially curated books to give you an immersive understanding of people and places. If you have any reading recommendations or suggestions, write to her at sonyasbookbox@gmail.com

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