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Anuja Chandramouli on writing ‘Mohini’: I learnt to put away my own biases and prejudices

The AutHer Awards, a joint initiative by JK Paper and The Times of India, is given to Indian women writers in appreciation of their outstanding books in various categories including fiction, non-fiction, debut, children’s book and popular choice category. Mytho-fiction writer Anuja Chandramouli won the AutHer Award 2021 in the popular choice category for her novel ‘Mohini: The Enchantress’ at a gala event held in New Delhi on March 17, 2021. Chandramouli shared the award with Preeti Shenoy, who won the prize for her 2020 novel ‘When Love Came Calling’. While the award-winning books in other categories are selected by an esteemed jury, the popular choice award invites the audience to vote for books by their favourite women author.

Chandramouli’s ‘Mohini: The Enchantress’ explores the tales of Lord Vishnu’s feminine avatar. Written in Chandramouli’s enchanting writing style and told through Mohini’s perspective, the story takes the readers on an enthralling ride. In a candid chat, Anuja Chandramouli tells us about her journey as a writer, her experience of writing ‘Mohini’, the joy of winning the AutHer Award and all things books. Excerpts from the interview:

How does it feel on winning an AutHer Award, especially in the Popular Choice category?

It is really cool! I have never won any kind of election; before college I stood for a post but lost because there was voting involved… I had decided that voters hate me. But it is nice to know otherwise as this award was won after readers voted for my book. During the pandemic (in 2020) we were all terrified whether our books would actually sell and so it is heartening to win an award for ‘Mohini: The Enchanteress’. It seems like a validation of the faith that we all had in the book.

It is a great time to be a woman author thanks to the initiative taken by JK Paper and The Times of India. I would have really been grateful for this type of recognition 10 years ago… but it is better late than never! There is a huge market out there thanks to the women authors who paved the way for us, so I really want to thank all the women authors who came before and the ones who will come after, because they are here to stay.

What made you choose Mohini as the protagonist, considering there are too many voiceless women in mythology?

Mohini is special, isn’t she? She is the feminine manifestation of Vishnu, a masculine God who is the protector, who belongs in the Hindu trinity and he is very badass. In all his other avatars he is always kicking butt and yet this avatar of his is by far the most powerful, one who truly owns her sexuality, who brings in a special flavour to everything she tackles. I was really curious about the feminine side of this masculine God and it has been a very rewarding experience to do the research and to understand exactly how tolerant and how compassionate we Indians are capable of being! We recognise that sexuality and gender are fluid– that there is room for everyone in the society and we don’t have to limit ourselves to conventional roles and attach stigma and stereotypes to folks who don’t fit into the majority view. So I think Mohini is truly inspiring. The feedback I have received (for the book) from the LGBTQ+ community is amazing. I learnt so much… I learnt to put away my own biases and prejudices to understand a little bit more. So it has truly been very fulfilling to work on a character like Mohini.

And what were these biases?

Personally, when I was in school I was raised in a catholic institution. Certain religions suggest that being gay or lesbian or transgender is sinful. As a child, there was an incident where two girls were shamed- maybe they weren’t even in a lesbian relationship, maybe they were just experimenting. And I said that I don’t think it is possible for anyone to be lesbian, because we had no privacy in that school. I was ashamed of myself of that particular argument for not just accepting it. But if you can grow up and realise that it is not about sin, it is about preference not principles then maybe there is hope… Maybe it just takes people time to wrap their minds around things they do not understand or comprehend. You can start by educating yourself without being so harsh or judgemental. This was something even I had to do!

And maybe that’s what makes ‘Mohini’ an important read, considering the LGBTQ and inclusivity angle…

The LGBTQ+, the spirituality underlining it all– if you look at that then the stigma automatically goes away from it.

What is the biggest hurdle you faced as a writer?
Getting my first book ‘Arjuna’ published was really a challenge– it was an extremely tedious, soul crushing, heart breaking, waiting period. But once you get your foot in, it has been easier. The writing process itself is as difficult as ever but it is lovely that there are folks who step forward to support your writing and ask you to write for them.

What challenges did you face for getting your first book published?
I’m from Sivakasi, a small town in South India. As a first-time writer, I had zero connections in the publishing industry. So becoming an author was entirely on faith and I was rejected over and over and over again. But it was very nice that the book managed to get published and it did well– it was one of the top five bestsellers of 2012! And there has been no looking back since then.

What are your tips for aspiring writers?
Persistence is the key to success. Getting your book published will not be handed to you on a silver platter, whether you are just starting out or have written 10 books. With each book, you have to roll up your sleeves, work hard, and believe in yourself. No one is going to come and encourage you; true motivation has to come from within. You have to be your hardest task master, you have to write for yourself to excel—and the rest will fall in place.

Who is your favourite character from mythology and why?
My favourite character is Arjun because he is the love of my life– I wrote about him in my first book!

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